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Mindset & Motivation, Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 7, 2019

Fewer things, better: 4 beliefs to help you focus on what matters most

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Fewer things, better: 4 beliefs to help you focus on what matters most

By Angela Watson

In this episode of the Truth for Teachers podcast: the four core beliefs of doing fewer things, better that will give you the courage to focus on what matters most.

I’m guessing the title of this episode piqued your interest because you want your life to have a real impact on the world. You care about making a difference, not only in the classroom, but in your family and community, too.

And yet it feels impossible to have that focus when you’re always exhausted and overwhelmed. How can you do what’s meaningful when you’re distracted by never-ending paperwork, meetings, errands, and housework? How can you give the best of yourself when you’re bogged down with mundane tasks and unfulfilling obligations?

This is the struggle I hear about constantly from countless teachers all over the world. So many educators want desperately to create better balance in their lives. But, there’s always MORE to be done, and staying on top of everything feels like a losing battle.

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Here’s the truth these teachers hear far too rarely:

You are not to blame, and there’s nothing wrong with YOU. The problem is that the job of teaching is extraordinarily demanding, and there’s no clear path to managing all that’s required (much less maintain a personal life on top of work).

Teaching requires an extremely complex skill set, and the stakes are high. With constant changes in technology, curriculum, standards, and leadership, it’s rare that teachers have the opportunity to master one thing before being told they have to do things in a completely different way.

Compounding the issue is the emotional labor required in teaching. Our students come to us impacted by trauma and experiencing record levels of depression and anxiety. Helping kids overcome these obstacles is yet one more thing teachers are supposed to handle.

We find ourselves trying to pour from an empty cup, struggling to offer students true empathy, understanding, and support while feeling worn down and under-resourced ourselves.

Add to that the nearly impossible standards set by society for being a “good” teacher, spouse/partner, parent, etc., and the only reasonable conclusion is this:

Meeting all the expectations is impossible. You really CAN’T do everything that seemingly needs to be done.  So at some point, you have to give yourself permission to stop trying.

There’s no magical productivity secret that will make it seem like there are 28 hours in a day. You can experiment endlessly with strategies for shifting tasks around and try to do them more efficiently, and that still won’t fix the root of the problem: There are simply too many things demanding your time and attention.

The solution is NOT to manage your time better or work more efficiently. Or at least that’s not the place to start when you’re overwhelmed.

The most important step is getting clarity — figuring out what matters most so you can do fewer things, better.

You will always have more tasks than time, so you have to figure out what’s most important and eliminate some things you feel you “have” to do. You must let go of the good to make time for the great.

Doing fewer things better is a lot like getting in shape physically. It’s fairly easy to understand the practical measures which will help you achieve your goal.

And yet if dropping a few pounds was as simple as eliminating or cutting back on certain foods, wouldn’t everyone be at their ideal weight? If the solution to work/life balance was as simple as not bringing work home, wouldn’t all teachers have enough downtime to relax?

Getting a clear idea of WHAT to do is the easier part. Figuring out HOW to follow through on a daily basis is much more complicated.

That’s because there are school and societal norms which impact our choices and beliefs about how time should be spent. These outside expectations shape the standards we set for ourselves and muddle our beliefs about what’s important.

We also experience a wide variety of emotions which pull us away from making rational choices. That’s part of the experience of being human! We have excuses, third rails, exceptions, and limiting beliefs that keep us from doing what’s best for ourselves.

These are some of the barriers I want to help you break through so that you can truly give yourself permission to do fewer things better, and feel confident about your choices.

We need to examine systemic issues, bureaucratic restraints, inefficient instructional practices, and everything else that creates a disconnect between what you want your life as a teacher to be like, and what it’s actually like.

The goal here is clarity and focus — to release anything that’s not serving you well, and open yourself up to a new approach in the way you spend your time.

Together, we’ll challenge the correlation between hours worked and effectiveness. It’s not about how much you’re working; it’s what you’re using your time to focus on.

The end result will look different for each teacher. So rather than tell you what to do with your time and what not to, I’ll simply guide you down the path by instilling four core beliefs. These will help you discover the answers for yourself.

