Educator Bandwidth

How to Reclaim Your Energy, Passion, and Time

By Jane A. G. Kise and Ann C. Holm (ASCD, 2022)

S.O.S. (A Summary of the Summary)

The main ideas of the book:

  • Your mental and emotional bandwidth enable you to live and work with passion and energy. With available bandwidth, you make decisions, exercise will power, express your emotions civilly, manage your time, and achieve your goals.
  • Our habits, our workplaces, and modern technology are draining our bandwidth away in ways we may not realize. With individual and community changes, we can get our bandwidth back.

Why I chose this book:

Low on bandwidth, burnt out, and struggling? I think every educator I know has felt this pain in recent years, and I’m glad to be able to share this book with all of you to help you reclaim the time, energy, and passion that you and your colleagues have lost. It’s not one quick and simple fix, but a multi-faceted approach. It will require both individual change and community change as well as some reflection on how we’re using technology. This book will help you identify which habits are helping you to work and live at your best and which are hurting your ability to focus your attention and effectively fuel your body and brain. Read on to discover which personal and community habits you need to discard, and which to build upon for a more energetic and passionate tomorrow.

*** BONUS: Click to see my 1-pager, The 6 Thieves That Rob You of Your Bandwidth ***

The Scoop (In this summary you will learn…)

  •   What bandwidth is and why it’s so important
  •   A link to a free survey to assess bandwidth for yourself and your community
  •   How to work with your brain to break unhelpful habits and build better ones
  •   Four tensions that must be kept in balance in your work and life
  •   Six sneaky thieves that are robbing you of bandwidth
  •   Dozens of strategies for both individuals and whole communities to combat the loss of bandwidth
  •   THE MAIN IDEA’s PD suggestions to help teachers improve bandwidth along with a HANDOUT for the workshop

Introduction – What is Bandwidth? (And Why Work on It Now?)

Does your brain ever feel overtaxed? Under-fueled? Does it feel that way every day? Or maybe even all the time? It’s not just you. It’s most of us. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Authors Jane Kise and Ann Holm uncovered the need for a better understanding of bandwidth while coaching aspiring leaders in education. Assignments which had been reasonable for past cohorts of their leadership mentees suddenly seemed to be impossible. The mentees begged for more time to complete their work. What had changed? The assignments were no different, and the qualifications of those in the cohort were similar. After digging deeper they realized that bandwidth was the problem. Kise and Holm developed a survey to help the aspiring leaders understand what was going on in their lives and in their brains.

The energy that powers their brains’ centers of executive function – their bandwidth – was drained and depleted. Shifts in societal, personal, and workplace habits and expectations had led to this decrease, and educators were suffering the consequences.

In the years that followed, Kise and Holm finetuned their survey, which became the Brain Energy and Bandwidth Survey, and they wrote this book to help educators to:

  • Identify their highest life priorities, and define for themselves how they should honor those priorities
  • Use the findings of neuroscience to reclaim their energy, passion, and time
  • Both lead and influence organizations to help others make the most of their bandwidth, too

Kise and Holm’s book is an invitation to stop looking for more time (you’ll never find it) and to start finding contentment with the way you spend your time. The first step is understanding what your brain needs in order to function at its best.

Bandwidth and the Brain

The pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that controls your “executive function.” It enables you to make decisions, focus on tasks, be patient, be engaged, and have willpower and self-control. All of these things require energy, and they all draw from the same limited pool of energy.

It’s been proven in psychological studies, but anyone could tell you that being overworked or emotionally exhausted from work might lead you to overindulge in junk food or lose your patience with a family member at home. If you drain your energy on personal issues, you have less energy left for cognitive or emotional tasks. These tasks can range from complex problem-solving to exercising your willpower, to keeping your temper in check. The limited resource that fuels all of these is called your bandwidth.

Is “Bandwidth” Really a Priority?

