Fewer Decisions = More Energy

Every teacher I know wishes they had more energy at the end of the day. They want to give their best to their family, just like they gave their best to their students. They want to exercise, work on a hobby, play with their kids, talk with their spouse, and some of them even wish they had more energy for checking papers and planning lessons.

In my last post, Why Teachers Are So Tired, I wrote about the four reasons teachers are so drained at day’s end.

This week and next, I’ll look at what teachers can do to reduce decisions, use less willpower, avoid emotional peaks and valleys, and handle worry so that they go home with more energy. In this article, I’ll tackle the first of those: making fewer decisions.

How to Make Fewer Decisions

It sounds simple enough: just make fewer decisions. And for some people in some jobs, it might even be possible to simply, through force of will, decide fewer things at work. But as teachers, we are inundated with situations that require us to decide. Planning is nothing but a series of decisions. We decide every time we check papers, when we rearrange seating charts, when a student asks to use the bathroom, how to handle a behavior problem, and on and on. We don’t have the luxury of simply not deciding. Our principals, colleagues, students, and parents are all waiting for us to choose. So how do we decide less?

Actually, we’re already doing it. Now, we need to do more of it.

Make it Automatic

Mark Zuckerberg wears the same gray T-shirt to work every day. When asked why he said:

I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.

Zuck’s ‘Drobe:








President Obama explained his wardrobe this way:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.

Steve Jobs, Henry Rollins, Christopher Nolan, and even Albert Einstein later in life all subscribed to the same belief. They knew that the more decisions you make, the more tired you will be and the less energy you will have to make more important decisions later in the day.

Choosing your outfit is one decision you can easily remove from your day.* Once you start thinking about it, you will find there are many other decisions you can automate, and some you already do.

Most of you follow the same route to work and back every day. You don’t decide, you just do it. Same for nearly all of your morning routine. In fact, if you’re like me, you’re bothered when your morning routine gets thrown off for some reason.

You probably automate much of your banking. Thanks to technology, I make many fewer financial decisions than my dad did. I don’t have to decide when to deposit my paycheck, when and how much money to move into my daughter’s college fund, when to pay the bills, or how much to put into savings every month. All of that is set up ahead of time and now just happens.

It’s the key to making fewer decisions: automate as many of them as possible.

Go through your entire day. How many decisions do you already automate? What else could you automate? How about your workout routine? If you get to the gym and decide which equipment to use and what order to use it in, you’re using energy. If you just do the same thing every time or follow a predetermined schedule, you’re saving energy. Analyze every part of your day and eliminate as many decisions as possible. Don’t decide what to have for dinner every day. If you plan your meals for the whole week, then eating dinner goes on autopilot.

Decide Less At Work

At school, we’re well practiced in this. We call them routines, but the reason we teach them, model them, and have students practice them for the first two weeks (or two months) is so that they’ll become a habit and no one will have to waste energy thinking about them. How many other parts of your school day can you automate? Your entire morning routine? Your end-of-the-day routine? How students line up to leave the classroom? You probably already do these, and thank goodness. Can you imagine having to decide, every day, how you want students to line up?

Since many teacher decisions happen as a result of student behavior, a solid classroom management plan is a must. It can prevent problems that will require decisions from you. If consequences are clear and consistently enforced, there is no decision to make. You simply follow your pre-established plan. For more information on classroom management, I highly recommend Michael Linsin’s blog, Smart Classroom Management. He knows way more about it than I ever will.

Do a decision audit. List out everything you do in a typical day. How many of your decisions are already part of an automatic routine, and how many more could be with some simple, proactive changes?


*If your principal has a problem with your wearing the same thing every day, just tell them that if it’s good enough for Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, then maybe they should worry about more important matters.

What other decisions could you automate? Share your ideas in the comments so we all benefit! Thanks.

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8 Reasons Successful People Are Choosing to Wear the Same Thing Every Day

Why Mark Zuckerberg Wears the Same Clothes to Work Every Day

The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha





Why Teachers Are So Tired

tired teachers.

Are you tired after teaching?

Better question: When was the last time you weren’t tired after teaching?

If you’re like most teachers I know, including me and my wife, being tired at the end of the day is a way of life. We’ve become so used to it that it’s hard to imagine how it could be any different.

Our non-teacher friends have a hard time understanding how we could be so exhausted. After all, we’re not building houses, or working under tight deadlines, or competing with co-workers to sell the most widgets, or working in some ultra-competitive office with an unreasonable boss breathing down our necks. We work with kids! We work seven-hour days! We have a lot of control over our own schedules. We have summer vacation!  Some teachers have these thoughts themselves and wonder what’s wrong with them. How in the world can we be so tired?

There are three reasons.

Decision Fatigue and Willpower

Psychologist Roy Baumeister coined the term “ego depletion” after he found that humans have a limited supply of willpower.  He compares willpower to a muscle, which can strengthen but also wear out with use. Ego depletion has a general effect, meaning that using self-control in one area of your life erodes your ability to self-regulate in other parts of your life. Baumeister found that exerting self-control results in a significant drop in blood-sugar levels.  Low blood sugar leads to physical fatigue, which is why you’re so tired, even though the heaviest thing you lifted was a textbook.

As a teacher, think of how often you use willpower.  We censor ourselves all day.  We hold back a sarcastic remark, walk away from a lazy student when we what we really want to do is lecture her, keep our honest thoughts about the principal’s latest idea to ourselves, respond professionally to a disrespectful email from a parent, work with a student when we want to do anything but, plan the next day when we’d rather check Facebook, hold it in when we’d like to drop an F-bomb. Teachers use willpower constantly.

