Friday, November 23, 2007

Teacher Stress Relief: The Low-Information Diet

In the first part of my exploration of the ideas in The 4-Hour Workweek, we discussed eliminating wasted time and useless activities during the school day. The next step is to take on what author Tim Ferriss terms a “low information diet”. He argues that just as we feed our stomach a lot of junk food and empty calories, we feed our minds a lot of junk information:
Most information is time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, and outside of your influence. I challenge you to look at whatever you read or watched today and tell me that it wasn't at least two of the four.
This idea jumped right off the page at me. I already knew I read a lot of useless information, some of which I thoroughly enjoyed but most of which I just used to kill time. I often used my planning period to check my email (work and personal), click on the fluff news posted on the front page of portals (Have you ever noticed how little actual news is posted as the main feature on MSN or Yahoo!? Go ahead and click those links if you don't believe me.) or do the same at a news or sports website. It was bad enough I was wasting time that could be spent grading, doing necessary paperwork or preparing lessons and materials for the rest of the week. It was worse that I was wasting this time at all—in or out of school.

It is hard to go to CNN, for example, without clicking on the most irrelevant news. Just check the “most popular” stories of the moment and the stories will usually fall into one of these categories: bizzare, celebrity gossip, or cutesy “lighter side of the news” type stories. The same goes for sports news and even more “serious” newspaper websites.

Following the principle of selective ignorance, I stopped all web surfing during my planning periods, despite the urge to relieve stress by taking a break during the school day. Quite simply, I accepted that I would be much more stressed if I took work home than if I used my planning period to get important tasks done.

The next challenge I had to deal with was email. Ferriss tells us to check email only twice a day, around noon and then late afternoon so that there is enough time for all the responses you are awaiting to arrive. He also advises us to never read email first thing in the morning, because you'll use it to put off the more important tasks you should do first.

Using Ferriss' advice as a jumping off point, I went straight to my personal mailbox and unsubscribed from almost a dozen newsletters, then read, responded to, and either filed or deleted everything in my inbox. I stopped checking it every free moment and resigned myself to doing so once a day at most. I did the same with my school email, and thus freeing up future hours of otherwise wasted time.

I also took the low information diet idea further: to help curb myself from stressing over useless information given at department, team or other unavoidable meetings. At these meetings, we are often told to start thinking about things to maybe do in the future, or given vague, overly general directions to do more of this or less of that in the classroom with no specifics or guidelines. In the future, no one will check to see if we have done or not done these things, because these ideas come and go with the wind. We are told about these new things everyone is going to do, only for it to be forgotten about within a week or so. I don't worry about these things anymore, and because of my focus on selective ignorance, I am better able to discern what's really important.

Following the same line of thought, one of the best ways teachers specifically can avoid useless information is to avoid unnecessary meetings. This could mean avoiding eating lunch with other faculty, since it seems to be so hard for many to avoid gossiping about the latest trivial “news” at school. It means never going to meet with anyone unless:
  • You have a clear agenda (chit-chat is not part of the low information diet)
  • You know you won't be sitting outside the office for more than a few minutes. Set up a specific date and time to meet via email first. If all else fails, be sure you have necessary work to do while you're waiting or don't wait. Get up and go back to work.
  • You don't have a more important task to do first.
This part about unnecessary meetings is admittedly hard for me to follow. As a caring, responsible teacher (or so I like to think), I feel compelled to bring concerns to my administrators quite frequently. Unfortunately, just dropping in for a word quickly becomes a period-consuming monster. Even worse is when my good intentions have already been addressed or when I come to realization that this issue that won't or can't be addressed. In other words, I still need to learn how to pick my battles. When I follow the ideas in The 4-Hour Workweek, I avoid a lot of the stress that comes with trying to be a responsible citizen.

If you're wondering how to start, Ferriss provides a guide for a one-week trial “information fast” to give yourself the best idea of what it's like to escape the burden of unnecessary information: No newspapers/news websites, magazines, any audio that's not music, TV (except for 1 hour a day), books (except for 1 hour of fiction a day), or web surfing unless absolutely necessary for work. Do this for the week and tell me you don't feel better!

I tried this and had so much free time I didn't know what to do with it. It was like the school day had turned into half days because I had that many more hours free after school. I also felt pretty dumb for spending so much time at school doing non-school-related things for so long. Now I know better, and so do you!

This is part 2 of a three-part series on teacher stress relief. Read Part 1 or go on to Part 3: Outsourcing Your Life.

DISCLAIMER: I am in no way associated with Timothy Ferriss or The 4-Hour Workweek. I just really love it and hope you buy a copy to support the author. For more information on the book and author, visit