These 4 core beliefs make up the four sections of my new book called “Fewer Things, Better”:

  1. I am worthy of change and better is possible for me right now
  2. I set my own expectations in life and in teaching
  3. I know what’s important and allocate time accordingly
  4. I ensure my needs are met to prevent overwhelm and exhaustion

Let’s dig in to a solid overview of each one.

1) I am worthy of change and better is possible for me right now

If a teacher’s to-do list was centered on engaging with kids and helping them learn, most of us wouldn’t mind a long, busy, or even hectic day. There would be an immense satisfaction that comes from knowing you made a difference and had meaningful interactions with kids.

Teacher burnout stems largely from the disconnect between the most fulfilling part of the work and how the majority of your time is spent.

So much of your energy is focused on paperwork, email, compiling and analyzing data, attending meetings, and other non-instructional tasks that the actual work of teaching children is no longer the primary focus.

Many teachers not only have limited opportunities to be creative and connect with students but rarely have the energy to do those things well because they’re so exhausted from handling everything else.

When you begin to view your work through the lens of doing fewer things better, you give yourself permission to clear away obligations that aren’t meaningful, both at school and in your personal life. You learn to continually identify things that drain your energy, and streamline, automate, delegate, or eliminate them whenever possible.

The goal is to spend the majority of your time doing things which are fulfilling and impactful. That holds for your instructional time, work hours before and after school, and personal time.

This process is about mindfulness and intentionality. It’s about viewing your time as a series of choices, and stepping into your power to exercise autonomy whenever possible.

If you notice feelings of skepticism as you consider this, that’s perfectly normal. In fact, skepticism might be your natural reaction anytime you read productivity advice or hear teachers talk about having better work/life balance:

Must be nice for them, but it wouldn’t work for me. My situation is different, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

If that’s how you’re feeling, this first core belief can be the game-changer: You must be willing to believe that change is possible for you and that you are worthy of having a more fulfilling, balanced life.

You cannot write this off as feel-good mumbo jumbo. You cannot just agree in theory or wish this was true.

You need to actually believe it — to know it to be true, to feel it deep in your bones — so that it guides all your decision-making about how you spend your time.

Too often, we try to take action without shifting our beliefs. We look for quick hacks or tricks that make life easier and less stressful. But if you want to permanently change your actions (the choices you make about what to do), you’ll be far more successful if you change your identity (the way you see yourself).

When you truly believe that you have options and deserve to have a more fulfilling life, the clarity you want becomes possible. You’ll be clear on when to say no, and have the courage you need to confidently do less when everyone else is trying to do more.

Together, you and I are going to shift paradigms and examine the stories you’re telling yourself, so you can learn to see yourself and your life choices in a different way. The book does a deep dive into the reasons why it’s so hard for teachers to say no, and how we’ve been conditioned to see the profession as a calling which we are supposed to sacrifice our own needs for. It helps you question what you think you “have to” do and the stories you tell yourself about how your time needs to be used.

Self-reflection is the most important part of this work, because once you know how to think in a productive, healthy, balanced way, then living out your beliefs through your daily choices becomes much easier.

2) I set my own expectations in life and in teaching

Many of the expectations you feel in your work are related to your school culture and school norms. Some norms have developed organically over time, and others have been forced into place through a clear and intentional agenda. Some norms happen as a direct result of administrative leadership, and some happen despite the principal wanting things to be different.

There are many factors which create the expectations for teachers within a school, but the main point for our purposes here is this: What’s normal at your school is not normal universally.

It’s specific to your country, region, district, community, school leaders, faculty, parents, and students. The people, place, and time all impact the norms at your school.

And this means that norms are malleable, not immutable. Norms are not destined to stay the same forever.

Even more importantly, it means a single person has the power to disrupt norms. A pair or small group of people have the power to begin shifting norms.

So, the expectations in your school do not have to define who you are as a teacher or how you spend your time. You can choose to define these things for yourself. You can find ways to question and challenge school norms without being labeled “the angry teacher.” You can be quietly subversive. You can dismantle the false “team player” obligations and challenge the way the “school family” trope exploits you for free labor.

I think the key to being able to do that is being really confident in who you are, as a person and as a teacher. It’s difficult to challenge norms when you’re doubting yourself or aren’t strong in your convictions about what’s best for you or what’s best for kids.