School leaders are drowning in priorities, right now, right? With everything else you have to do, should learning about (and learning to increase) bandwidth really be at the top of your list? Here’s why the top of the list is exactly where bandwidth belongs:

  • Teachers with low bandwidth are less efficient and less effective at doing literally everything else.
  • Burned-out adults can’t model social and emotional learning for students unless they have patience, kindness, and resilience.
  • Our brains are not prepared to deal with the recent changes in technology so we need new strategies.
  • Long-standing norms in education, such as “good teachers put their students first,” make it difficult for teachers to combat this problem alone. School leaders need to take the lead here and make it possible for educators to reclaim their bandwidth.

What Can Leaders Do?

First of all, leaders need to understand bandwidth – how it works, why it’s needed, and what causes it to increase or decrease. During this learning process, please approach observations and discoveries with an attitude of “blameless discernment.” While it can be tempting to immediately pinpoint who or what is “at fault” for bandwidth problems, that is not the most useful approach. Give grace to yourself and to others as you proceed through this learning process. If you find yourself thinking things like, “the problem is the state mandates” or “the problem is technology,” or “the problem is my lack of will-power,” take a step back and seek to be a more objective observer. It is likely a combination of self, others, and circumstances that together play some role in contributing to our bandwidth so it’s important to discern what’s really happening rather than assigning blame.

Secondly, leaders can “band together” with other educators to learn about bandwidth. They can also give teachers the same opportunity to learn in a “bandwidth band.” Learning in a group enables support, discussion, and accountability. A learning circle like this can help new knowledge to be turned into action today, rather than shelved for “sometime.”

Lastly, leaders can aim organizational attention at bandwidth. Increasing our bandwidth will take both individual and collective work. But without leaders modeling a new attitude toward bandwidth and self-care, teachers may not feel empowered to do their individual part of the work. It is a well-known fact that we pay attention to the things that we measure, so developing methods for measuring bandwidth will be an essential step toward increasing our organizational capacity.

The Bandwidth Survey – Understanding the Results

Now that you know what bandwidth is and why we ought to be working on it right now, the next step is to dive into understanding your own personal bandwidth. How is your mental and emotional capacity doing? This would be a good time to pause and take the free survey yourself. You can find it in the Appendix and at: (Note, you don’t need to take the survey to learn strategies to address lack of bandwidth in this summary!)

Answering the survey questions should take about 5 to 10 minutes. Once completed, you will receive an email with your results. As you read through the survey items and consider your answers, it is helpful to keep in mind the approach of blameless discernment. Feelings of guilt and self-judgement as you answer the questions will not help you to change. Neither will feelings of helplessness. At this point, take the stance of an objective observer.

Near the bottom of the PDF you receive in your email, you will find a total score. Below are descriptions of what people whose scores fall within three ranges are typically feeling:

Good Bandwidth (90-120)

You feel content with your work/life balance and you maintain healthy habits. You are engaged, good at delegating, and enjoy your work and co-workers most of the time. You recognize when your brain energy is low and know how to refuel.

Mediocre Bandwidth (60-90)

You tend to lose patience in more than one area of your life. You have some strategies for refueling your brain energy, but you may be lacking awareness of your sub-optimal decisions and their effect on you or others.

Problematic Bandwidth (below 60)

You’re always dealing with something urgent and may leave important things unaddressed. You might rely on caffeine for boosts in brain energy. You feel helpless and impatient. You engage in avoidance and may fantasize about quitting.

Processing Your Score

Effective approaches to considering your score include: objectivity, curiosity, and, eventually, agency as you read further and move toward acting on what you learn. Avoid comparing your results with others’ competitively. People’s life circumstances and internal strengths and struggles vary widely. People also vary in their willingness to give themselves “high scores.”

If you feel your score does not perfectly describe your personal experience of your bandwidth, you are likely correct. Perhaps your passion for your work or experience overcoming challenges has made you especially hardy. These might enable you to enjoy higher levels of bandwidth than your score indicates (though you might consider whether this is sustainable).

