When Less Is More

Are you one of those people who strive to give 100% every day – to everything? Where has that gotten you? More often than you’d like, you’re probably exhausted, somewhat cranky, and likely feeling unappreciated. And if self-care isn’t on your to-do list, it isn’t happening. When we stretch ourselves beyond our limits, we slip into a negative mindset while draining our abilities to keep going. We look at all we are doing, all that still needs to be done, and find ourselves coming up lacking.  

What if, instead, we worked to get the maximum return for the time allotted? Not necessarily, giving 100% all the time, but making smart, specific choices about what we do and when we do it – and how much it truly needs from us.

It starts by determining the level of importance of any task. Does it promote or advance your Mission and Vision? When you think about it being completed, what will be achieved as a result? Once you’ve gotten clear on these decisions and distinctions, do it as excellently as possible within the parameters you gave it.

Kristin Hendrix explains the concept of less is more in How an Athlete Mindset Helps Me Optimize My Work Performance. Thinking of our job in the context of an athlete makes the idea more understandable. No athlete trains or plays their sport at maximum level all the time. Basketball players don’t play the same way in the middle of the game as they do in the final minutes.

Hendrix makes 5 key points:

Top performance doesn’t come from constant 100% effort – What would a basketball player have left in the final minutes if they were playing full-out throughout the game? Hendrix notes this is true for our mental strength as much as for physical strength. As she observes, responding to the expectation that we will give our best all the time leads to “mental exhaustion, stagnation, and burnout.”

Plan for the surge – It’s easy for athletes to know when to draw on the reserves they have been saving. They have a time clock or other way to know the end is looming. We have deadlines. That’s when we need to be able to give our maximum effort. It is almost certain that every  project will have problems as the finish draws near. That’s when we need to have enough in reserve to go into overdrive to that we can see things through to a strong completion.

Case study: Mindful surges to avoid overwhelm – As librarians you have an inordinate number of jobs and tasks to accomplish. AASL’s National School Library Standards lists your 5 roles: Leader, Instructional Partner, Information Specialist, Teacher, and Program Administrator (pp14-15). On a daily/weekly basis you have things to do for each. Note where the deadlines loom for each and plan for those “surges” by cutting back on your other tasks as needed. Do you have several important tasks that have overlapping needs? Write them down, get clear on what’s needed, and what the deadlines are. Planning, will keep your energy levels where they need to be.

Building up our strength and stamina – As you take on new roles or increasingly more significant roles as a leader, whether in your building/district or on a state/national level there is much to learn. It can be hard initially to get a grip on what you need to do and in what order. The answer Hendrix recommends is scaffolding. Determine what you need to know and what you don’t know yet. Look for the people and sources that can help you learn it. Depending on the situation, social media groups, Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) or mentors can give you the support and information you need. With each step, you’ll know more and be stronger for the next time – and you’ll need less energy because you can better prepare.

Want to outperform?  Underperform first – Hendrix alludes to the story of the turtle and the hare, modifying it by recommending we be the turtle at the start and the hare as the finish line approaches. Compare your mood and mindset when you are taking short breaks as compared with when you do everything all day full-out. When do you accomplish the most? What about your mood? Learn what works, what helps, and how you can improve the next time.

Don’t let the work of being a leader bog you down. Learn to give less in order to give more. By managing your time, energy, and priorities, you will be better able to embrace your work and the enjoyment that leadership brings.


When Worry Overwhelms

Last week, I blogged about how to Build Your Confidence, a necessary trait for leaders. Once of the biggest barriers to building confidence is catastrophizing. We all fall prey to that negative mindset and the fear that goes with it.

Many years ago, I read Dune by Frank Herbert. One line stayed with me through the years, “Fear is the little death.” It will always come to you, but in that book, Herbert said to let it wash through you. There are two pieces of wisdom to be gleaned from that. First, if you let it, fear is paralyzing. It will stop you dead in your tracks. Second, accept that it’s fear and, rather than succumb, nod at it as you allow to pass through. Not easy, but very helpful.

In How to Stop Catastrophizing–Managing Our Minds, Greg Vanourek defines catastrophizing as being when “we assume the worst and blow things out of proportion.” Most of us do this in and out of work. The pain in our chest is a heart attack. Or the car making a strange sound means it needs an expensive repair. In our professional life, it sounds like: “If I try to give a workshop for teachers, they will ignore me.” How can you deal with these moments of paralyzing fear? Vanourek offers 12 ways to combat catastrophizing.

