How to Know if Teacher Decision Fatigue is the Reason You Can’t Leave

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Teacher decision fatigue is a very real epidemic.

According to findings from Philip W. Jackson, elementary teachers have between 200 and 300 exchanges with students every hour which equates to approximately 1200-1500 interactions per day. And most of these cannot be anticipated ahead of time, thereby resulting in extreme teacher decision fatigue.

What is decision fatigue?

According to an article in Medical New Today, decision fatigue is the theory that states “a human’s ability to make decisions can get worse after making many decisions, as their brain will be more fatigued.”  And interestingly, “this fatigue applies to all decisions, not simply the large or more difficult ones.”

So based on this definition, it stands to reason that if you’re making decision after decision (on repeat) from the moment your eyes open in the morning, then you are progressively going to become more fatigued and less able to make objective decisions.

And it’s important to note that decision fatigue directly correlates with the size of the decision you’re making.

In other words, the bigger the decision (or the more thought and analysis that has to go into making the decision), the more quickly you are going to find yourself on the precipice of teacher decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue and willpower

In his international best-selling book, The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor writes, “The reason willpower is so ineffective at sustaining change is that the more we use it, the more worn-out it gets.”  

Does that sound familiar?

Achor goes on to state, “Unfortunately, we face a steady stream of tasks that deplete our willpower every single day. Whether it’s avoiding the dessert table at the company lunch, staying focused on a computer spreadsheet for hours on end, or sitting still for a three-hour meeting, our willpower is consistently being put to the test. So it’s no wonder really that we so easily give in to our old habits, to the easiest and most comfortable path, as we progress through the day. This invisible pull toward the path of least resistance can dictate more of our lives and we realized, creating an impassable barrier to change and positive growth.”

Just take a minute and let that last sentence sink in.

If our willpower is being tested through the decisions we make and we’re becoming more fatigued with every decision we make, it’s no wonder we lack the mental capacity at the end of a busy day to make even the most trivial decisions…much less any life-changing decisions.

But how does decision fatigue relate to leaving the classroom?

I’m so glad you asked. You see, since the pandemic began in 2020, teachers have had to change almost everything we’ve ever done in the classroom…overnight.

Talk about inducing immediate decision fatigue!

Instead of being able to rely on at least a few things you already knew (and didn’t have to think about), you were immediately expected to become a virtual teacher overnight.

So reflecting back to our definition of decision fatigue it’s no wonder we feel so depleted. We haven’t just been deciding whether to do math worksheets or centers. We’ve had to figure out how to teach hands-on lessons to 5 year olds through a computer screen.

Big decision = major teacher decision fatigue.

Now that we’ve moved past the pandemic of 2020, we’re seeing the ramifications (according to admin and parents) that students are farther “behind” than ever. So that means teachers are working harder than ever with new expectations including massive student achievement growth with less guidance from admin than ever before.

Anyone else notice a recipe for total exhaustion and teacher burnout?

And that’s exactly where we find ourselves.

Based on this information, it is no surprise that you’re questioning whether or not you can continue teaching until retirement, and it certainly doesn’t make you a quitter…contrary to some people’s opinions.

But more to the point, the fact that you’re struggling to decide whether or not to leave the classroom is even less surprising because this is one of those BIIIIIIIIGGGGGG decisions.

The kind that requires your brain to be firing on all cylinders at once.

One that maxes out your brain’s ability to make any other decisions simply based on the sheer number of nuanced issues you have to consider (ie retirement, benefits, insurance, resume writing, finding another job, and so on).

And after making a million (rough estimate) split second decisions while at school, you determine that you can’t keep doing this. But by the time you get to the “decision” part of what leaving would mean…you have no more brain capacity left to make a decision of this magnitude.

So, you continue to stay (repeating the same thing day after day) simply because the alternative requires more brain power than you can rally and the activation energy required to make this change is just too much.

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Activation energy

Shawn Achor states, “In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyze a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kick-start a positive habit. Otherwise, human nature takes us down the path of least resistance time and time again.”

Let me give you an example in my own life.

On December 30th, 2020, I made the decision to change my health habits. As an online ESL teacher, blogger, and homeschooling mom, I had become sedentary and I just noticed a marked change in my tiredness level.

Of course at this point, the US was in the midst of spiking Covid cases all over and I came to the decision that if I did get the virus, I wanted to give myself the best possible chance at fighting it off.

While that may sound excessively morbid, it took getting to that point for me to find the “activation energy” that was going to be required of me to embark on this new health journey.

