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How Decision Fatigue Ruins Your Day (and How to Beat It)

August 20, 2017


Gerard Dawson

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My first year of teaching felt like the story of Sisyphus. He’s the guy who pushes the ball up to the top of the hill only to watch it fall down again. I was trying but never getting ahead.

You may relate to my first year. Curriculum, classroom management, a new lifestyle—these are all given challenges.

But looking back, I realize I was making it harder than it had to be.

One surprising example that comes to mind is my wardrobe. I had my closet filled with dress shirts and ties. Every night, I pondered the combinations, then ironed my clothes. It was a waste of time.

Why does this matter? My wardrobe was one of the ways I was setting myself up for something called decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue matters to teachers. Once you learn how to recognize it, you can find ways to simplify your teaching life, take back your energy, and do your job better.

Hungry Judges and Tired Teachers

The research on decision fatigue is fascinating. This landmark study (I first read about it in The New York Times) looked at judges.

How do we view judges? We assume that judges make logical, evidence-based decisions. This study examined guilty or innocent verdicts throughout the work day. The researchers wanted to find patterns in the verdicts.

The surprising results? The judges gave harsher sentences based on how long it had been since their last meal! They got tired later in the day. Their brains became lazy. That is decision fatigue.

Now check out the conclusion of the study. “Although our focus has been on expert legal decisions, we suspect the presence of other forms of decision simplification strategies for experts in other important sequential decisions or judgments.” (Emphasis is mine).

Why does this matter for teachers?

The teacher work day is a series of “important sequential decisions or judgments.” We split time between classes, prep periods, meetings, duties, lunch breaks, and so on. The bell rings, and we move to the next subject. We shift our brains from one lesson, one set of essays, or one student, to the next one.

Our tired last-period brains skip grading and read Buzzfeed. Our exhausted afternoon minds choose to race through that paperwork. This is decision fatigue.

I see decision fatigue as affecting two big parts of our job:

  1. The patience we show when interacting with our students
  2. The willpower we have to get work done during our planning or prep periods

These are situations where mental exhaustion makes us do things we regret. We lose our tempers and yell at students. We ignore students who might need the most help. Or we ease up on students instead of pushing them to do their best work.

During preps, we get distracted online or by silly conversations with colleagues. We’re out of willpower.

Now that we know the term, how can we tell we’re experiencing it?

Signs of Decision Fatigue

Tired, no progress

If the day has exhausted you but you feel you’ve made no progress, then you may be experiencing decision fatigue. A lack of systems, routines, and habits causes teachers to reinvent the wheel every day. This increases that feeling of exhaustion with nothing to show for it.

Googling lesson plan ideas

When my mind is tired, I Google ideas for lessons. Instead of setting up reusable routines, I’m searching for an easy solution from others. Have you experienced this? This is another sign of decision fatigue.

Jumping from one “focus” to another

One week your class begins every day with a grammar bell-ringer. A few weeks later, you want students to journal for the first ten minutes. Later on you start by having kids copy down the goal. If you’re always figuring out the daily routine for your class, you may be a candidate for decision fatigue.

Easing up on expectations

You’re normally patient. You know how to breathe deeply, repeat a mantra, and calmly respond to that student. But when you’ve set yourself up to make excessive decisions about your day, your patience thins. Your willpower is gone. You end up engaging the kid who calls out, ignoring use of bad language, or glancing past the student with her head down on the desk. A lack of willpower means lower expectations.

Indulging in destructive habits

Consider the moments when you’re most likely to stray from a diet. It’s when you’re most exhausted, right? When we get tired, we are less likely to make healthy decisions. You might run to the faculty room vending machine for a sugar fix during your prep. Instead of diving into work, you spend your free period swiping away on Instagram, picking up your head after who knows how long. This, again, is decision fatigue: too much reliance on willpower and choice, not enough on routine.

The Disclaimer

Please don’t take any of the above signs as absolutes or guarantees. You may say to yourself, I Google lessons, but only when I’m looking for new ideas. Or I like to rearrange class every few weeks–it’s how I run my classroom! Each teacher knows him or herself best. The signs above are ones I’ve noticed as most connected to my own feeling of decision fatigue. If you feel off and you’re doing these things, then you might like the ideas I’ll mention in the rest of this post.