Acknowledge that bad things happen to all of us – We know this to be true. We can point to examples and those who have managed through the bad things. It’s life. When we acknowledge it, the grip of fear lessons and it’s easier to take action.

Recognize when we’re engaging in catastrophizing—When you are aware you are doing it, you are more likely to notice you are stretching the situation out of proportion to reality.

Place our experiences into perspective—Perspective can make us calmer. Ask – on a scale of 1-10, how big a problem is this? Or—do I really not know how to do this or is there an aspect that is new to me?

Consider a range of possible outcomes – What is the worst that can happen? (And how likely is that?) What are some other possibilities? What are the best outcomes? Focusing on those can get you moving.

Reframe thoughts from negative to positive ones—Chances are there are at least as many positive possibilities. What will you gain from taking the risk? What could you learn from a new program?

Recall situations in which we’ve coped with and overcome negative events—You have been successful before. There is no reason to assume you can’t handle this one. Stumbles are part of the road to success and you’ve gotten through them in the past.

Lean on trusted relationships—Use your PLNs, and others who have been through similar situations. Remembering that you’re not alone and have the wisdom of others to support you can be very helpful.

Focus more on helping and serving others—Think of how this relates to your Mission and Vision. What can you achieve by doing this? The bigger picture can move us out of fear.

Think about the things we can control — It is a waste of effort to spend time on what you can’t control. Use your energy to work on what you can control.

Command ourselves to stop catastrophizing—As strange as this sounds, it works. Noticing when we’ve blown something out of proportion allows us to shift to the next step.

Use positive affirmations — Positive self-talk can change your outlook. Give yourself some good advice and encouragement. “You can do it.” “You have done it before.” “One step at a time.” “Keep going.” Use your favorites.

Engage in regular self-care practices—This comes often as an important leadership practice.  It’s nothing new—except we keep ignoring it. When you are exhausted, it is very easy to slip into catastrophizing. You already feel bad. Don’t treat yourself badly, too.

Vanourek closes with a passage commonly called the Serenity Prayer. It’s worthwhile to remember: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Catastrophizing drains your confidence. Learn to recognize when the fear comes, and you overreact. Your students and teachers need you to be the great librarian you are.

Procrastination – Good, Bad and Ugly

We have too much to do, not enough time to do it, and still we procrastinate. Why do we let ourselves waste time and get off track? Despite resolutions to focus on the tasks at hand, somehow, we find something to divert us. How can we change this and when should we?

First off, there is a good side to procrastination. Our brains need rest. If we have been tackling a complex or a boring job, when it’s through we need to pause and give our brains a chance to shift. Additionally, we need different types of thinking depending on the task. That said, the pause shouldn’t last an hour. Once we go to our procrastination of choice, we tend to linger there too long. Time gets sucked away and we are upset with ourselves.

Procrastination becomes “ugly” when we use it to avoid a task. Instead of diving in and taking a break when we complete it or come to a natural resting spot, we put off starting. By the time we get to it, we are annoyed with ourselves and are not bringing our best to the job.

How can you manage procrastination so you can use it in good ways and avoid the bad and ugly ones? Amanda Pressner Kreuser presents 5 Easy Tricks to Beat Procrastination You Should Start Today. Here’s the list, along with my adaptations for our world.

  1. Be realistic about your bandwidth. There’s always too much to do. When facing the stress or overwhelm of a big project, you are apt to try clearing your deck of the little tasks, but these don’t move you forward and your deadlines loom closer, adding to your stress. Instead, prioritize the larger tasks based on your availability and look for ways to do the smaller things at a later time. If at all possible, delegate so that you can still enjoy checking things off without having to do them yourself. For example, if you feel pressed to get a cart load of books shelved, make a sign suggesting students look over these recent returns for  a suggestion of what to read next.
  2. Break up large projects or deadlines into small tasks. The old advice works best. Chunk the project up into workable tasks. This way you get a sense of accomplishment as tasks are completed, and your project gets done on time, or even early. An added benefit is that you have a chance to review what you have done as you tackle each new part making it more likely that you’ll find ways to improve and streamline your plan. If you use my telescoping (visualizing the full project), microscoping (focusing on what needs to be done now), and periscoping (popping up every now and then to be sure you are aware of upcoming tasks as deadlines), you will stay on track and keep stress levels down.
  3. Put time blocking into action. Our brains need a pause. Kreuser says studies show we need a break after 90 minutes. Don’t fight against this. Instead, plug this into you schedule, then set a timer and stay on task until you reach that pause point and stop. If you are on a roll, make yourself a note that will help you get you back to where you were when you stopped. What to do during the pause? Moving is one good choice, reading for pleasure could be another. But whatever you do, set a timer for however long you plan to take. This way you won’t fall into the bad aspects of procrastination.
  4. Eliminate distractions — or at least put them on pause. This one is tough. In the library people are always coming in, and you must do what you can to respond. Eliminate the ones you can such as keeping your phone on mute so you are not tempted to respond to it. If you are working from home, let partners and children know when you’re busy. Tell them when you will be ready to talk and ask them to wait until them. If you have a door you can close, post a sign for when you will be “available.”
  5. Reward yourself in small ways. We are naturally motivated by positive reinforcement so make a plan for this with each successful milestone. Take the reward you earned. Do a Wordle or other computer game. Physical activity is always a good change after doing a mental task. Take a walk. Plan a trip to your favorite coffee shop. Then set up the next task and the next reward.

