Don’t let decision fatigue destroy your wellbeing

Psychologists say we have a finite amount of decision-making capacity in a day, which can make a busy school feel especially challenging. But simple tricks can lighten the mental load
17th May 2019, 3:03pm


Don’t let decision fatigue destroy your wellbeing
Teacher Wellbeing Exhaustion

To say that teaching is a tiring job doesn’t begin to do it justice. Lots of things are tiring: a trip to the dentist, an afternoon with elderly relatives, an advert break.

The feeling after teaching a particularly rambunctious Year 1 class, or a downright mutinous Year 9 one, is something else entirely.

But why? What’s making us so utterly exhausted?

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For one, there’s just too much work. Anyone with half a brain can see that if someone is working at 7.30am and still somehow going at 7.30pm, then they’re very likely going to feel knackered.

For another, there’s just too much pressure. Working within a framework of accountability, excessive monitoring and unrealistic workloads does not a thriving, energetic teacher make.

There’s a third reason though, that I’d like to talk about today though. It’s called decision fatigue; the psychological theory arguing that the more decisions we make, the more our choices deteriorate.

teacher wellbeing exhausted

In short, we have a finite pool of decisions that we can draw from each day, and continuing to make decisions once the pool has run dry will cause us to feel drained, as well as making poor decisions.

A 2006 study from Cornell University showed that on average people made more than 200 decisions per day, based on food choices alone. It’s perfectly plausible that the average person makes thousands of decisions in a single day.

For teachers, working in constantly changing environments, I can only imagine how the number could increase. Just picture a difficult class and consider the choices that you might make over the course of a lesson.

Should I wait for silence? Should I write his name on the board? Would it be better to tactically ignore this, or bring it up now? And that’s in a few seconds.

These intense bouts of decision-making are something that we learn to manage as professionals, but that’s not to say that the process becomes any less wearing.

Even more so perhaps because we don’t have the luxury of leaving our work-related decisions at work. We give them a lift home and invite them in for dinner and a night-cap.

But it’s not all bad news. We can take steps to limit the risk of decision-fatigue.

Develop habits and routines

So often we expect ourselves to make better choices, based on willpower alone, only to find that this is the first thing to go once exhaustion sets in. Instead, establish your routines. Let’s say that you decide to stay in school and work until 5pm three times a week.

This won’t be easy at first, but after a few weeks, momentum will be on your side and this will cease to be a decision and rather a habit.    

Plan ahead

To limit the number of choices you’re faced with in a morning, plan and prepare the night before. Your clothes, your lunch, exercise and anything else that could relieve some pressure from the following day.

Tough lesson ahead? Take a few minutes to consider what could go wrong - with the teaching, the tasks, the behaviour - and take steps to prevent these problems before they arise.

Be energy-efficient with your to-do list

As tempting as it is to procrastinate and put off unappealing tasks, they will probably require the most mental energy and are therefore best approached with a fresh mind.

Plan short breaks at regular periods, before you’ve allowed rigor mortis to set in and wasted hours planning what you’ll later consider to be twoddle.

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