The Big Wins

You can see immediate improvement in your decision fatigue by going after the low-hanging fruit. These are the first levers we can pull to stop draining our willpower and build up our ability to focus. It takes some work, but these big wins get big results.

Grading

Commit to a few skills you know your students must work on this year. Stick with them throughout the year. Base your grading on these. Do this instead of jumping from focus to focus, expectation to expectation.

For example, I adopted the PVLEGs acronym in my class this year. Additionally, I’ve started using the single-point rubric. Now, regardless of whether we’re doing presentations or discussions, I know what the speaking rubric will look like.

Now the class and I can focus on the readings or other content that students will speak about. We can focus on mini-lessons instructing students on specific aspects of speaking. We don’t have to review another new rubric, tailored to one specific assignment.

Classroom management

Do I need to write this student up for a discipline referral? That student is sending a quick text, should I say anything? You’ve had these quick conversations with yourself. If our classroom management plan is unclear, then we will be negotiating and arguing. It’s unclear which behaviors we should address and which we should ignore.

I remember a moment from my first year that illustrates this well. A student talked all class. She stood up to socialize with friends instead of reading or writing. She used her cell phone for texting friends. I finally said, “Debby-Ann sit down, stop talking and do your work!”

I’ll never forget her reply:

“No, Mr. Dawson…because you’re not going to do anything about it.”

And she was right. My classroom management was a set of words on a September handout. The students and I didn’t live by it. This meant constant decisions about cell phones, calling home, or discipline referrals.

Like most teachers, my classroom management is not perfect. A blog post from August 2016 set me on the right path, though. It exposed me to the world of Michael Linsin’s Smart Classroom Management program. I bought his book, The Smart Classroom Management Plan for High School Teachers, and implemented it. It took planning, preparation, and commitment. But it was satisfying to have a clear plan. There was no decision-making necessary.

Teaching Strategies

In the past, I taught a new lesson, and then went on the hunt for the next activity. I should have focused on getting kids to do lots of meaningful reading and writing. Instead, I was obsessed with experimenting, with making lessons wacky and “engaging.”

Now nothing is wrong with trying new strategies. One of the reasons you read this site, or any education blog, is to find new ideas for your teaching. But there’s a difference between looking for new strategies and distracting yourself.

My suggestion: Write out your teacher toolbox. List the learning processes that happen in your class and list the best ideas you have for doing those. My teacher toolbox looks like this:

Beginning of Class: independent reading, sentence combining, quick writes

Speaking: turn and talks with cold callingspeaking events, teach PVLEGS

Reading: Ariel Sacks’ Whole Novels approach, Fischer/Frey reading questions, Jim Burke’s Types of Questions

Writing: editing for brevity, revising for show vs. tell, practice acknowledging and responding to counterarguments

Now, instead of combing the Internet for new strategies or telling students we’re just going to “read this article today,” I go to my toolbox. I match up my instructional goals with the list I have above, and select the best option for the day.

The Quick List: Other, Simpler ideas

Food

Eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day. Try it for a week. Have variety at dinner and on the weekends, but let your mind rest when it comes to prepping food for the work week.

Morning Routine

Most days I wake up, drink water, make coffee, meditate, and then write. I don’t decide—it’s what I do. When I get to school, I’m relaxed. I’m not saying do what I do. Figure out what works for you.

If teachers have a morning routine, it can provide us with energy that we can devote to our students. Try mixing two to three of these items into a morning routine and stick with it for a week:

The idea is to repeat it every day, so your brain goes on autopilot, but you get the benefits.

Clothes

Remember my opening story about too many clothes? Today, I wear blue. My wife and students poke fun at me, but that’s all I’ve got these days. It may be quirky, but it works. A monochromatic wardrobe is unnecessary, of course. Consider simplifying so that more of your clothes pair well together. The capsule wardrobe is an interesting take on this.

Technology

Decide on the tech tools that are your favorite. This is another area where I’ve exhausted myself with decisions in the past. Which formative assessment tool is best? Which digital rubric tool is best? Which video tool is best? Like with the teaching toolbox, a teaching with tech toolbox is useful. Decide on the few things that help your students the most and abandon the rest. You can always add things in again later.

