Tips for teachers - managing your own mental health: being organised

Being organised and methodical helps you control the chaos that is an inevitable part of life and helps you to remain calm in the face of challenges. In terms of being organised at work I suggest you think like this – a good day starts the previous day, a good week starts the previous week, and a good month starts the previous month.

When we are confronted with large tasks, we should start by breaking them down into all the various steps that will help us achieve that task. So, at the end of every month look ahead and see what needs to be done, break it down into small steps and diarise all of those steps. At the end of each week, look ahead to the next week and make sure you have all you need to hand and add anything extra that has cropped up into your diary. At the end of each day, look at the next day and check again that you have everything you need ready. Then go home, safe in the knowledge that everything is there ready for when you arrive at work tomorrow.

Leave nothing to chance.

Being in control promotes your mental health like nothing else. The benefit of tackling smaller steps rather than single big tasks is a psychological concept called ‘the power of small wins’. Every time we successfully complete something, we get a little dopamine rush. Dopamine is one of the bodies feel good hormones and the feeling of having achieved something is good for us and motivates us to do the next thing.

Having a plan can increase productivity by up to 25%.
Writing everything down or putting it in your diary is a good starting point to feeling in control. Taking action, without thinking things through or without a clear plan, wastes time and resources. Working through the steps and writing them down helps us to spot what we need for the task and what needs to be done.

Once you’ve got a plan you can start doing. David Allen, productivity guru, says you can’t plan and do at the same time. This is because the tasks use different qualities of your brain power. Trying to plan and do at the same time is multitasking and research has shown us that multitasking doesn’t work, for example, after an interruption to read an email it takes 15 minutes to get back up to speed on the task that was originally being undertaken. Gary Keller and Jay Papasan state it clearly in their book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, that: “in an effort to attend to all things, everything gets short-changed and nothing gets its due”.

Even the awareness of an unread email can reduce your IQ by 10 points (Levitin 2014). I love the Russian proverb “if you chase two rabbits you will not catch either one”, to me, that sums up multitasking perfectly.

By planning everything effectively and creating a system (I use a combination of my diary and a spreadsheet) that keeps track of everything you need to do, you will feel more in control of what you are doing. David Allen says that knowing what you need to do is actually about being clear about what you don’t need to do. As he says: “You must be assured that you’re doing what you need to be doing, and that it’s okay to be not doing what you’re not doing.”.

All of these ideas suit the workplace but equally they are useful for home life and for planning your self-care. It has been shown that, properly ‘refuelled’ by self-care, productivity goes up when the number of hours worked in the week goes down. So plan your self-care as meticulously as you are going to plan your working life.

Here are some ideas:

  • Plan your shopping. Have a diverse range of foods in the house and plan your meals ahead.
  • Prepare food to take to work.
  • Plan your exercise for the week in advance.
  • Plan time to rest doing something just for you.
  • Have a good morning routine that sets you up for the day.
  • Have an evening routine that prepares you for sleep.
  • Plan small steps – don’t try and do everything at once. Maybe tackle your sleep quality first, then move onto exercise, and finally sort out your nutrition as trying to do it all at once may be overwhelming!

Being organised isn’t easy at first but after a while it becomes second nature. Be optimistic about what you can get done. In a 22-year study at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman showed that optimists look for good in every situation, seek lessons from setbacks and difficulties, set goals, and look for solutions to the problems that face them. This energises, invigorates and motivates them to plan and get things done.

If you enjoyed this blog, read more from Stephen and his tips for managing your mental health through sleep, nutrition and exercise.

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