So the next step in your “fewer things better” journey is to rebuild your self-confidence as an educator:  to figure out your real teaching identity and step into it confidently, even when it goes against what other people expect of you.

Your true essential self — the real you, which is not acting from a place of fear, emotional wounds, unhealed trauma, defensiveness, prejudice, biases, or outside expectations — always knows the right thing to do. Your true and essential self is exactly the teacher your students need.

I believe there are three components to discovering and standing strong in who you are as a teacher. It involves developing:

  1. A sense of self-worth based on your inherent value as a human being (not based on how hard you work, your students’ test scores, or what it says on your teaching evaluation)
  2. An understanding of your own unique teaching style and how it evolves over time
  3. Self-reflection skills which enable you to learn from feedback and grow, while still honoring who you are as a person and a teacher

The second section of the book will help you deepen that understanding of who you are as a teacher, and as a person, so you can question norms beyond school.

You can actually question all norms that impact the quality of your life. You get to design your own lifestyle, in the sense that you can decide where to focus your attention and energy. You get to choose many of your daily routines and decide how a good portion of your time is spent.

For instance, you can expose yourself to every person’s random opinions by scrolling through social media endlessly each evening, or read a book by a person whose ideas are wise and helpful for you.

You can let the weekend slip away on mundane tasks, or devote a couple of hours to an art class at the community center, going to a museum, playing with your nieces and nephews, participating in a softball league, or hiking on local trails.

Regularly choosing any of these activities makes them a part of your lifestyle, and there are countless different lifestyle possibilities.

Of course, there can be circumstances which undermine your quality of life and are not within your control. I’m not saying you can choose everything about how you experience life. Some negative circumstances aren’t easily changed, and that can have a big impact on how much time you spend in a natural state of contentment.

However, you can choose more than you may recognize, and poor circumstances don’t condemn you to a miserable life.

Your life circumstances are not synonymous with your lifestyle. We’ve all heard of celebrities who have an enviable lifestyle yet are tragically unhappy, and we’ve all known people living ordinary lives but seem to glow from the inside. So, experiencing a high quality of life isn’t necessarily about having a lot of money or free time or living in a beautiful location.

The quality of your life is most deeply impacted by the intentionality of your daily routines and rituals. It’s an alignment between the things you focus on with the things you WANT to be focusing on.

You can choose a lifestyle that is fulfilling and full of joy, or miserable and depressing (sometimes without changing a single circumstance, and only altering your mindset and habits).

So, what does a fulfilling lifestyle look like for you? What qualities in yourself and gifts do you want to nurture and utilize? How do you want to be spending your time?

Maybe these are questions you’ve never asked yourself before. Or maybe this is something you decided in a different season of life, and now it’s time to re-evaluate.

The truth is that you can be whoever you want to be. You can focus your time and attention wherever you to want to focus them. It’s all about examining your daily habits and creating healthy boundaries.

3) I know what’s important and allocate time accordingly

Many of us fall into a trap of permitting random obligations to take over every moment of the day. We don’t have time to think about big picture stuff like lifestyle and legacy, which means we don’t have to face the reality that our big goals are never going to happen if we don’t intentionally create change.

By staying busy with everyday tasks, we don’t have to make decisions. The lack of margin in our schedules makes the decision for us. When a big opportunity or special event comes up, we don’t have any flexibility to shift things around in our schedule to accommodate it. This creates an easy “out.” Saying yes to the things that matters will require more time, energy, and focus than we have to give.

And that’s the ultimate consequence when we choose to overschedule ourselves: it’s not just the time we lack for what matters most. It’s the ability to show up the way we need to for the things we care about.

The self-sabotage of overscheduling is how we get stuck in a low-level existence. We convince ourselves we don’t have time to figure out a better way, and the best stuff in life passes us by because we can’t prioritize it.

But you can’t let mundane daily tasks consistently steal time away from what’s most important. There has to be space in your life to break from the ordinary and do things that help you create the life you want to live.

You have to stop telling yourself “I never have time” and face the truth. If something is truly a priority, you’ll MAKE time.

And if instead of making time, you find yourself making excuses for why it can’t be done, know that in your heart, there’s a part of you that doesn’t really want to do it.