Caveat emptor. Don’t expect this to work every day. Some days you end up going down the procrastination rabbit hole. Somedays will have more unexpected interruptions than others. You are human. Be compassionate. But the better you are at learning to manage procrastination the less stressed you will be, and we all need that.

Take Time to Get Outside

We live in an almost constant state of stress, and this was true before the pandemic added a new layer and level. In the words of the late comedienne Gilda Radnor, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” There is nothing new in our need to deal with too much pushing in on us. One of the best methods of managing stress is taking time out of usual environments and, if possible, into nature.

The Romantic poet. William Wordsworth wrote this sonnet around 1802.

The World Is Too Much with Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Apparently even back then, “getting and spending” was a preoccupation,” and we were already out of touch with nature. “We are out of tune” – then and now.

Getting out is about moving at the pace of your choice.  It’s taking the time to see the world around you. It’s about greeting people as you go. And it’s about thinking– literally — outside the box that is the place you work.

We need to make getting out a priority in our lives. No matter our work and life schedule, we benefit from choosing a way to destress. The caveat is the choosing because what we mostly see is where there is too much to complete, too many errands to run – and doing errands is not getting out.

So, with all you have to and need to do, how can you get out? Ryan Tahmaseb proposes 7 Ways to Get Outside More Often. Hopefully, one or more of these will work for you, and the benefits are enormous.

  1. Schedule a walk – Until this becomes a habit, you need to put it on your to-do list. Plan the time.  Will you do it at lunch?  If so, you will come back energized and are likely not to experience the afternoon slump. Does the timing of your free period work better?  Or maybe it’s after you get home and before starting dinner – or even after dinner. Whatever works, schedule it. Tahmaseb suggests, consider going with a friend.  You will hold each other accountable. Think about what best fits you and your life.  Set yourself up for success.
  2. Take Phone Calls Outside – This can be a great addition to any personal calls you make.  It’s not my favorite idea since your mind is preoccupied with whatever is happening on the phone, which may be stressful, but you are breathing outside air and that helps. It may encourage you to get off the phone faster and since you’re already outside – stay a little longer.
  3. Move Small Meetings Outside – This may not be an available option but is worth considering to see if it’s an option.  The meeting is likely to go better. Suggest it to your principal or a committee chair. 
  4. Eat Outside – You can eat your lunch, and then go for a walk.  Burn off the calories.  You may enroll any lunch companions to join you. Before long you might have a cadre of walkers. Even just sitting in the sun for that time with a book will lighten your stress.
  5. Try Walking Meetings – If it’s no more than 3 or 4 people, this may be a possibility. You can record your notes as you go.  It is worth trying and it may stimulate creative approaches to the discussion. Or make meetings go faster!
  6. Bring Your Work Outside – If you can’t afford to give up the work you do during your free period, do it outside. The work will feel easier.  You will breathe better.  And you may find, as I do, the creative juices flow when you are outside.
  7. Just Take a Short Break – Step outside for a few minutes.  If you are attuned to it, you will be aware of the change in your mindset.  If you can’t eat outside, try to finish lunch a little early and take those minutes to yourself.

There is no doubt that changing your environment can change your outlook and being outside can almost instantly change your mood. Watch for the birds, notice the clouds. Take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. Do what you can to get into the habit of going outside now.  It will be easier to continue it when winter comes. You will be healthier and less stressed if you do.