My first 10 years as a teacher, I worked crazy hours. During my first school year I would routinely start the day in my classroom at 6:30 and not leave until 6:00 at night, sometimes even later. And holidays and weekends- yep, back in the classroom. I was surrounded by other workaholic teachers who wore their excessive hours as a badge of honor, and I felt like it was just part of the job, an expectation if I wanted to be a good and effective educator. It’s been a journey from that point to one with improved work life balance, and one simple law first coined in 1955 by Cyril Parkinson in an essay published in the Economist has been super helpful in getting even better!
Five years ago, I felt a need to disconnect from work. I knew that my mental health required it. But, I was so addicted to work that I didn’t trust myself to truly disconnect. So, just six week before the sailing date, I booked a cruise that left over Christmas break. I had never been on a cruise before, but I knew that internet and cellphone access would be limited, and I figured that being in the middle of the sea on an entirely different continent might help me actually disconnect from work.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I did pay for the internet package on that 7-day cruise, and I did work on one job-related task that had a deadline during those two weeks for a total of an hour. And I may have checked my emails briefly a few times. Being a workaholic is a hard habit to break. But, there were entire days where I let myself focus on the sights and experiences I was having rather than thinking about work.
When I returned from the trip, I felt refreshed. My mind was clear. And I realized that disconnecting didn’t negatively impact my work life at all. On the contrary, I felt more able to focus and see things with fresh eyes. And I quickly looked forward to my next cruise, as I still didn’t trust myself to truly disconnect from work without being in the middle of the ocean.
Parkinson’s Law and Teachers’ Work Life Balance
I recently learned about a law that greatly impacts our work lives, but that few of us even know exists. Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, if you have three weeks to grade a stack of papers, it will likely take all three weeks. But, if you only have 2 hours until everything needs to be in the grading system, those papers will be graded in 2 hours. Haven’t we all experienced that at some time? It feels true, doesn’t it? But what does that mean for maintaining work-life balance as a teacher?
Teaching is an all consuming job that will literally take every moment we allow it to. There are always new activities to find, reports to update, lessons to plan, bulletin boards to adjust, parents to contact, and on and on. And the thing is, these things are important. But can we be effective and magical teachers without spending every waking moment on our classrooms? Parkinson’s law suggests that the answer is yes, we can. And it gives us a roadmap on how to do just that.
How to use Parkinson’s law to find work & life balance as a teacher
#1 Set time frames
Setting clear time frames for tasks keeps them from seeping over into every moment that’s available- which, according to Parkinson, they will. So, that explains why I carried the same stack of papers between home and school for a week, with hardly any change even though I felt like was constantly working on it. Then, when grades had to be in within 24 hours, all of a sudden I got them graded and entered and done. Ahh, it’s all so clear now! Since setting my own deadlines for accomplishing smaller tasks, I find them actually getting done, rather than moving from one day’s to do list to the next. And with two small kiddos, a full time job, and a Teachers Pay Teachers shop on the side, this shift in my work life has been a game changer.
#2 Focus on the important
Get really clear on what is really important. There are always things that seem urgent and that cry out for immediate attention. But, those aren’t always the most important things, they’re just the loudest. Start each day, each week, each work session identifying what your priorities are, and then work on those items. Take it from me, if you skip this step and don’t clearly identify what is important, other voices will happily find things to fill your time.
As an example, I used to feel that I needed to be on my email 24/7 to be truly responsive and on top of things. But as I checked email on my way to bed I would find myself getting stressed out and worried about something that honestly could wait until morning. So now I have a plan for email and check it regularly, but not constantly. And I try to make sure that when I do check it, I’m in a position that I can actually respond to a concern if necessary, or at least add it to the next day’s plan. Giving myself space to decide when to do email work, rather than letting it impose itself on me, has done wonders for my stress level. And sometimes, when I find myself backsliding to the temptation of constant email, I just have to remind myself that it’s okay, and necessary, to disconnect from the grid.
#3 Maximize small chunks of time
Once you’re clear on priorities, and embrace time limits, 10-15 minute chunks seem a lot more important all of a sudden. Embrace those random, small chunks of time to accomplish important vvork. For me, as I’ve been more conscious of this, it means not taking those 15 minutes to “take a quick break” and check Facebook, etc., and I find that the sense of accomplishment more than makes up for any rest I would have gained from that break.
Thank you Mr. Parkinson!
Parkinson’s Law explains so much about why teaching can take over our whole lives. But it also contains a solution that can help educators get their personal lives back, without sacrificing their own effectiveness in the classroom. I hope that hard-working teachers everywhere can get some semblance of balance in their lives by understanding and applying this deceptively simple law!
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