If you are in the midst of moving to a new house or have a newborn at home, for example, you might be experiencing lower than normal levels of bandwidth due to a temporary circumstance. Very low or high ratings in one category might also obscure the overall picture of your score. Ultimately, you are the best assessor of your bandwidth. Use the survey questions and results as well as self-knowledge to best perceive where you stand.

Try looking at your answers with curiosity and a growth mindset. When you look at results, do you find evidence that you need strategies for increasing your bandwidth? Which categories or behaviors concern you most? Rather than dwelling in negativity about circumstances or personal failures, now is the moment to step into agency.

Do your best to avoid falling into the trap of throwing blame in just one direction.

Three Blaming Traps to Avoid

Blaming Only Yourself

“If only I were more organized.”

“I just need to get up earlier.”

“My lack of willpower is the problem.”

Blaming Only Others

“No one at my school is team-oriented.”

“My boss has unreasonable expectations.”

“If only my spouse would do more at home.”

Blaming Only Circumstances

“Covid messed everything up.”

“Smart phones ruined these kids’ ability to focus.”

“My schedule won’t allow me to make changes.”

The causes of our collective bandwidth deficit are many and if you find yourself pointing a finger to assign blame, you’re likely missing part of the picture. If you’re not looking at the whole picture, you won’t be able to identify the most effective solutions.

Reasons for Hope

Perhaps you are beginning to realize just how low your bandwidth is. Maybe you’re even staring down an entire staffroom full of teachers with low bandwidth and feeling the weight of responsibility for “fixing it.” Learning about bandwidth is a great first step (you’re doing that now) and learning new strategies to make change in your habits and in your community will help too (we’re getting to those soon!). But isn’t it really hard to change old habits? Haven’t we all tried year after year to make personal changes and found ourselves giving up by the third week of January? Well, yes, it can be hard to change. But it isn’t impossible. Here’s what you need to know about your brain and habits to make change feel a little more doable.

Changing Your Brain

Beyond just learning new information, can we really change our brains? Yes. In fact, your brain is changing all the time (including when you are an adult!) by responding and adapting to new circumstances and new stimuli. This is called neuroplasticity. Our brains are not born knowing how to read, drive a car, or use a computer. But because of neuroplasticity, we can develop these skills and even turn them into automatic functions we can perform without much conscious thought.

Automatic functions – habits and routines – are necessary for our brains to work efficiently. We save tons of mental energy by not having to think through every step of brushing our teeth. We want that to be a habit so we don’t waste brain energy on it.

However, habits aren’t always helpful. As our brains respond to new stimuli and build new automatic behaviors, they may adapt in ways that don’t work well for us. They’re doing the best they can, but human brains haven’t spent millennia encountering the pings of smartphone notifications, and so their improvised solutions are sometimes maladaptive. That habit of checking your email five minutes after you checked your email, or scrolling the news on your phone when you have 30 seconds waiting in a check-out line? Those habits aren’t doing your brain any favors. Take a moment to reflect on any unproductive habits that deplete your bandwidth.

Changing Your Habits

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to strategies and tools for changing our maladaptive habits and developing ones that serve us better. Before we get into the specific suggestions, however, it would be useful to know a bit about how habits are formed and some general principles for changing them. Typically, habit formation looks like this:

Action Reward (which triggers dopamine) Habit imbeds more deeply Repeat!

Often, this happens by accident. We do something, we like the result (consciously or not), and then we do it again (and again). But it is possible to use this understanding of habit formation as a tool to help us break maladaptive habits and form new and improved habits.

Tips for Habit-Breaking

Plan a swap. If you want to stop scrolling your phone before bed, decide what you’ll do instead. “I’m putting away my phone so I can do my five-minute bedtime yoga.”

Make it harder. To break a habit, put more cognitive steps in the way. For example, if you don’t allow a shopping site to save your credit card number, you may be deterred from an impulse buy if you have to get your wallet and enter sixteen digits before purchasing.

Make a rule. If you tend to overeat ice cream, but you also don’t want to eliminate it from your life entirely, make a rule you can live with like “I only get ice cream when I’m out with others” so you don’t ever debate buying a quart of ice cream at the store.

