There’s something called mental load, and then there’s something called teacher mental load. If they were in the same room together, they’d be on total opposite ends of it. Actually, they’d be on total opposite ends of the house because teaching is one of the most demanding professions there is, and it’s quite difficult to compare it to other occupations. So, to all you teachers showing up everyday, surviving the hard times and powering on when there’s barely any fuel left in the tank, you deserve the biggest gold star there is. And I hope you all give yourselves the credit you deserve.
Now, how does this mental load thing relate to teaching? Well, on average, teachers make around 1500 decisions everyday. Yes, that’s right, EVERYDAY. That’s a whole bunch of decision-making in an itty bitty space. This revelation shocked me at first. That means you’re making approximately 4 decisions a minute on an average school day which is more than a brain surgeon, doctor or paramedic. In fact, the only profession that makes more decisions than a teacher is an air traffic control worker. I hope you’re starting to feel like you deserve that gold star.
All that decision-making takes up mental space which contributes to your mental load. Other things contribute to your mental load too such as planning, list-making, problem-solving, worrying, remembering and so on. These all take up space in your mind which contributes to you’re mental load. Often, it is the mental load that is the hardest part of being a teacher, and the larger the load you carry and the longer you carry it for, the higher chance you have of suffering from anxiety and depression which will result in less satisfaction with both your life and career.
Just for fun, let me give you an example of a teacher’s mental chatter that may occur within a 2 minute period:
"Am I going to have enough time to prep the materials for this morning's lesson. Maybe I can make myself a quick cup of coffee before the bell rings. What literacy centers am I going to take out this afternoon? I have to email Johnny's parents this morning to come and see me later. I must get started on those reading benchmarks. I hope I don't forget to buy popsicle sticks for tomorrow's STEM lesson. What am I going to do about Fiona not turning in her homework? I seriously feel like I'm going to forget about the popsicle sticks. Do I have time to pee?"
Yes, this is a real-life insight into a teacher’s mind, and you can only relate if you are a teacher or were a teacher.
However, there are things that you can do to reduce this mental load and clear the path to decreased anxiety and less overwhelm. Even if you start by implementing one of the following tips, it’ll help make your load a little lighter to carry.
6 Ways to Decrease Your Mental Load
1. Brain dumping
Brain dumping is the process of dumping out all your circulating thoughts onto paper. Think of your mind as a heavy handbag. It’s filled with all your make-up, personal care items, keys, water bottles, snacks and so on. It is so heavy that it’s bursting at the seams. Now imagine coming home from school and tipping out the entire contents of the bag onto the floor. You’re handbag is much lighter now and easier to carry. Essentially, that is what brain dumping is; you grab a pen and paper and list down anything and everything that comes to your mind and I mean everything; the repetitive thoughts, the things you are worried about, the stuff that you need to do, just list it all out. It’ll give your mind a little reset and give you more mental space. I recommend doing this in the afternoon as soon as you arrive home. It’ll help you transition from school to home and ensures that you have a better chance of being able to switch off in the evening. I suggest googling images of ‘brain dump’ to see an example of what it looks like. Brain dumping takes less than a few minutes to do but can make a huge difference to your mental load.
2. Keep a to-do list
I know this seems counter productive, but stay with me here. To-do lists have had a bad rap lately. Everyone is groaning that they’re counter productive and some people are even making ‘done it’ lists because they feel they’re more satisfying. However, when you’re a teacher, your list of to-do’s is often longer than a kid telling a story (and if you’ve ever taught a first grader who has an apt for telling fascinating stories, you know that’s a long time.) Keeping a to-do list can remove that item from your brain and place it somewhere where it can be thought about and dealt with at another time and place. My to-do lists were always organized by week. So I’d have a single piece of paper with the days of the week on it and whenever something sprung to mind, I would note it down under the day it needed to be done. Your list doesn’t need to be fancy, I’d normally just use a piece of printer paper and rule some lines on it. Once it was written down, I could then let it go rather than ruminating about it or worrying I would forget about it. The process makes a huge impact on your mental load and prevents endless pending tasks circulating in your mind.
3. Do it now
If a task takes less than 2 minutes and you have the capacity to do it in that moment, do it. It’ll be one less thing that you have to do later and will prevent that task from popping up in your mind throughout the day. It’ll also stop you from worrying that you’ll forget it. The ‘do it now’ principle also applies to stuff that you hate doing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll leave the task that you’re least fond of until the very end. Bad idea, I know. You’ll dread doing it all day and have to deal with disappointment whenever you remember that it still needs to be done. However, I’m proud to say that I’ve now changed. With the ‘do it now’ principle, I get these undesirable tasks done first. It’s stops the negative feelings that will inevitably come and makes the rest of my tasks feel easier to complete.
4. Prep for your week
Sunday is prep day for many people and if you haven’t yet jumped on the Sunday Prep bandwagon, here is your invitation. Prep your outfits for the week, decide on the meals you’ll be making or even better, prep the meals that you will be eating. Plan out your week, what needs to be done each day and wrap your mind around the general theme of the week. This will help remove several decisions from each day of the week and leave more room for your mind to focus on other things. It’ll also make you feel like you are more organized and have a better handle on your week.
5. Setup reminders
I do this step the most of all! I basically run my entire life from reminder to reminder. I do this because I often get worried that I’ll forget an important task or that I’ll ‘miss the window’ it’s due in. I will overly stress about it and constantly think of it all day, using up the precious mental space I have left. With these tasks, I set up reminders on my phone and schedule them to occur when I need to be reminded of them. It’s like a weight is lifted off my shoulder and I know future me will deal with it when the reminder goes off.
6. Stay Present
Who arrives home only to spend the entire evening thinking about school stuff? Teaching is one of those professions that stays with you all the time. It’s hard to switch off which can lead to your mental load never shifting enough for your mind to actually feel lighter and more restored. One strategy that I loved using as a teacher was to carry out one mundane task completely present. For example, if I was washing the dishes then I’d commit to spending ten minutes entirely focused on washing the dishes. I’d concentrate on cleaning each plate, I’d watch as the water ran over the rim, I’d notice the soap suds on the sponge, I’d listen to the sound of the water splashing. My entire focus and awareness was on the dishes. If a thought arose about something else, I’d bring it back to washing the dishes. This gave my mind a break and provided it with a chance to break the thinking cycle. Sometimes this process was enough to help me switch off for the evening. I also loved the fact that I was doing something for the purpose of doing it. We often just rush through things to just get them done so that we can move onto the next thing whereas when you’re doing something for a purpose, it changes your whole rhythm.
I hope these tips help to lighten up your load, even just a little. Remember to be kind to yourself and know they you’re doing your best.