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How to cut ‘decision fatigue’ in schools

Making decisions can be exhausting, but this teacher has some tips to stop you getting overwhelmed by classroom choices

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Making decisions can be exhausting, but this teacher has some tips to stop you getting overwhelmed by classroom choices

Imagine how many decisions you make over the course of a day as a teacher – from what to wear in the morning, whether to have a coffee before or after the morning meetings, whether this student can go to the toilet or if students should underline the date and title. Just thinking about it can tire you out.

Research shows that making all these decisions exhausts us. Think of your brain as being like a computer – a computer's speed is measured by how many times it can decide between 1 or 0 in binary code. If you push it too hard you get the blue screen of doom and things stop working. Your brain is the same.

This happened to me last week. I went to a supermarket on the way home from work to get something for dinner and I stood in front of the shelves of food trying to decide what to have – and I couldn't. I simply could not decide what I wanted to eat.

This is what "decision fatigue" looks like.

So, how can we teachers minimise our decision-making to save energy and ensure that when we're making the big decisions, they are the right ones?

1. Routine, routine and routine

I know what you're thinking here: routines can be boring. However, having clear and effective routines can remove unnecessary decisions and help to reduce decision fatigue. This could mean planning out your morning routine more carefully, or if, like me, you struggle with a decision over what you're going to eat, your evening one, too. Some people even advocate wearing the same clothes each day because it removes having to make that decision: Barack Obama has written about having only blue or grey suits, so that he never has to decide what to wear.

This is particularly important in the classroom. Routines should be set in stone for your classes so they know how they come into the room and don't start each lesson asking you for things that aren't essential.

2. Stick to seating plans

Similarly, ensure that your classes never deviate from the seating plan. If I want to move one student, I'll often reshuffle the whole class so that it doesn't appear that I'm moving one. If I did move just one, everyone would ask to move next to their friend or away from someone they don’t like.

3. Randomise name picking

To save you deciding who to ask, use a randomised name picker or go old-school with lollypop sticks and cards. This has the added bonus of stopping you picking the same student again and again.

4. Behaviour management

Managing behaviour involves lots of decision making, so having a clear plan for how to respond to incidents is very useful, particularly if you are a new teacher. Next year, I'm going to try this again myself with any difficult classes, to remove my frustration at repeated negative behaviour.

Make sure that you share with students what the outcomes of any misbehaviour will be. This removes the decision from you and makes the processes clear to everyone.

5. Set time limits

Tell students that a task must be finished within a set time, rather than that it will be “finished when it’s finished”. With the latter attitude, you'll be working all lesson – and constantly trying to decide how and when to wrap things up. Done is better than perfect.

6. Prepare a to-do list

One way that decision fatigue regularly manifests itself for me is when I have loads to do, but don't know where to start. Sound familiar?

By preparing a prioritised to-do list in advance, you won't waste time trying to decide which task is most pressing and will save that energy for completing the tasks themselves.

7. Don't get involved in others' decisions

Think of your daily decision-making capability as a fuel gauge which goes down each time you have to decide something. Don't waste fuel on decisions that aren't yours to make. A friend, colleague or student might ask you to help, so give them your opinion and move on. But don't agonise with someone over a decision that isn't yours to make. 

8. Stick with the decisions you've made

Once you've made a decision, stick with it. Don't change or look back. See it through to the conclusion.

Luke Richardson is an English teacher and blogger. He tweets @LukeRicha 

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