There’s a fear or limiting belief that’s keeping you from taking action. Maybe you’re afraid it won’t work out. Maybe you don’t believe in yourself enough, or don’t think the goal is possible for you.

Think about what’s holding you back. If you really wanted it and believed you could do it, you’d make time for it. So why aren’t you?

When you let go of limiting beliefs about who you are, how you can or should use your time, and what you could or should accomplish, then pursuing your ambitions won’t feel silly or unattainable.

It will feel like an alignment between who you are and how you spend your time. You’ll know what you want out of life, and feel empowered to shift your focus accordingly.

So this third core belief about knowing what’s important and allocating time accordingly is really grounded in understanding your legacy: the mark you want to have left in the world, not only through your work as a teacher, but in your family, community, and so on. When you know your legacy, it’s much easier to make decisions about how to spend your time and what things you should say yes and no to.

So we’ll examine that, as well as practical strategies for making time for what matters and prioritizing tasks, and apply the principle to your instructional time so you can eliminate good learning activities to make time for the best.

4) I ensure my needs are met to prevent overwhelm and exhaustion

The truth is that no human could excel in all the areas a teacher is expected to master: lesson planning, lesson delivery, differentiating instruction, behavioral interventions, building rapport with kids, addressing students’ socio-emotional issues, creating classroom routines, collaborating with colleagues, communicating with parents, implementing assessment, analyzing data, AND the five hundred other responsibilities of a teacher.

And yet you’re not only expected to execute all those things well, you’re also expected to plan, manage, and oversee all of them … on top of managing the work of all your students!!!

If you dare try to simplify or take shortcuts in even 1% of this workload, you might be perceived as lazy or “not in the profession for the right reasons,” so the responsibility for managing everything stays firmly on your shoulders.

And then you go home and repeat the process for all your personal and household tasks, planning and executing far too many things there, too. The obligation to make sure everything’s running smoothly and everyone’s happy and nothing is forgotten never ends.

No wonder your brain feels like it’s on overload!

The final section of the book will explore mindset shifts to help you ease the mental load you’re carrying so that your brain doesn’t feel like a computer with 638 tabs perpetually open.

And, we’ll uncover lots of practical ways that you’re creating unnecessary work for yourself, so you can practice relaxing your standards and letting go of the need to oversee and control everything you’re currently responsible for.

It’s about getting clarity through practices of rest and recharging, defining balance for yourself, and restoring that balance through daily self-care practices.

Many people hear the words “rest” and “self-care” and think, oh, I can skip that. It’s just about taking bubble baths and isn’t really the important work. But in fact, I think this is actually the most challenging part of the work, because you have to uncover the subconscious beliefs about what you “have to do” in order to be effective in all of these roles you’re playing, and the deeper reasons why you stay frazzled instead of prioritizing your needs.

It’s only once you’ve identified and let go of your limiting beliefs that you’ll be able to break free from overwhelm and exhaustion. You’ll finally be able to give your mind a true rest from thinking about everything that needs to be done and disconnect from your work and personal responsibilities.

Then you’ll be ready to create space in your daily routines for rest, recharging, and taking care of yourself.

Friends, I really hope you will use this “Fewer Things, Better” book to learn the process of freeing up time, attention, and energy for the things that really matter: the activities that truly impact student learning; the practices that make you a more effective educator; the routines that make your home and personal life more fulfilling.

It’s time to release yourself from that feeling of never having done enough.

It’s time to stop giving in to the pressure to be constantly busy.

It’s time to prioritize the things that really matter, and truly let go of the rest.

It’s time to do fewer things, so the things that remain can be done even better.

Click here to order the book and access the FREE mini-course plus downloadable workbook to help you implement all the ideas I’ve shared here and more. 

Do you need graduate-level credits for license renewal or a pay-step increase? Look no further than Teacher’s Learning Center (aka “T.L.C.“). TLC’s independent study, self-paced format allows busy working teachers to earn graduate-credits any time of year… without time restraints, traveling, or technology hassles. TLC has been offering these courses for over 15 years and is a partner with regionally and nationally accredited universities. Go to TLCGraduateCredits.com/angela to get your coupon code now.


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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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