Tips for Habit-Making

Make one change at a time. Lots of changes take lots of brain energy. Also, the effect will be diluted, and your brain won’t know which new habit is producing the reward. Experience some success with one new habit before adding a second.

Figure out why. Say why the new habit is important to you. “I’m leaving work by 5:00 PM each day so I can enjoy more time with my family.”

Accentuate the positive. Phrasing a goal negatively like, “Don’t eat junk food” just makes you think about junk food. Positive phrasing like, “Eat nutritious food,” helps you visualize and feel good about your new habit instead of bad about your old one.

Take It Easy on Your Brain

When you can, make good habits and desirable behaviors easier for your brain. Working with (instead of against) the way your brain functions will save you mental energy and buy back some bandwidth. For example, use a timer on your phone to tell you when it is time to go or to stop an activity. That way your brain won’t have to multi-task and check the clock every few minutes. Recognize when a short-cut or “cutting a corner” would save you some bandwidth – not everything needs to be done perfectly. Allow yourself to stop at “good enough.” Don’t plan on perfection either. If you can write a great lesson plan in 30 minutes when your energy is at its best, give yourself longer if you have to plan on Friday afternoon when your energy is low. Assume imperfect conditions.

With new knowledge of your current bandwidth and a few tools in place for altering your habits and even your brain when you want to, it’s time to take the next step toward agency: reclaim your time, energy, and passion by increasing your bandwidth.

Balancing Tensions to Increase Bandwidth

As with all complex problems, we can’t point to one single cause for our lack of bandwidth, and neither can we push in a single direction to find resolution. Ensuring we have enough bandwidth requires a different approach: intentionally rebalancing key priorities that are in tension with each other.

Examining four tensions (below) that need occasional rebalancing can help us more effectively maintain our bandwidth.

Four Tensions

Community Norms ↔ Your Habits

Scheduled Time ↔ Your Personal Time Management

Results ↔ Relationships

Caring for Others ↔ Caring for Yourself

The first tension, Community Norms ↔ Your Habits, teaches us that you can’t solve everything simply by changing your own behavior, but neither can you expect others to solve everything for you while you sit back and do nothing. The bandwidth problem is caused by you and others, and its solution requires effort from you and others. You are responsible for developing habits that support good bandwidth, BUT those habits alone aren’t enough and over-focus on them can lead to feelings of guilt for circumstances you can’t change. Your school is responsible for setting policies and keeping norms that support good bandwidth, BUT these alone aren’t enough and over-focus on these can lead individuals to neglect the personal changes they need.

The second tension, Scheduled Time ↔ Your Personal Time Management, points to the truth that changes in the way you spend your time must be found both in your scheduled time (what your job requires of you) and in the way you manage your unscheduled time. You are responsible for making good use of your time, BUT no amount of time management can create more time in the day, so your school is also responsible for ensuring you’re assigned a manageable number of tasks.

The third tension, Results ↔ Relationships, has two sides which often seem to appear as opposites. For example, should you attend a colleague’s baby shower after school or spend that time scoring assessments? However, these two apparent opposites often actually support one another. Relationships and results are well known to be interdependent. Students learn best from a teacher with whom they have a good relationship, and student results are best at schools where the adults form a supportive and collegial community with one another. If you spend time building relationships at work, then you will have supportive colleagues to lean on in stressful times and you will have collaborative teammates whose many hands can make light work.

The fourth tension, Caring for Others ↔ Caring for Yourself, is another case of apparent opposites. Should you close your door to get some work done without interruption, or leave your door open so that students or colleagues know they can come in if they need your help? In other words, which is more important, caring for yourself or caring for others? These opposites, too, are interdependent.

Self-care enables carers to better support others, and caring for others provides carers with a sense of meaning and purpose.

Okay, that all sounds good in theory, but how can we effectively balance tensions to solve real-life dilemmas in our work? Let’s look at an example where a teacher finds too much of her planning time taken up by the requirements of a new attendance tracking system. What is a balanced response to this problem?

