Ben Franklin once said that “guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” I am certain that my wife and I once smelled like three-day-old fish to some of our best friends. We had driven many hours to visit them and had decided to stay for four days. They insisted we sleep at their house instead of a hotel. We accepted. Since we’d always had a good time together, we anticipated a tremendously fun visit. It was, for two days. But by the third morning, we had begun to prove Franklin right. Their kids seemed tired of our presence and resentful of the disruption to their routines. We felt like mooches. Conversations were brief and strained. A few of us were attempting to get work done on laptops instead of enjoying each other’s company. What had happened?
According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, our imaginations had fooled us. In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert explains how our brains fill in details. He uses the example of a party:
“Our spouse asks us to attend a party next Friday night, [and] our brains instantly manufacture an image of a cocktail party in the penthouse of a downtown hotel with waiters in black tie carrying silver trays of hors d’oeuvres past a slightly bored harpist, and we predict our reaction to the imagined event with a yawn that sets new records for duration and jaw extension. What we generally fail to consider is how many different parties there are — birthday celebrations, gallery openings, cast parties, yacht parties, office parties, orgies, wakes — and how different our reactions would be to each.” (Gilbert, 2006)
When we planned our trip, my wife and I imagined all the things we would do. Our imaginations selected positive memories from our shared past: karaoke nights, delicious grilled food, beer consumption, juvenile humor. This produced a tapestry of good feelings that lacked detail. We didn’t envision our upcoming visit so much as we assumed the good feelings we associated with our friends would be duplicated once we got together.
Gilbert warns, “Just as we tend to treat the details of future events that we do imagine as though they were actually going to happen, we have an equally troubling tendency to treat the details of future events that we don’t imagine as though they were not going to happen. ” Our brains fill in some details and leave other important details out, and the details we create or omit are often based on our circumstances at the time we’re doing the imagining.
It’s our faulty imagination and our confidence in its accuracy that make the first couple weeks of school the most dangerous time of the year for teachers.
The start of every year brings unbridled optimism. We’re rested, full of energy, and surrounded by similarly enthusiastic colleagues. The stress and struggles from the previous year have evaporated under the summer sun and we’re renewed, ready to embrace a fresh start. We’ve got new ideas we can’t wait to implement in our classrooms.
These are dangerous feelings because it’s hard to imagine a future where we’ll feel so different. It’s difficult to anticipate our feelings about attending an after-school meeting on a snowy night in March when we’re imagining such a meeting in the moments after our vivacious principal pitches us on joining a committee during the heady days of August.
In these first few weeks, you will likely be offered many opportunities to contribute outside of your classroom responsibilities. It’s important to remember that your imagination is not reliable. The future lacks definition. Your calendar may appear empty now, but that is a temporary condition. When the day of the meeting, or the science fair, or the parent night you pledged to attend arrives, you will no longer have nothing better to do. You will likely be just as overscheduled as you were last March, and you’ll wonder what in the world you were thinking when you said yes.
This is a common problem in all professions and behavioral economist Dan Ariely suggests three tools to combat your faulty imagination and protect your future self from your current self:
When presented with an opportunity,
1 Ask yourself if you would accept the request if it were for next week. This will force you to look at your calendar, which will be a more accurate representation of how your calendar will actually look when the time to follow-through arrives. Now consider whether you would be willing to move some events around or cancel them to accommodate this new opportunity. If you would be willing to do so, accept the request.
2 When you receive a request, pretend the future date is entirely packed with events that cannot be rescheduled. How does that make you feel? If you’re upset about the fact that you can’t squeeze in this offer, then accept it; you’re obviously excited about it. If you’re relieved to find your calendar stuffed and happy that you have a legitimate excuse to say no, then do so.
3 Imagine that you do accept the request, and then, when the day of the event arrives, you discover that it’s been canceled. If this thought fills you with glee, then you have your answer.
The beginning of the year is an exciting time, and we work in one of the few professions that allow frequent fresh starts. Teachers should channel their renewed enthusiasm to form relationships with new students and design engaging lessons. But they should also beware. The start of the year is a dangerous time for teachers who allow their current emotional state to influence decisions that will affect them during the time of the year when that enthusiasm has waned or been exhausted. Your imagination will fool you, so take steps now to protect yourself later.
This article has been excerpted from my book The Teacher’s Guide to Saying No. It has been lightly revised.