Cell phones, mobile e-mail, and all the other cool and slick gadgets can cause massive losses in our creative output and overall productivity.

Robin S. Sharma

J.D. FrizzellTeaching Leave a Comment

Before I say anything else, I have a confession to make: I am addicted to technology.  Yes, when you send me a text, I get it on my MacBook Air, iPhone, Apple Watch, and iPad simultaneously.  At first, this was exciting, almost exhilarating.  It’s that feeling you get when you get mail (that isn’t a bill) or another Amazon package (What could it be? Wait…What DID I even buy this time??).

Over the winter break, I was working on my dissertation.  Anyone who has done this or another form of concentrated research knows that it takes every bit of brain power you have to get it done well.  Well, here’s the thing– I was struggling, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I wrote a document of the same scope in my music theory Master’s degree program, so why couldn’t I do it now?

To answer this question, I went back to that dark, soul-sucking time in 2008 when I was writing that paper.  What did I do that worked?  I rented a small office in the library, where I kept all of my research materials on the desk.  I went into that office for exactly 1.5 hours every single day.  I didn’t have Facebook or my plethora of work projects on my mind.  I didn’t have four e-mail accounts or three online businesses.  I had one and a half hours a day, a chair, a desk, a quiet room, and no distractions.

As we enter 2016 with fresh ambitions, goals, and commitments, we know we can’t do it all– at least not without incredibly efficient, productive work habits.  While I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, here are 6 things I’ve found help me do my best work:

  1. Know Your Productive (And Non-Productive) Times
    Some are “morning people.” Others “night owls.” You know which one you are, but it goes further than that.  For example, I know that my mind is most clear in the morning hours, usually between 8-11 AM.  If I have a demanding cognitive task like writing or composing, I’m going to do it during this period.  You know when I’ve learned NOT to try and do these things?  After lunch.  The combination of a sugar low, sitting in my chair too long, and a lot of distractions in my environment keep me from focusing.  What do I do instead during that time?  Meetings, e-mails, lessons, teaching, and a work out.  After I exercise (which is usually after school is over), I am then mentally renewed again for another hour or two.
  2. Don’t Start Your Day With E-Mail
    Seriously, if you change one thing about your work habits in 2016, make it this.  By starting your day with e-mail, you are downgrading all of your goals for whatever anyone else would like you to do.  And if you’re in a field that involves people, you’re likely to encounter something stressful in those early morning e-mails.  Make this change, and you’ll be happier AND more productive.
  3. Batch Your E-mails
    Batching your e-mails means you wait until specified times in your day during which you write back to them.  When I got my first iPhone, I was thrilled to put all my e-mail addresses into it– including personal and work.  Of course, it was a novelty at the time to have “push” e-mail (wherein your e-mails come to you in real-time).  Eventually, I realized that even the vibration of my phone in my pocket during a rehearsal was very distracting.  What could it be– an angry parent?  Frustrated co-worker? An e-bill? Something worse?  Now, I don’t push my e-mail to my phone.  When I want to check it, I go in and manually download the messages.  I quickly flag the ones to which I need to respond, and then go on with my day.  During my batching times (midmorning, lunch, early afternoon, and early evening), I respond to the e-mails.
  4. Turn Off The Technology When Focusing
    Remember me telling you about writing that Master’s thesis in the library office?  I can only longingly hope to have that kind of isolation again.  However, I can simulate it as best as possible by turning off my phone (or going into airplane mode), turning off the wi-fi on my computer, and finding a quiet, reserved space.
  5. Plan Thoroughly
    I teach choir.  If I have my classes well planned and any stressful or time sensitive tasks already planned before my day starts, I’m more mentally and emotionally available for my students.  As a bonus, I’m also ready to handle any curve balls thrown at me (which I know will happen).   You know when I have bad days?  Usually, it’s when I haven’t planned adequately and find myself scrambling.  That, in turn, causes me to react more harshly to conflict and problematic situations.
  6. Take Care Of Yourself
    Yes, this should be a given, but anyone who spends enough time around teachers knows that it is not!  We are often helplessly devoted to our students and their success, and we will put our needs behind theirs at the drop of a hat.  However, can we really be our best for them if we aren’t operating at 100%?  Teachers, we must take care of ourselves.  This starts and ends with food and exercise.  Our bodies are complex machines, and the fuel we put into them will have a massive impact on their performance. And my secret weapon for productivity, sleep, stress, and mood? Intense exercise.  I do Crossfit now, and I love it because it’s varied, tough as nails, and the only decision I have to make is to go.  It doesn’t have to be that for you, though.  It could be running, swimming, cycling, playing a sport, going to Zumba or spin class, or a variety of other activities.

Those are 6 of my best guidelines for being a productive teacher.  I’m sure there are many more I’m not thinking of.  What are yours?  Put them in the comments below.  Here’s to a great 2016!