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Three Key Ways to Beat Decision Fatigue           

This morning, I went through a series of typical internal battles. Leave earlier for work and not have to struggle with traffic, or leave later and eat a nutritious breakfast? Make copies for the day before the line gets long, or wait until the afternoon lull when I will probably want to go home? Wear a heavier disposable KN95 mask, or a more comfortable, washable cloth one? Decisions, decisions. Teachers make an estimated 1,500 decisions a day, which amounts to about four per minute. That puts educators in a select group of professionals (air traffic controllers and doctors among them) who have a significant amount of stress on a moment-to-moment basis. While we cannot do anything about the demanding number of decisions that come at us at almost every moment, we can learn how to better manage the anxiety that accompanies the reality of our jobs with just three key strategies.

Follow Your Gut           

Invariably, I pick the wrong checkout line at the grocery store. When I approach the cashiers, I spend a second too long analyzing the length of each line, and I almost always change my mind about the line I get into. If I just learned to trust my gut, I might save the ice cream before it melts. Intuition really matters. There is a reason we have a first inclination to act in a certain way, and when we second-guess ourselves, we often regret it. A lot of decision fatigue comes from weighing decisions back and forth, over and over again. Perhaps that is a necessary evil when we are making big decisions that take time and consideration, but split-second decisions are much more efficient (and less agonizing) when we just follow whatever our first impulse tells us to do. To better increase our efficiency at making snap decisions, intentionally going with our gut instinct is a muscle that needs some development. The next time we face any choice (which will likely be sometime in the next four minutes), going forth with the first thing our brains tell us to do in a conscious way can build our capacity to trust ourselves.

Make a Choice           

Over the past several weeks, we have watched health officials and politicians grapple with the guidelines around administering vaccine booster shots for Covid-19. Some of the information provided to the public has been confusing as people disagree about what should happen. Generally speaking, it has been incredibly frustrating to watch identified experts waffle with their stances on important issues not just in terms of the pandemic, but also with many vital social issues. Sometimes, the debate loop about what to do lapses into total inaction. Unfortunately, no decision is still a decision. If we sit on our laurels and do nothing, choices automatically happen anyway without our intervention, which represents passive action. We do not have to be completely comfortable with decisions we make; we just need to pick the best option we have. If a student tells the teacher that she needs a break from working on an assignment and that she needs to just sit for a few minutes, that teacher might not like the stark choice between letting the student relax or forcing her to work. However, the teacher must pick something, or the student will decide for herself what to do. In any decision we make, thinking about how we will feel in retrospect if we simply do nothing or if we shrug our shoulders and walk away (as well as what will happen regardless of our actions) can guide us to making a choice.

Believe the Data           

Maya Angelou provided this advice: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” This dictum applies to more than people; it also applies to how we analyze our decisions once we see how they play out. After we make a choice, we can either opt to let things play out, or we can look at specific data that tells us whether our decisions were the correct ones. Suppose we want to work on helping our students craft a solid argument when they write a short response to a topic. There are so many ways to accomplish that goal, but we have to pick a place to start. Once students have completed the work, we can use their performance data to determine if we selected the right way to teach the skill, or if another course of action might be better. The process of believing the data we see is empowering because not only do we have evidence concerning the choices we make as teachers, but we also have the constant ability to change the course of the strategies we select and improve our methods.            

Children might think that adults enjoy being in charge, but we know better. Having the weight of responsibility for our decisions is a heavy burden. When we spend our days facing down endless forks in the road, we are at risk of severe burnout. As teachers, the constant barrage of choices is unavoidable, but we can develop our capacity to manage the attendant stress that comes with a never-ending cycle of pivoting. We might not be directing planes or saving lives in hospitals, but our work is just as complex, and just as important. Equipping ourselves with the skills to make decisions without reaching total exhaustion is one necessary step in managing our mental and professional health.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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