Seven Tips to a Better Work-Life Balance
We live in a culture where busyness, over-scheduling, and workaholic lifestyle is glorified. How often do we tell someone, “I’ve just been so busy,” or “I’m so exhausted,” and the other person resonates with the sentiment and starts talking about her hectic schedule. Next thing you know the conversation has turned into a rap battle about who’s having the craziest month. Okay, maybe not a rap battle (I’d totally love to see that one day), but it can become a competitive back-and-forth on how busy you each are. If you notice yourself saying these types of statements and are overwhelmed and stressed, you may need to reflect on your work-life balance. Are you really taking care of yourself?
It is very common for teachers to quickly lose their work-life balance a couple of months into the school year. We’re in a profession where caring for and educating children and teenagers is our job, so it’s not uncommon for us to lose that balance. The problem becomes when that loss of balance is chronic, and we’re constantly feeling stressed, overwhelmed and overworked. This chronic stress can really impact our teaching and how we interact with our students. In a previous blog post, I wrote about my own experience with chronic stress and the adverse effect it had in my teaching and my relationship with my students. Students quickly notice when you’re having a bad day, and they definitely notice when you’re chronically stressed. This puts them on edge in your class and can be damaging to their learning. This is why self-care is essential in a teacher’s toolkit. Self-care is not selfish. By caring for your needs, you’re ensuring that your students are also being taken care of socially, emotionally, and intellectually by you. I’m going to share with you seven helpful tips on self-care and ways you can incorporate self-care into your life and teaching routines. Also, at the end of the post I’ll share with you a special resource I created just for you.
Seven Self-Care Tips
1. Learn to recognize when you’re stressed
Many of us walk around stressed and sometimes don’t even realize that the reason we have aches, pains and just constantly tired has to do with stress. Stress, especially chronic stress, can really cause havoc on our bodies and even our emotional and mental states. If you’re curious about the impact stress has on the human body check out my blog post on the topic here. We often have physical sensations in the body that indicate we’re in a stressful situation.This is why understanding your own body’s reaction to stress can be helpful in preventing or limiting your exposure to chronic stress. The way I learned my body’s reaction to stress was simply by paying attention.
I’ve used mindfulness practice to become more aware of my physical body. A good way to do this is by using the body scan technique in mindfulness practice. The body scan can be a quick way to check in with your body. You can practice this at any point of the day. So, when find yourself in a stressful situation just pause for a moment and check in to see what does stress feel like right now in my body. Ask yourself, “Where am I holding tension right now?” If your mind is racing try to focus your attention on your breath. If you can’t feel your breath or the idea of focusing on your breath brings you anxiety then focus on something else, some other part of your body, like your hands. When you’re paying attention to the sensations in your body while you’re stressed just label it, but don’t judge the tension. For example, you can say to yourself, “I feel tension in my chest. Pressure in my throat. Sweaty hands.” Again, it’s really important to hold a space of compassion for yourself while sensing your body’s reaction to stress.
For me when I get stressed I feel it immediately in my chest and in my throat. It feels like a ball of energy is constricting this area in my body. Once I recognize the sensation and that it’s related to my stress level I can then take a moment (it doesn’t have to be long) to just pause, take a few deep breaths, and remind myself that the stressful situation is manageable and that I have all the tools and skills needed to deal with it. Does this conversation with myself always happen? No. There are times that the stress is so intense that I don’t pause. There are other times when I feel like I’m trapped on a hamster wheel and don’t recognize what’s actually going on. I’m sure you know the feeling of when life is just happening to you rather than you actively living. However, I do notice that the more I practice and train in mindfulness and meditation the quicker I recognize the stress, and immediately use my mindfulness practice to ease the impact the stress has on me. It of course takes time and practice to get to this point of awareness.
2. A positive start and end to the day can go a long way
Don’t you just love those mornings when you get up and feel really good and positive about the day ahead. Why not try to have a positive start to the day with a meditation, a prayer, a mantra, reading an inspirational quote of the day, or write your own positive message. Do whatever resonates with you and your values. This positive start, especially if you’re not a morning person, doesn’t have to be long. It can be a quick read of an inspirational quote on your smartphone as you’re waiting in line for your coffee. Just this slight shift from rushing through the morning to taking 30 seconds to read an inspirational quote can help you start your day with a positive tone, which hopefully continues throughout the day.