Not Boredom, but Focus

Some teachers might read this and think that I’m advocating for monotony. Students hate doing the same things over and over, you might think. Variety is the spice of life!

I’m not advocating for a boring, repetitive classroom. In fact, this is the opposite. The best parts of our jobs are being creative and interacting with the kids. Anything we do to focus on those two things is worth a try.

When we build in the systems, habits, and routines that value our mental energy, we free ourselves up to do our best work. We throw our full selves into planning great lessons, teaching with passion, and even reviewing student work with care. We become our best teacher selves.

The suggestions above are not long-term commitments; they’re experiments. Try something for three days and reflect. Is your routine smoother? Is it making a difference?

How can you experiment with simplifying? ♦

 

There’s more where this came from.
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32 Comments

  1. goethe3 says:

    THIS IS EXACTLY ME! Thanks for giving me hope to rise above these pedagogical ruminations that make me feel like Prometheus’s never-ending punishment.

    • You’re welcome. It’s comforting to hear that others relate to these struggles, too. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Julie says:

    Oh, thank you SO much for posting this. As I go into my 3rd year teaching 4th grade, I HAVE to conquer decision fatigue. I hope to do this with the suggestions above and the help of some other resources that have been mentioned on this blog-namely Smart Classroom Management and the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.

    • Those are some great resources, Julie. SCM and Angela Watson’s stuff are so useful for dealing with these feelings. Best of luck.

  3. Barbara Paciotti says:

    An outstanding article! I savored every paragraph and saw so much of myself in those fatigue-generating decisions you talk about. I hope every one of us takes these ideas to heart and becomes a better, “healthier” teacher because of them. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and expertise, and thanks to Jennifer Gonzalez for sharing them with us.

  4. Elaine says:

    Great article! This is something I have already been working on, but there were many new tips I learned. How could I not have created a Toolbox after all these years of teaching? That would be especially helpful because I mostly co-plan and co-teach.

    The one thing that has helped me the most with decision fatigue is to plan ALL meals and buy groceries for the week on Sunday. No more crabby “What should we make for dinner?” conversations at the end of an exhausting work day.

    The second thing that has helped is lining up my clothes on Sunday and deciding what I will wear each work day.

    I completely agree about routines. The fewer small decisions we have to make in our day, the more our brains are empowered to make important decisions. It also helps your brain to do the creative brain work in the morning when you’re fresh. Create lesson plans BEFORE checking emails.

    • Elaine, I try to live by your rule for the morning, too. When there’s writing or planning to get done, it has to happen in the wee hours. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. I see myself in every word of this article! It’s something I wish I had recognized for what it was when I was still in the classroom. I am definitely sharing this with my subscribers! Thanks for the common sense ideas that will help teachers who feel like they are on overload every day.

  6. Margarete Schels says:

    WOW!! I am so glad that Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy passed along your newsletter! I’ll be starting my 41st year teaching 8th grade and am always looking for resources to help me be a more efficient, effective teacher for my students! I teach at a Catholic school, which typically has upper grade teachers covering several different subjects. I teach 8th grade math, religion, social studies, and English as well as 7th grade math and religion…whew! It’s often a challenge planning for and assessing learning having to teach so many different classes. So, anything that helps me focus and prioritize when doing short- and long-term planning is a gift! Thank you!!

    • Margarete, that’s quite a teaching load you’ve got there. Congratulations and thank you for your 41 years of dedication to the profession.

  7. Corina Summerfelt says:

    I’ve suspected this for a few years now. My husband is often frustrated by my inability to make simple decisions at the end of the day. This article confirms what I have been telling him. In addition to decision making, teachers have to filter through conversations and noise that can contribute to the overload and exhaustion of the mind. On the plus side, I have really gotten on side with the use of routine (focus) and that has made my life so much more manageable. The students appreciate the routine as well. Many of them are juggling significant workloads and become equally fatigued. Thanks for this look at decision fatigue and some tips for overcoming it.

    • You make a great point, Corina, about how our students experience these struggles and can benefit from routine. Hopefully we can model these behaviors in the new school year.

  8. Erin says:

    I am going to print this off as a reminder to myself! This really hit bang on for me. Thank you.

