Thursday, November 8, 2007

Teacher Stress Relief: Lessons from The 4-Hour Workweek

There's a warning on the back cover of The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss: "WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU WANT TO QUIT YOUR JOB". Now, I didn't want to quit my job, but I wanted to quit the way I was doing it. Ferriss provides a map for escaping the sort of 9-5 corporate job that we don't have, but he also provides a blueprint for "living more and working less," which every hardworking teacher needs to do. It is because of this book that I started this website and have been enjoying a life outside of school. There's so much in this book that can change your life, so let's get started.

Forget Time Management: Eliminate Time Wasters

The idea that jumped out at me immediately is called Parkinson's Law. In short, Parkinson's Law states that the more time you devote to something, the more important you think it is and the more complex you make it out to be. In other words, you invent ways to make yourself busy, creating extra work when there's no need for it instead of finding the most efficient way to get things done.

I used to use this principle to my advantage in high school and college: when I had a paper or project due, I usually gave myself only the night before to complete it, thus insuring that I would have no choice but to do only the most essential work. This worked out pretty well for me: I can't remember failing anything (although I do remember one D on an 11th grade poetry anthology). Ferriss gives a similar example with similar results. Why does it work?
It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it's six days of making a mountain out of a molehill.
This also applies for the time you give students to do assignments in your classes!

Only after reading this did I realize and accept how much time I have wasted creating work where there is none, or doing necessary work in the least productive way possible. How else could I explain the 2-3 hours minimum I used to spend in my classroom after school? I would invent meaningless tasks, even meaningless procedures and systems for my students, that would distract me from what I really needed to do. I would clean out and rearrange file folders, grade things that didn't need to be graded, spend hours deciphering students' notebooks or just plain waste time reading and re-reading school email. My health, personal life and ultimately my students fell victim to my desire to be "busy" and thus convince myself I was doing everything possible to do a good job.

A recent example was a system I created my first year teaching. Every student had a file folder, color coded by period, where they could store papers I turned back to them or anything else they desired. Oh the countless hours I would spend labeling, relabeling, and of course filing the huge stacks of papers that I had graded. The problem of course was that 99% of the students never looked at these papers, even as intended (to help them study for unit and standardized tests and as a portfolio to keep). When I taught US history, students already had a quality portfolio of their work: their interactive student notebooks. In Algebra, I have realized this is not as useful anymore. So this year I finally got rid of the student folders, and saved myself hours of work in doing so. Along with other steps inspired by the book, I think I've cut my time spent working outside of school hours by about 80%.

Ferriss provides guiding questions throughout the book to help stir the reader to action. Here are questions from this chapter:
  1. If you had a heart attack and had to work two hours per day, what would you do?

    I had to do this Thursday and Friday last week (working two hours a day, not having a heart attack). I was sick but had to go in early in the morning to set up two self-directed lessons in less than two hours each day for my students. There was no reason for my students to fall behind due to my absence; I have already established that all the work done when there's a sub is to be taken seriously. I had to quickly adapt what I had already planned into something they could do with no help (because believe me, they won't get any from the sub) but still allow them to learn and practice what they needed to know. I was also forced to stop toying with an idea for an assignment to bridge this week's and next week's activities and I just got it done. Everything I would have done with them if I was there was still done, just without the guidance that I would normally provide.

  2. If you had a second heart attack and had to work two hours per week, what would you do?

    I don't know if any teacher could answer this question without deciding they couldn't be a teacher. Don't miss the point of the question, though: what kind of opportunities to follow your dreams could you facilitate in only two hours per week? Ferriss gives a lot of easy-to-follow advice to get your started.

  3. If you had a gun to your head and had to stop doing 4/5 of different time-consuming activities, what would you remove?

    I'll talk about this more in parts 2 and 3 of this series, but I can list most of them right now: redundant grading, writing detailed lesson plans, filing, email, and sitting in “waiting rooms” before unnecessary meetings.

  4. What are the top-three activities that I use to fill time to feel as though I've been productive?

    Cleaning up after students, constantly reorganizing my filing system, writing a detailed lesson plan when no one really reads the details.

  5. Learn to ask, "If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?"

    Ferriss advices is to use a to-do list with no more than two critical tasks to guide your day. I have always been the kind of person to make to-do lists to keep myself focused, but I often put time wasters on the list and give myself hours to work.

  6. Put a Post-It note on your computer screen: "Are you inventing things to do to avoid the important?"
This is part 1 of a three-part series on teacher stress relief based on ideas from the The 4-Hour Workweek. Read Part 2: The Low Information Diet and Part 3: Outsourcing Your Life.

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