Most teachers start their days ridiculously early since classes begin early. So, why not include students in this morning ritual? You can project the inspirational quote on the smartboard, read the quote in morning circle, ask students to reflect on the quote, or ask students to write their own affirmation of the day. The quote can easily by related to your curriculum too. What a great way to start the school day! This doesn’t mean you and your students aren’t going to have “bad” days, but at least you and your students can always refer back to the positive start to the day as an anchor and help get through the day.
You can also incorporate a positive end to the school day. This is something you do to signify to yourself the work day is over and you can shut off your teacher brain. Again you can do this on your own or incorporate your students in this practice. It can be a song you play to close the day, meditation, a journal entry...whatever works for you. Your closing of the work day doesn’t have to be long, but just be sure to make it personal, consistent, and it fits your needs.
3. Set boundaries
Setting boundaries and sticking with these boundaries may be something many educators have a hard time with, especially novice teachers who want to help everyone and take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. However, it’s really important to set clear boundaries between you, students, parents, coworkers, and school leadership. In any relationship, including those at work, it’s about a balance of give and take. So, if you feel like you’re giving a lot of yourself and not receiving close to equal of what you’re giving then you may be finding yourself feeling a bit drained and under appreciated.
What boundaries do you need to build in your work in order to maintain a healthy balance? When setting boundaries think about what conscious and subconscious messages you are sending to your students and others about your boundaries. Maybe you need to set up a consistent time that you’ll meet students outside of class. For example, I tell students I can meet them before school starts, during my planning periods, and if neither of those times work then they can set up an appointment with me. If I didn’t set up a clear and explicit boundary then I would have students coming in and out of my office all day, and they would expect that I’d be there to respond to their every need. Another good boundary I’ve used and seen other educators use is the “ask three friends then ask me” rule. So, before asking me a question, especially non-instructional questions (i.e. “What’s homework?” “What do we need to do?” “What do I need to bring to class?”) the student needs to ask at least three students first before even approaching me with the question. This really helps teachers by giving more responsibility and leadership back to students and sets those boundaries between teacher and student.
Do you say yes to everything and immediately regret it? Then, this is another sign you need to work on boundaries. Learn to honor yourself and your time. Part of honoring your boundaries is learning to discern when to say yes to a student, parent or colleague. So, ask yourself the following: 1) Is this something I want to do? 2) Is this something I am able to do? Of course, there are tasks and responsibilities that you don’t necessarily enjoy doing, but must do. For example, I dislike grading papers, but I have to and learned to shift my thinking about the process of grading in order to make it bearable. It’s the second question that will help you discern if you should say yes, because if someone asks you to do something that you don’t have the skills to do then it makes it even more difficult to complete the task. Don’t be afraid then to say “No.” People will understand that you have other responsibilities and just can’t take on another task, especially if it doesn’t fit your talents or professional needs.
The key to setting boundaries is that you need to make sure you’re clear, explicit and consistent about your boundaries. If you start breaking your own boundaries people are going to quickly notice and take advantage of your inconsistencies.
4. Learn to ask for help
I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do it all. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you are overwhelmed. Part of learning to ask for help is relinquishing the need to control everything and trusting others to do something for you. What is it that you can delegate to someone else? Is there something in your routine that you do everyday that a student can help you with? For example, do you clean your room at the end of the day? Stop that! Your students should be helping you with cleaning the classroom. It’s their space too, and they should take responsibility for maintaining its cleanliness and organization. Build time at the end of the period or day to organize the desks, supplies, and other learning material. Don’t be afraid to recruit parent volunteers to help with an event or field trip. Most parents, if they have the flexibility in their schedule, will take advantage of an opportunity to support you and their child’s education. Maybe you’re stuck on creating a lesson plan. Ask a coworker if you can bounce ideas off them and work through a lesson. Your coworker will be happy to help out.