  9. Diane Wharton says:

    I’ve always felt like a weirdo eating the same lunch everyday. But now I don’t worry. The wardrobe idea can be observed in several high profile individuals namely Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. It’s amazing as teachers how many decisions we make in a day! Anything to reduce that stress!!

  10. Subconsciously I was already busy with decluttering. There is an echo in my bedroom now so I might put down a carpet but it is such a calmer space. 🙂

    The focus thing you wrote about is the story of my life and one of the main things I am worried about when I start teaching. Hope to see more blogposts pass by on this! 🙂

    • Marleen, you’re right that decluttering can calm a room. I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up this summer and I think that it is actually life-changing to have clear spaces. Thanks for reading commenting.

  11. Very interesting read. I have very explicit routines in my classroom, but I don’t have the same expectation for myself at home. This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately as I try to make some personal changes to be more productive at home. As a wife, mother, teacher, and blogger, it’s crucial in order to have balance in my life. I am extremely productive at night, but I would like to change and become a morning person. It’s a hard habit to break. Thank you for this food for thought and ideas to help with decision fatigue.

    • Hi Krystal. Yes, the balance of family, teaching, and writing on the side is difficult. It’s interesting to compare the structures we have in various parts of our lives and see how we might borrow from one area and use in another. Best of luck with finding the balance.

  12. Meilina Moore says:

    Thank you so much for this post! It is nice to put a name to what I experienced last year as a new teacher that caused me to burn out by October! I am excited to implement some of your suggestions this year. Thanks!!!

    • Hey Melina, I’m glad to hear that this post clarified something that you’ve felt before. Being a new teacher is exhausting. This year, with more experience –and strategies from the article 🙂 — I bet you’ll sustain your energy better. Best of luck.

  13. Say what?! PVLEGS is a cure for poor student speaking (https://goo.gl/AatgBD) and also a cure for what ails teachers? Fantastic! Thanks for the shout-out!

  14. Katey says:

    I’ve read your post three times now. 🙂 I’m an introverted extrovert (meaning that I can bring it all day to my kids but need a lot of down time to recharge at the end of the day, aka staring out the window when I get home). The more I can do to free up my mental energy, the better. Last year, I decided no one cares if I wore that outfit just last Thursday (nor do they remember … I teach 7th graders) and I gave myself permission for a little capsule wardrobe action. In addition, we started using a meal kit service that is worth its weight in gold because of the stress it takes away from planning and shopping for meals, formerly the bane of my existence. The point is that your words really resonated with me and this was such a good back-to-school (year 26!) read for me. Thank you!

    • Katey — it sounds like you’ve got your own plan for beating decision fatigue here with the capsule wardrobe and meal service. That’s awesome. I hope year 26 is a great one for you.

  15. Claire & Tom says:

    Grandma & Grandpa are very impressed with this & some of the other things you have been doing. We never realized how complicated teaching can become. What you are doing is not only very interesting but also enlightening. We are very proud of you. See you in a few weeks.

    Lots of love

    • Grandma and Grandpa — thanks for reading and commenting on the article. Yes, teaching can be complicated, but it’s something I love! Looking forward to seeing you soon.

  16. Kathy says:

    First time reading your post. I loved it. The headline caught my attention, as a primary teacher (k-1) for the past 20 something years I can relate! I just didn’t know that what I was/am experiencing was a thing. I feel your advice about routine and focus struck a chord for me. With self- discipline, I can manage these things well, usually through the month of September, however, like you mentioned, when I’m tired and/or stressed out all that well-intentioned routine and focus goes out the window. That is my challenge. How to keep going even in the face of the inevitable stress, albeit joyful stress, that working with 5-6 year olds can bring? Will stay on your post because I’d like to hear more from you, and others, about how they deal with Decision Fatigue! Thank you!

  17. Anna Danforth says:

    Thank you for sharing Michael Linsin’s program for classroom management! I downloaded it right away. You are so right that routine is invaluable in cutting down decision fatigue (and for pointing out that routine doesn’t mean boring monotony). The times my students have been most productive have been when we stick to a core routine and core classroom management strategies. I’m not naturally a routine-oriented person and I have to work hard to stick with it, but it always pays off!

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