Keeping work at work: A balancing act

As a recently qualified teacher I am acutely aware of the teacher workload epidemic which is plaguing schools worldwide, threatening teacher retention and causing national teacher shortages. I’ve been trying to find ways to fit my job around my life and move towards a work life balance which works for me. Here’s the things that have added value to my work day and helped to keep work, well…work.

Recognise important emails masquerading as urgent emails

Often importance is mistaken for urgency, we sometimes think that because something is important, it needs to be followed up immediately. This is exacerbated by the use of that tiny passive aggressive orange exclamation mark denoting “high importance” sent by our colleagues. (When do we ever make use of the blue arrow which denotes “low importance”?!) Disconnecting work emails from our phones encourages us to only check emails whilst in work mode, meaning we can dedicate full focus to important tasks and not spend our evenings with them in the back of our minds, or worse, take action at home. If you’re communicating an urgent matter, I would question whether email was the most appropriate form of communication anyway…

Answer “quick queries” on your own schedule

I receive countless questions from students and colleagues which individually take very little time to resolve, “is the homework due Tuesday or Wednesday?” for example. With work emails on my phone it’s very easy to shoot off the answer instantly so I can forget about it. However, this is damaging for two reasons; firstly it allows work to demand my attention not on my terms making me less present and eroding my well being over time. Secondly, it sets expectations for my students and colleagues, if I reply at 6pm on a weekday or at the weekend, they are more likely to email me during these times in the future – it’s a never ending cycle. Disconnecting work emails from my phone is a gentle reminder to both myself and others to only email during work hours. I can normally whizz through these quick queries in 10 minutes or so when I arrive at my desk.

Schedule emails for timely and appropriate delivery

I really can’t understand why this tool isn’t used more widely in any institution which relies on email. If for some reason you find yourself working outside normal working hours, take the courtesy of scheduling emails to be sent the next day at a reasonable time. This simple act boasts the double benefit of taking the pressure off others, but also minimising the chance of your email being read out of hours then forgotten, or lost in the landslide of morning emails we are greeted with when we arrive at work.

Don’t eat “al-desko”

Working lunches are not as productive as you might think, take 20 minutes away from your desk to eat your lunch and chat to others, read a book, or just sit quietly.

Prioritise your tasks and your time

We are stuck with perpetual to do list, no sooner have we ticked an item off then 3 tasks are added. That’s the nature of work and most of us don’t have the luxury of turning work away or delegating. Find a way of deciding which order to complete tasks, this might be by deadline or by order of importance. I used to use a priority matrix but I found it a little complex (though it might work for you), I’ve simplified to a “Someday” and a “Today” list which I spend 2 minutes organising in the morning. “Today” for tasks that are high priority and I think I can reasonably fit into my schedule for that day, “Someday” tasks are those that I won’t have time to do today but will need to make it on to the today list soon. I like this system as I don’t waste time jumping between tasks and when I complete the today list I don’t feel the pressure of the never-ending to do list. If I have more time I’ll look to the someday list to see what else I can work on. (I heard about this method on The Minimalists Podcast).

Ditch the paper trail

There’s no need to hang on to paper unnecessarily, especially “just in case”. I’ve stopped printing spare copies of handouts, I can always print more if I need to. I’ve started distributing digitally if appropriate. Get rid of bits of paper that you are hanging on to as it might be useful one day, instead, get yourself a scanning app on your phone and scan in those things which “might” be useful. I started off using Tiny Scanner but have recently switched to Scannable as it seamlessly integrates with Evernote which I use to organise and back up my personal and work documents. I’ve also started clearing out my bag at the end of the day to free myself from the bits of junk that seem to collect there throughout the day ready for a fresh start the next day.

How about you? What do you do that helps you keep work at work? 

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