Sunday, January 8, 2017

Promoting Productivity in a Culture of Busy

"I don't have time," "I have too much to do," or "I'm exhausted," are phrases that we hear on a daily basis. These expressions are commonplace as they are used to commiserate on how stressful life is. We live in a culture that celebrates busyness and encourages individuals to measure self-worth by the length of our to-do lists. In a teacher's world, being busy is a reality. Between lesson planning, instruction time, working one-on-one with individual students, coaching and sponsoring extracurricular activities, and simply being emotionally present to support students, we have countless responsibilities and roles to juggle. I have not even taken into account clerical tasks, meetings, professional development, or grading (How could I forget about grading?).

This school year, I have reflected on the concepts productive and busy with my Speech Team. Through much personal contemplation on the implications of these words and wanting to prevent the burnout I inevitably find myself experiencing, I decided to eradicate use the word busy to describe my life. Yes, I am a teacher, coach, mother of two beautiful baby girls, wife, friend, daughter, cousin, etc., but I no longer want to be a person who feels drained by my commitments. I love teaching and embracing everything that comes with this vocational choice, but I cannot fulfill this role to my highest ability if I allow myself to continuously feeling frazzled.

As I was writing out my coaching philosophy and focus of the season, I decided to embrace productivity and have worked to instill this in my students. The subtle differences between the words busy and productive are minuscule, but the implications of their connotative meanings can significantly impact a person's outlook on daily experiences.  Being productive implies, that while I may have many tasks to accomplish at one time, I am never too busy to stop and talk to a student having a difficult day. I am never too busy to share a file with a colleague, and I am never too busy to reach out to a parent of a student for which I have concern. When a person needs my attention, I will always make that person a priority. Productivity is a mindset that reminds us to treasure our time and make the most of the opportunities we are given. This term also implies that when we are working on a given task, we must give that task our complete attention and focus thus ensuring the best possible outcome and the highest quality work. Embracing the philosophy of productivity has allowed me to witness significant growth in my Speech students, my family, and myself. Here's what I have learned from a season of productivity:

1. Productive people are more positive. 

The word busy causes me a great deal of anxiety. The notion of being busy leaves me feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and consumed by stress. Productivity, on the other hand, promotes positivity. With a productive attitude, I am more effective, efficient, and happier. The joy I experience with a productive attitude is also contagious. When I am cheerfully working, my students are more likely to find practice beneficial and want to increase their commitment. We laugh more, enjoy each other's company, and thus, we want to devote more of our time to the aforementioned practice. Our attitudes determine how we respond to and perceive challenging responsibilities. A person's attitude is his choice, and choosing to be busy often results in products that are less than our best. As Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor states in his 2011 TED talk, "It's not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which [our brains] view the world." When my students (who are often involved in too many activities and advanced classes to count) think about how busy they are or how many expectations are placed upon them, I see them shut down. When I see them optimistically accepting the tasks before them, I see powerful, positive growth occur.

2. Productive people are more focused. 

Worrying about what has to be done on a given day can consume valuable time and energy. The feeling of busyness thus reduces our ability to focus on the work that is right in front of us. In a culture of busy, I find that my students are so worried about their next math test, musical practice, or game that the time they are spending with me becomes less focused. The work that needs to be accomplished in a given moment is incomplete or unsuccessful. Inspired by the book Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, I knew at the beginning of the Speech season that I wanted to find a way to maximize my students' practice time; I wanted my students to work smarter not harder. Being more focused and committed during the actual practice time has actually increased the quality of my students' performances while reducing the time they spend working. Encouraging students to be productive or more efficient and focused has increased their performance results and also their overall happiness.

3. Productive people are more reflective and actively work toward achieving goals.

Productive people make the most of their time. To ensure that practice is beneficial and my performers are making the greatest progress possible in their performances, students need to self-reflect. As a coach, one of my first question to my students is "what your goal today?" I also want to know what their goals are for the week and outside of Speech. If students want to witness success on my team, I firmly believe that they need to know what they're working toward both in Speech and in life. Reflecting and goal setting is not a new concept - especially at the beginning of a new year. As stated in Jim Collin's Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't, setting lofty long-term goals and small, attainable daily goals can lead individuals and the organization to which they belong to thrive.

In addition to talking about and setting both short term and larger goals, productive people write down their goals. According to NPR education writer, Anya Kamenetz, writing about life goals, dreams, and happiness not only make students more productive, but it also can increase achievement in significant ways. Productive people are actively reflecting on their performance and working toward goals. They know what they need to improve upon and are continually assessing if they are accomplishing their objectives.

4. Productive people have strong relationships.   

When students feel safe and happy to be in their environment, they are more motivated and willing to work harder. When they work harder, they are more likely to perform better. This is true in the classroom and extracurricular activities. Relationships are fundamental to the success of any team or group. Building strong relationships allow individuals to achieve their long term goals under the support, guidance, and encouragement of their peers. Interpersonal relationships increase our commitment to an organization because people feel connected. In the book The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, author Chris Bailey addresses the psychological effect positive relationships have on our brains. Strong connections to others stimulate our prefrontal cortexes, which ultimately increases our ability to concentrate and allows us to avoid autopilot. Strong relationships encourage us to not only be more productive as individuals but also be more productive as a collective group.

5. Promoting a productive attitude among a group encourages people to hold each other accountable and leads to group success. 

Along with building stronger relationships, people who embrace productivity learn to hold each other accountable. Having conversations about productive attitudes verses busy attitudes have encouraged my students to support one another in a quest to make the most of each practice and each moment. We all experience stress and have days that are a little more hectic than others. When a group of people strives to embrace productive, they can lend a listening ear to others when stress becomes too much. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, my students learn to support one another and remind each other how to prioritize, plan, and work to make the most of any situation. All of us need comfort and encouragement from time to time. Realizing this need as a collective whole allows my team to pick up their friends as needed and increased productivity as a whole.

At the onset of a new year, I hope to continue to embrace productivity in a culture that tells me that my value is only measured in how "busy" people perceive me to be. While I do move a mile a minute, I hope to remember that I am never too busy to make time for the people and relationships that matter.  Instead of succumbing to the culture of busy, I hope always to remember that I can make the most of each moment I am given. I cannot create more time in a day, but I can promote meaningful uses of the opportunities I encounter. Here's to a fantastic and productive 2017.

  • Achor, Shawn. “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” TEDxBloomington, Bloomington, TED.
  • Bailey, Chris. The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy Better. New York, Crown Business, 2016.
  • Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't. New York, NY, HarperBusiness, 2001.
  • Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: the Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York, Random House, 2016.
  • Kamenetz, Anya. “The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives.” NPREd, 10 July 2015.

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