5. Learn to let go of the to-do list
I don’t know about you, but I am really good at making long to-do lists. Like the comical kind that rolls out for miles. I’ve learned to tame the to-do list and realistically gage how many tasks (especially large tasks) I can complete on a typical day. In addition, I can get really competitive with myself and almost make it into a game on how many tasks I can cross off. What makes the competitive thing worse are all the apps that send notifications and give you points for completing a task. It can get very overwhelming for those of us who obsess over completing every task. I sometimes would judge my day on how many tasks I crossed off….I know that’s ridiculous. So, I decided I needed to prioritize my tasks for the day. What do I really need to complete today? What are my top 3 to 5 items that I need to complete? These questions really helped me tame my to-do list. I also realized that I wasn’t really going to be that far behind if I didn’t get to everything on my to-do list. I just had to be flexible enough to shift some tasks around, prioritize my list, and also trust others enough to delegate some tasks.
No, you don’t have to lose weight. What I mean by lighten-up is don’t take everything so seriously. This is something that I’m still learning to do, but have definitely gotten so much better at. Sometimes you just have to be a little self-deprecating and laugh at your mistakes, joke with your students, and just have fun in the classroom. Yes, teaching is a serious career and we should take our jobs seriously, but also we need to loosen up, be ourselves, be a little silly, and share in the joy of learning and teaching with students. Try to incorporate more play, games and fun in your daily lessons or a the end of a week. You can even once in awhile incorporate a mini dance party or blow bubbles with your students. Even in our personal lives we can incorporate more play and fun. I find myself listening to music and dancing in the kitchen while I’m cooking or chasing the dog around the living room. I make sure I do something I truly enjoy everyday, even if it’s just for five minutes. What brings joy into your life? How can you incorporate more play and fun in your personal and professional life?
7. Take care of your body
Taking care of your body may be last on this list, but it is foundational to self-care. As a teacher, you know that you’re immune system better be in tip-top shape by August, because kids are germ factories. We all know what to do when it comes to taking care of the body, right? Eat balanced meals, exercise, and sleep. However, with the hectic schedules we often find ourselves not properly taking care of our bodies.
Eat a balanced, healthy diet, which means eat during your lunch break. You don’t have to work through your lunch...I know that’s revolutionary! You can even practice mindful eating. But, let’s be honest sometimes eating a proper lunch every day may just not be an option. So, be sure to keep healthy snacks in your desk or office.
Exercise at least 3 times a week. If you’re lucky you might have a gym in your school which you can use before or after school. Take advantage of other free resources, such a youtube videos, apps, or take a run or walk outside. However, I know many people find exercising boring or discomforting. My suggestion is to find an activity that you enjoy doing. For instance, you’ll never see me running. I was not built to be a runner, but I love weight lifting, high intensity training, and yoga.
Finally, sleep! Sleeping is so important. For some reason in the late 20th century into the 21st century our culture has made sleep unnecessary, but we literally cannot function without proper sleep. There are plenty of studies about the importance of sleep. Most people need about 7-8 hours of sleep. Some can get away with less than 6 hours of sleep and perfectly function, while others may need a bit more sleep. Wherever you fall on the sleep spectrum just honor your body, honor your needs and get the proper rest in order to stay healthy and be at your best for yourself and your students.
Care for yourself with compassion
Will you always be successful at balancing your work-life and consistently maintaining your self-care? No, of course not. It is rare to always feel balanced and that’s part of the struggle. We live through cycles when life is going smoothly and everything feels great and balanced, and then there are cycles in our life when nothing seems like it’s going right and you’re so off the course of self-care. Just recognize those moments. Find blessings and gratitude in each of those cycles, which also carry meaningful lessons for us. Most importantly, remain compassionate towards yourself as you work on finding balance in life.
Create your own self-care plan
If you feel like you need to work on taking care of yourself more I really suggest creating a self-care plan. Just like you create an individualized education plan for students, you can do the same for your own care. I suggest just choosing one aspect in your self care plan to focus on and get that right first. Test new self-care strategies, ideas and fine-tune what works for you. Sometimes it’s the simplest shifts and changes that can make a difference. Remember, taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. Self-care is necessary in order for you to be the best teacher you can for your students.
I created a template that you can use to create your own self-care plan. To access it click here.
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