One of my all-time favorite television shows is Parks and Recreation. A mockumentary set in a fictional Parks and Rec department in small-town America, the show follows Leslie Knope as she aims to beautify her town while navigating a plethora of bureaucratic hoops. The show is filled with iconic characters and laugh-out-loud hilarity, and has inspired a wealth of memes. While Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) is undeniably my spirit animal, Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and Donna Meagle (Retta) are definitely in my top spots for show favorites.
My favorite scenes with this duo center on their yearly self-care routine: Treat Yo’ Self (Daniels et. al., 2011).
“Once a year,” Haverford explains, “Donna and I spend a day treating ourselves. What do we treat ourselves to?”
Donna replies with a list of goods and services, including mimosas, massages, and “fine leather goods”, each item followed by Haverford’s punchline, “Treat yo’ self.”
“Best day of the year!” The pair sings after explaining their plans.
After explaining what the “Treat Yo’ Self” affair is all about, Donna asks Tom if they can invite another co-worker, Ben, along this year, revealing the ultimate goal of the endeavor: “…he really seems like he could use a day off,” Meagle says. “He’s like a skinny little rubber band that’s about to snap in half.”
Ultimately, their Treat Yo’ Self tradition is a chance to take a break and destress. It’s a practice teachers could all benefit from.
Let’s face it: being a teacher is hard work. From instructional planning, grading, and tracking standards mastery, to setting and implementing classroom procedures and making on-the-fly changes to lessons for individual student needs, there is a lot of thought and care that goes into creating your ideal classroom. With all of these tasks to manage, the number of decisions teachers make in a day has been estimated at approximately 3-4 decisions per minute, amounting to nearly 1,500 decisions in a typical teaching day. While it may not equate to the constant decision making of an air traffic controller, some say that the daily on-the-job decisions made by teachers outpace even neurosurgeons!
Let’s not forget that this number doesn’t even include the decisions we make daily at home.
All of these decisions come at a cost: decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is the idea that our ability to make good decisions lessens over time depending on the number of decisions we need to make. This fatigue isn’t the result of making large life-changing decisions, but even decisions like what color shirt to wear can contribute to this sense of overwhelm, anxiety, and decreased cognitive ability (Berg, 2021).
Heck, just thinking about all of these decisions can be overwhelming. The good news is that there are some steps we can take to help prevent decision fatigue.
How to Prevent Decision Fatigue in the Classroom
While we can’t delegate away the majority of educational decisions we make throughout the day in our classrooms, there are some practical steps we can take to pare down the number of smaller decisions we have to make.
- Establish classroom routines. Set yourself up for success by creating a system that students know how to follow in order to be successful in your classroom. These routines can help both you as the teacher and the students in your room to eliminate random decision making. Do you have a place for homework to be turned in? Do you have a set procedure for dismissing class or getting students to line up? Is there a specific morning work task or bellringer students complete when they enter the room? By creating these routines (and others), we eliminate the “now what?” questions from students’ repertoire, mitigate negative classroom behaviors, and prevent the need to make additional discipline decisions.
- Rinse and repeat. As a teacher, we can often feel the pressure to “reinvent the wheel” when writing our curriculums. The reality for students though is that repeated practice is good for mastery. Obviously, we’re not going to do the same science experiment every day, but if there’s an assignment that students really enjoyed that can be adapted to another unit, save yourself some mental energy by adapting it instead of creating something brand new.
- Don’t overthink it. Making decisions as a teacher is not without pressure from outsiders. As a result, we often put double the pressure on ourselves to make sure we’re always on our A-game making the perfect choice. But this perfection isn’t always feasible. Medical News Today (Lennon, 2022) says it best: “Don’t let the fear of making the wrong decision paralyze you. Making a good enough decision is often good enough. Not every decision needs to be perfect. Remind yourself that most decisions are revocable if something goes wrong.” Do what’s best for your students in the moment as you plan and interact with students, but don’t waste time overanalyzing every choice you make. It isn’t a bad idea to spend time reflecting on the choices you made so that you can make better ones in the future, but it isn’t helpful to keep replaying every single decision on repeat for eternity.
But what if we’re already experiencing decision fatigue? I would love to recommend that all teachers spend a day embracing their inner Haverford and Meagle… I also know that a day filled with outrageous spending isn’t always in the cards on a teacher salary. We certainly need to temper the hyperbolic event that Parks and Recreation depicts with a dose of reality. However, there are ways that you can “treat yo’ self” routinely to help mitigate and manage the decision fatigue that you may be facing.
Daily Efforts to Reduce Decision Fatigue
- Breathe. I know that sacrificing even one minute of our planning periods can seem like giving up an eternity, but one minute spent breathing meditatively each day can help reduce stress and anxiety. At the start of your planning period, take one minute to breathe slowly and deeply. If you have an Apple watch, you can utilize the Mindfulness app to even set this breathing to a rhythm or timer. Otherwise, several other apps exist to encourage this practice.
- Prioritize your day. Making to-do lists can free your mind from constantly thinking of what to do next, but lists in and of themselves aren’t a perfect problem-solver. When you make your to-do list for the week, spend a moment marking them by priority. If you can identify which tasks are most important for your success, you can make sure to get those done first. This prioritization can also prevent procrastination of larger tasks, another cause of stress in the classroom. One thing to note about making to-do lists is to ensure you are listing tasks rather than projects (which are made up of a series of tasks). A list full of projects will always be overwhelming. Using an app like Google Tasks can help you to break down projects into less overwhelming chunks.
- Schedule regular time for yourself. It’s easy to spend all of our time at home focused on work, but when we do this we forget to give our brains time off. Make sure to put time aside for yourself each day to do something unrelated to work. Read something for fun or watch an episode of that new TV show. Take time to do a hobby you enjoy or get that workout in. Take a nap if you need to. Have a bath each Saturday. But don’t just say you want to do it. Instead, actually schedule that time and put it in your day planner so that when something “comes up,” you’re already booked.
And hey… really do treat yo’ self from time to time. It is totally acceptable (and I encourage it!) to reward yourself for a job well done. You don’t need to take a whole day to spend exorbitant amounts of money on food and possessions like Tom and Donna from Parks and Recreation, but you can definitely reward yourself for the hard work you put into your classroom. Take yourself out on a date to your favorite restaurant. Get yourself that latte on a Friday afternoon. Book a massage for a week you know will be a busy one at school. Teaching is hard. Celebrate your accomplishments.
Berg, MS, S. (2021, November 19). What doctors wish patients knew about decision fatigue. American Medical Association (AMA). https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/what-doctors-wish-patients-knew-about-decision-fatigue
Daniels, G. et. al. (Writer), & McDougall, C. (Director). (2011, October 13). Pawnee Rangers [Television series episode]. In Daniels, G. et. al. (Producer), Parks and Recreation. Universal City, CA: Universal Media Studios.
Lennon, A. (2022, January 24). COVID-19 decision fatigue: Expert tips on how to cope. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/covid-19-decision-fatigue-expert-tips-on-how-to-cope