Wednesday, May 31, 2017

An epidemic of overwhelm

My summer read arrived today.  Each year we get the option of a professional learning book to read over the summer, and the one I chose this year was Your Brain at Work by David Rock.  As this is a hardback book, and since I have limited space and weight for my summer in Europe, my aim is to try to read the book (or most of it) before I go next week.  Today I read the first 2 chapters.

It's the end of our school year, and everywhere I turn at school I see people who are stressed because they feel they have too much to do before the end of term.  A couple of weeks ago I realized that I also had a huge "to do" list, which I wrote up on a whiteboard in my office, and have spent the last few weeks crossing off the things as they get done:  update all the IT integration documents - done, meet all the teachers I've been coaching to reflect on their goals for the year - done, meet all the TAs to reflect - all done except 2, complete the tech audit - done, meet with the tech coaches - planned for next week.  Today I wiped the board clean and put just 4 items back onto it.  I know I'll get to do these before the end of next week, however what I'm seeing is that many of us are simply managing a larger and larger to-do list and inevitably this gets overwhelming.

In Chapter 1 of Your Brain at Work, David Rock tells us to "prioritize prioritizing".  The recommendation is that this is done at the start of every day, before you start any other attention-rich activity such as reading and replying to emails. Rock also tells us that we spend more time thinking about problems (things we have seen) than solutions (things we have not seen), because thinking about the unknown takes a lot of time an effort.  This is the opposite of what we've been taught to do in our Cognitive Coaching - where we acknowledge the present state but them quickly move to the desired state.  One good way of prioritizing is to write things down - I'm a great fan of making a list because this gets the task out of the brain, saving it to work on comparing the tasks rather than just remembering them.  The other piece of advice in Chapter 1 is to do the hardest tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind - either early in the day or after a break.  He tells us to "plan to do your deep thinking in one block" which allows us to shift around the work we are doing to let our brains recover.  The analogy here is a sports one:  it's best to do some heavy lifting, then some cardio and then some stretching.  This way, as you change exercise, muscles get used in new ways, with some resting while others are working.  At the same time we need to develop the capacity to not pay attention to non-urgent tasks - in fact we need to say no to them (possibly to delegate them to others).

Another analogy used throughout the book is that your brain is like a stage and the tasks you need to remember and do are like the actors on the stage.  You don't have all the actors on the stage at once - if there are too many then some get pushed off.  Studies have been done on how many things your brain can work on at one time.  Fifty years ago it was thought that you could hold about 7 items in your mind at once, however 15 years ago this was revised down to 4, and even that depends on how complex the tasks are.  Your brain works well on tasks that are made up of elements that are already in your long-term memory, but it's usually hard to think about new ideas unless they connect to existing ones.  Rock writes, "While you can obviously remember more than one thing at a time, your memory degrades for each item when you hold a lot in mind."  Basically the fewer things that are on your mind, the better you are at making decisions:  the most efficient number of variables for making decisions is 2, and you should always try to limit ideas to just 3 or 4 at once.

A lot of what Rock writes about I really relate to.  I know there have been times this year when I've forgotten to do something, and at those times I've actually said "I have so much in my mind that something dropped out",  and yet I'm still juggling all those balls and most of the time I don't drop any.  Juggling is the subject of Chapter 3 in the book.  I'll be reading this tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Bust it Away Photography Flickr via Compfight cc


  1. Always enjoy your posts Maggie.
    I was in school the other day and teachers and staff are compiling MOSCOW lists (Must do, Should do, Could do and Won't do).
    A glance around during a meeting at people's lists I came to the realisation that all lists were Must heavy, adding to the stress. I wondered if this was the nature of the teacher and a self imposed stress,or if we can manage this better so our Musts are not adding to the many things we are juggling?
    P.s: love the idea of having an option to have a professional read each summer!
    Have a wonderful holiday.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I haven't heard of a MOSCOW list before, but you are right - if it's full of the "must dos" then it will feel stressful. I think it would be best to aim for lots of "could dos" - then people experience a sense both of agency (they have a choice about what they do) and accomplishment when they choose to do them. I agree with you though - we are often our own worst enemies, as teachers in general are very conscientious and the things we believe are "musts" are often ones we choose to do because we are determined to be the very best we can be for our students.