But here’s the real kicker: making decisions uses willpower.  Researchers call this decision fatigue. The more decisions you make over the course of the day, the more willpower you use. There’s strong research that shows criminals are far better off going before a parole board early in the day than near the end of the day. Similarly, there is research that suggests the student’s paper that gets graded first gets a fairer score than the one graded last. After a day of making decisions, we don’t have the energy left to make good ones.

It’s estimated that teachers make about 1,500 decisions every school day. When you combine those decisions with all the necessary self-regulation involved with teaching kids, it’s no wonder our willpower is gone by five o’clock. We are exhausted.

High-intensity emotions

A second reason teachers are tired is the effect of high-intensity emotions. High-intensity emotions like anger, frustration, excitement, and elation are physiologically taxing. Positive emotions arouse the same physiological response as negative ones: our heart rate increases, our sweat glands activate, and we startle easily. Since it activates our body’s stress response, high-intensity emotions–whether positive or negative–wear us out.

Teachers are instructed to be enthusiastic in their lessons. Many teachers believe that to be their most effective, they must be energetic. They have to bring it! That might be true, but just know that your excitement, combined with your moments of anger, frustration, and even elation, will tire you out.


Not surprisingly, worrying is linked to fatigue. When we worry, we imagine and anticipate negative events. Our stress levels elevate and our bodies activate their fight-or-flight responses. Our hearts beat faster, we sweat, and our immune systems prepare to fend off threats. As a result, we get physically tired.

Teachers worry for all sorts of reasons:

  • students aren’t learning
  • behavior problems
  • a lesson is bombing
  • there’s a sub tomorrow
  • a parent is angry
  • the principal is coming for an observation
  • the copy machine is down and what am I going to do now?
  • my colleague is mad at me
  • I showed a movie and a character said “hell” and now the kids might go home and tell mom and dad and they’ll call the principal and I never even filled out the stupid form I’m supposed to fill out for the movie and…I’m sure you can think of many more.

So that’s why we’re tired all the time: we make a ton of decisions, we cycle between high-intensity emotions, and we worry too much.

There’s a lot more to it, and there are steps you can take to be less tired. I write about them in my book, Exhausted. Check it out on Amazon.

What do you do to feel less tired at the end of the day? Leave your ideas in the comments so other teachers may benefit!

Related Content:

Fewer Decisions = More Energy

How Teachers Can Use Less Willpower

Why Teachers Should Almost Always Be Calm


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How Teachers Can Get 10,000 Steps Every Day

Teachers have an advantage over many other professionals: our job doesn’t require long hours of sitting at a desk. Most of us are on our feet much of the day. Many of us circulate through our rooms, checking on students and assisting them. We walk to the copy machine, the staff lounge, perform bus and recess duty, and walk our kids to and from encore classes. We have many opportunities to move.

And yet after my wife bought me a Fitbit Alta and I started tracking my daily steps, I noticed that it wasn’t often I reached 10,000 steps by the end of the workday. And once I was home, I was too exhausted to do anything other than sit in my favorite chair.

But when I got serious about losing my Christmas Break weight, I knew that one thing I had to do was get those 10,000 steps. So I brainstormed and came up with the following ways teachers can get 10,000 steps every day.

1. Move before school

When I’m in the room with students, I don’t get many steps. So I try to get 2,000 steps before they arrive. The main way I do this is by intentionally being less efficient than I want to be. I send something to the printer, go get it, and then come back to my room and send something else. This forces me to walk to the copier multiple times. I make a separate trip to the staff lounge to put my lunch in the fridge. I make another trip to the office to turn in forms. It takes me longer to do things, but I pile up the steps.

2. Move around the room

Instead of standing in one place at the front of the room, I try to walk around while reading aloud or when students are working. Not only does it get me more steps, it helps with proximity and makes me a more attentive teacher. It doesn’t add a ton of steps, but every little bit helps.

3. Embrace duty days

I don’t love the fact that I have to do recess duty, but since I have to, I might as well take advantage of it. I try to move the entire time I’m outside. I walk back and forth, talking to students. Sometimes, I play basketball or kickball with them. I usually get around 2,000 steps during a twenty minute recess. If you have bus or hallway duty, you can do the same thing. Don’t just stand there, move! It will get you steps and you’ll probably do a better job monitoring students.

4. Walk during planning time

It’s tempting to take a break during planning time. Mine’s at the end of the day, after I’ve been on my feet for most of six hours. But on those days I sit during planning time, I don’t get 10,000 steps. Use planning time to visit the office or copy room or staff lounge. Take a lap around the playground for some fresh air and extra steps. Walk the halls a few times before heading back to your room to do some work.

5. Walk during lunch

I know. Teachers get shafted when it comes to lunch. While other professionals get a full hour, we’re lucky to get 30 minutes. But the truth is, it doesn’t take me 30 minutes to eat. I’m usually done in 10 or 15. So sometimes I take those last ten minutes and walk the halls in the winter or speed walk a block or two outside when the weather is nice.

6. Park farther away

I admit. I don’t do this one. But another way to get more steps is to park the farthest away from your room as possible. You might be able to get an extra 500-1,000 steps between walking to your room in the morning and back to your car after school. If you leave for lunch, there’s another bunch of steps.

7. Check your pedometer regularly

I’ve worn mine long enough now that I know if I don’t have 5,000 steps by lunch, I’m unlikely to get 10,000 by dismissal. I know if I don’t have 2,500 before students arrive, then I’m behind the eight ball. I know if I don’t have 8,000 by the end of recess than I’m in trouble. When I see I’m behind schedule, it inspires me to find more ways to move. Getting 10,000 steps is like anything: if you make it a priority, you’ll find ways to do it.

It seems to be working. I’m down eight pounds since January 9.

What ideas do you have? What tricks do you use to get more steps? Let me know in the comments.

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