How I learned to say 'no' to the non-essentials

Overcommitment is a common issue among teachers, and Aidan Severs had to battle hard to get his life back from it

Aidan Severs

Oxbridge figures expected to show record intakes of state-school pupils

Perhaps the phrase "work-life balance" is a misnomer. Or at least it was rather too simple a term to help me to get things in check.

I’d always been very careful to attempt to preserve a good balance between work and life. Naturally, some weeks are fuller with work than others, but then the balance can instead be found longer term; when a quieter week presented itself, I made the most of it. But what I had been less cautious about was the "life" category.

We all have little extras that we do. I’d been blogging for three years and had maintained a pretty active Twitter presence during that period, racking up about 17,000 followers. And – without wanting to sound egotistical at all – I was in demand. Requests were coming in from all angles. I was asked to write articles for various publications; to review upcoming products; to speak at conferences; to write books of my own.

Too many requests

That’s not to mention the more personal requests for advice and recommendations that arrived on a daily basis.

All this I did not, and still do not, consider to be work, although it is linked. Yet it was eating into my "life" time considerably. If I wasn’t working, I’d be trying to write my next blog post, or spending lots of time maintaining my involvement on social media.

And sometimes it wasn’t so much the time that was the issue, but the headspace it took up.

I was working three days as an assistant vice-principal in a primary school, two days working across three other schools, being involved in the inception of Bradford Research School, which involved leading CPD in the city and advising and coaching on a SSIF bid, helping out with the MAT’s NQT and RQT programme, among other commitments.

Most teachers will have extras that sneak in, build up and become all-consuming. We are, as a profession, so willing to volunteer and take more on. But those little things add up. 

There are only 24 hours in a day and there is only so much a brain can take. Something had to give. Here’s what I did.

1. I wrote some things off completely

I set myself rules. This meant that, whatever the request, the answer would be the same, and I would not have weak moments when I said "yes" and regretted it, or spend time endlessly deliberating. Speaking requests and book offers? The answer was going to be “no”.

I also requested that I had a couple of my work duties removed from me – I am very thankful that this was granted.

You may be surprised at how well just saying "no" is taken by the person asking: rarely are they offended and most people understand. 

2. I put some things on hold

I have a very "all or nothing" approach to life, but on this occasion I knew it wasn’t best to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I enjoyed blogging and writing articles, and I felt I wasn’t done yet, but that I needed a break.

I contacted those concerned to let them know I was going on hiatus – again, I was blessed to receive nothing but support.

Again, you will be surprised at how accommodating people can be. 

3. I switched off

So many of my extra commitments were linked to being online in some form or another so I decided to have a break from social media. This coincided with the most wonderful opportunity to switch off in another way – a two-week family holiday in Croatia. Not being online (wi-fi on the island wasn’t up to much and my roaming data didn’t seem to work either), and instead being on the beach or walking the iconic walls of Dubrovnik with my wife and daughters, did wonders for me – I was no longer thinking of the myriad of things that I had been doing during the year.

'Enjoy the weightlessness'

By doing these three simple things I realised that the world would keep on turning without my constant strivings to be blogging and tweeting, and so on. I have come to see that the people who demanded so much of my time, while all very lovely, I’m sure, were not the most important people in my life.

I also saw that I did not need to derive any kind of self-worth from trying to remain relevant in the online education community. I had to learn to be content to do fewer things and to enjoy the weightlessness of doing so.

Aidan Severs is a deputy head at a primary school in the North of England

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