In a previous post, I listed four things that contribute to teacher fatigue: making decisions, using willpower, experiences high-intensity emotions, and worrying. In this post, I addressed how teachers can make fewer decisions. Today, I will share how teachers can use less willpower so they have the energy to make good decisions, even after a long day at work.
First, it’s important to understand that willpower is like a muscle: it can be strengthened with use, but it can also be overworked, leaving you unable to use it without recovery time.
Teachers, of course, use willpower all the time. Recalling last Friday, here’s a partial list of times I needed willpower:
- Garbage truck in front of me on the way to work. I wanted to pass, but it wasn’t safe.
- Arriving at work, I had a bunch of tasks to accomplish, most of which were tedious. I didn’t want to do them.
- Resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to an email.
- Donuts in the lounge at lunch.
- Students playing with something in their desks instead of paying attention. Wanted to publicly scold.
- Wanted to just sit and relax during my planning time, but forced myself to plan for the following week and prepare materials.
- Lesson interrupted by the office PA system. Wanted to swear.
- A student walked in late to class and interrupted. Wanted to lecture.
- A student was on a game website instead of doing research. I wanted to take his Chromebook and throw it through a window, since this is the 100th time it’s happened with him.
You get the point. I’m sure you’re already mentally making your own list. In every one of those instances, willpower was required. By using it, I depleted my store of it, making it less likely I would have any left at the end of the day and also seriously taxing my body. No wonder teachers are pooped.
So how can we use less willpower at work?
Most of the time, we can anticipate those things that will require us to use willpower. I know that certain students are going to press my buttons. I know that if I don’t work now, I’ll be stressed later and have to use even more willpower to accomplish things. I know that when I get on the highway at 5 pm, I am going to get frustrated with traffic and have to use willpower to remain calm at the wheel and avoid bad decisions. (Fun fact: most car accidents occur between 3 pm and 9 pm. You might attribute this to the high number of commuters, but those people drive to work in the morning too. Might it be depleted willpower that contributes to poor driving decisions?)
If we can anticipate these events, then we can plan for them. This is exactly what Starbucks did when they introduced their LATTE training system to improve customer service. Starbucks gave their baristas very detailed systems to use when dealing with stressful situations, especially for when their willpower was low.
You can do this too. Prepare ahead of time for how you will handle behavior problems. Implement your classroom management plan with strict fidelity and calmness instead of anger. Leave work 15 minutes later or take a different route home if you know your normal path will frustrate you. Emails from your principal usually piss you off? Don’t read them until dismissal. Do you snack at night? Quit buying snacks and having them in your house. Does Kathy the science teacher annoy the hell out of you? Don’t go where Kathy goes. Identify your likely triggers, and plan ways to avoid or deal with them.
If you’re a teacher you’ve likely heard of Mischel’s famous Marshmallow experiment. The “high delayers” resisted eating the marshmallow by distracting themselves, such as covering their eyes with their hands or turning around in their chairs so they couldn’t see the enticing object, or singing to themselves.
It might not be in many teacher training courses, but sometimes you just have to walk away or direct your attention to something else. Elementary teachers are masters at this. Instead of saying, “Steven, get your hands out of your desk! I’ve told you ten times already!” they will turn to angelic Sarah and say, “Sarah, I really like the way you have your hands folded in front of you.” If you make this a habit, you’ll use less willpower.
You could also distract yourself by thinking about all the beer you’ll drink after work, but that might not be as healthy.
Postponing can be effective if you’re trying to break a bad habit. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister explains that people who tell themselves “not now, but later,” are generally less tormented by the temptation of something they are trying to avoid. So if you find yourself using willpower to not check your email throughout the day because it usually stresses you out, then simply tell yourself you will check it at the end of the day.
It takes a lot of willpower to suppress your personality, beliefs, and natural inclinations. Psychologist Mark Muraven and his team found that people who exert this kind of self-control to please others were more depleted than people who held true to their own internal goals and desires. When it comes to willpower, people-pleasers are at a disadvantage.
Instead of suppressing your desires, you need to get them out. But you can’t go around telling off Kathy and you can’t respond to the principal’s email with your honest opinion because that would get you fired. Here’s a method I’ve used:
I sometimes receive an email from a parent or supervisor that angers me. My instinct is to fire back. That’s a bad instinct, but that doesn’t mean I have to hold in those feelings. It also doesn’t mean I should vent to other teachers or my wife because they’ve got their own problems and nobody really wants to hear about mine. What I do instead is write my honest, no-holds-barred response into a Google Doc and put it in a file. It gets my anger out and it’s there for me to revisit. On those few occasions where I have reread it, my anger is gone and I wondered why I was so pissed off at the time. If you do this a few times, you begin to realize that your initial feelings are likely an overreaction and it becomes easier to avoid indulging them.
Other recommendations I have seen are getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and meditating. All of these things can help in any number of ways, but they’ve also been shown to help people manage willpower.
What about you? What do you do to avoid using up your willpower? Tell us in the comments!
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