At the time, I thought making the decision to change was the difficult part. But I quickly discovered how much energy I had to invest every day into thinking about what I was eating, when I would exercise, how I would continue to get the correct amount of protein when I wasn’t at home, and so on.

As you can imagine, I quickly reached my threshold for decision fatigue.

But because I knew WHY I was making these extreme changes in my life, I stuck with it. And although it took a lot of effort to push through the difficult parts, I’m now at a point in my journey where it takes minimal time (and mental energy) to think about exercising or what I will eat.

Certain aspects have now become so habitual that I don’t even think about them any more. But the truth is, continuing to eat what I’d always eaten and neglecting exercise like the plague would have been so much easier than taking the initiative to change my lifestyle.

And bringing this point back around to you, it’s a lot easier to stay in your current job (even though you’re mentally exhausted and physically spent) than it is to make a career change.

But is the trade-off worth it?

For me, it took realizing that I needed to make some changes if I wanted to be healthier and stronger in order to fight off Covid-19…should I get it.

For you, it’s going to take realizing that staying complacent is not going to give you the outcome you so desperately want for yourself or your family. So the only question remains, “How do you ever get to the point where you can make the decision to leave?”

How can you make the right decision?

If you’re currently at the pinnacle of teacher decision fatigue and the idea of activating ANY energy is laughable, then I have good news. You can still make the right decision, and I’m going to give you 3 tips that will help you do just that! 

1. Plan time to think about it

This may feel like a total waste of your time, but it’s absolutely necessary.

You see, most of us have grand intentions and we “plan” to do certain things, but as hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months or years, we discover our grand ideas & plans never came to fruition because we didn’t make this decision a priority.

Approach this “planning” period just like you would any other appointment by setting aside time on your calendar. There is only one caveat; the activity CANNOT be done at the end of a workday. 

It must be accomplished when your mind is fresh and has made as few decisions as possible or you will fall prey to decision fatigue and give up before you even give yourself a chance. So to allow yourself time to flesh out the details, consider completing this on a weekend or during a holiday.

Create a document where you write down all of your questions & concerns. This master document will be your designated brain dump (or designated place) for all of those wayward and random thoughts that keep you up at night.

The most important thing is that by treating this time like a priority you are setting yourself up for making a wise decision that could change the outcome of your life!

2. Limit your choices

Obviously setting aside time in your day, week or month is going to be essential to creating positive change. But limiting your choices up to this point is going to minimize teacher decision fatigue as well.

Given that over the last few years you’ve been asked…nay…required to do more than ever without any specific instructions or strategies means your mind is basically the equivalent of oatmeal by the time your kids leave for the day.

So limiting the number of choices you have to make each day is going to be paramount. You know there is no way to prepare for those split second decisions you have to make in your classroom every day.

However, minimizing the number of personal decision you have to make daily gives you back some of the brain capacity you need to think more clearly.

Consider meal prepping on Saturday or Sunday so that you have taken the age old question of “What’s for dinner?” out of the equation.

My friend Chynell, from the Routine Your Dream podcast, used to choose all of her clothes, accessories, shoes, etc. for the week on Sunday. It immediately removed multiple daily decisions from her plate just by taking time on Sunday to perform this simple task.

Remember, choices are wonderful, but when we know that they’re going to be cutting down the rest of our decision-making abilities, those choices aren’t so intriguing anymore. So give yourself the upper hand by making as many decisions BEFORE your work week begins as possible.

3. Get support

I saved the best for last. With a decision like this, there are so many variables we feel like we need to evaluate before breathing a word of our thoughts to anyone.

Yet one of the most important things we can do is to seek wise counsel. In Proverbs 19:20 (KJV) it says, “Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in the latter end.”

Just like we tell our students, we have to be willing to accept wise instruction from others. But how do you do that when your decision could ultimately affect your livelihood?

You find someone who has been in your exact position but has made the successful transition to help you navigate the process!

From determining how much money you need to make, at what point you need to turn in your resignation letter, or what other career you should pursue, you need someone to help you ask the right questions.

That’s exactly what I do! And because I know it seems crazy to pay someone to help you navigate this tricky time, I offer a free 30 minute Zoom call meeting. No strings attached!

I genuinely want to help you make sense of your specific situation whether you’re at the beginning “consideration” stage or the “let’s map out a plan” stage of the decision making process. So I provide you with actionable steps to put in place immediately.

Is teacher decision fatigue a real thing? YES!

Does it have to continue to be the reason you don’t make a decision about whether or not to leave the classroom? Absolutely not!

You have the power to make a wise decision. Just incorporate the three tips I mentioned into your life and it will help minimize the impact of teacher decision fatigue on the decision that could easily change the path of your life.