Ways for the Teacher to take Personal Responsibility

  • Ask around to see if other teachers are finding better ways to handle the attendance tracking requirement

  • Examine her planning methods to see if she’s spending more time than necessary

  • Seek out colleagues with whom to share planning responsibilities

Ways that Administrators could take Responsibility

  • Reconsider whether the data being collected is truly needed

  • Review data and how much time teachers are spending tracking attendancey

  • Rethink schedules – where could teachers be given more planning time?

A balanced approach – one that includes individual effort as well as broader efforts from leadership – is the most likely to result in a satisfying solution. Balance doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer to any specific dilemma, of course, but it provides a healthy approach to problem solving.

Where Did All Our Bandwidth Go?

(And How Do We Get It Back?)

With the approach of balancing tensions in mind, let’s begin to investigate – what did happen to our bandwidth? Where did it go? Kise and Holm’s detective work with the Bandwidth Survey and with leaders and teachers from many schools revealed a band of six thieves who are responsible for stealing a lot of your bandwidth.

Thief #1: Lack of Work-Life Balance
Thief #2: Information Overload
Thief #3: Interruptions
Thief #4: Unhealthy Habits
Thief #5: Your Phone
Thief #6: Calendar Chaos

Let’s take a look at each thief in turn and learn what we can do to stop them.

Thief #1: Trying to Be Two Places at Once

This thief often disguises itself as a noble emphasis on important work. But tip too far in the direction of work over personal life and this thief slips out the door with some of your bandwidth. Your best defense here is prioritization. Name your priorities and allow that clear focus to bring peace and contentment to your choices. 

You probably already prioritize work (that’s why you’re reading this). However, you may need to remind yourself to prioritize friendships, family, rest, and recreation. You can reduce the bandwidth demands of balancing these priorities along with your work by choosing once and sticking to your choice (of work or personal life) for a defined time rather than constantly checking the clock, multi-tasking, or feeling the pull to get back to work.

For example, if you want to prioritize time in nature, joining a group that hikes every Saturday might help you reserve this time and not allow work to overshadow it. If you’re playing with your child, stay present and engaged without checking your phone. If you need to stop after a certain amount of time, set a timer to alert you to the end time so you don’t have to keep checking the clock. When you participate fully in rest and recreation, you can return to your work feeling refreshed and ultimately more effective.

An educator’s job is inherently stressful, but you can learn to handle it better by balancing work with rest and recreation.

What Individuals Can Do to Prioritize

  • During times of stress, stay engaged with others instead of withdrawing. Connections will help you make it through the tough times.
  • Use your agency. Even if you can’t change everything you’d like to, continue to make changes that are within your control and try things in order to improve your situation.
  • Practice deliberate rest such as art, music, sports, pleasure reading, games, meditation, etc.
  • Give your brain downtime where it is allowed to wander or daydream without task or entertainment. While watching TV can be fun, it doesn’t provide good quality mental downtime.

What Leaders Can Do to Support Prioritizing

  • Encourage collegiality with team-building and make time for fun. Boost the mood with compliments and appreciation, and steer away from competition and negativity.
  • Allow slack in teachers’ schedules so they are not expected to perform at 110% all the time. Teachers will not be able to manage their priorities if they are asked to do more than a person can do.
  • If you are a leader, make sure you have a firm grasp on teachers’ reality – the time they have, the tasks they are assigned, and how long things truly take.
  • Model rest and recreation. Allow teachers to see you taking breaks, participating in fun, and leaving work at a reasonable time. Encourage them to do the same.

Thief #2: Information Overload

This thief commonly disguises itself as valuable research and choice. Modern life puts a vast array of choices at our fingertips. A simple Google search yields millions of results. A single grocery aisle displays dozens of types of yogurt. While information and choice both can be beneficial, they also can run off with our bandwidth. So much choice overwhelms your capacity to make decisions well and drains your mental energy.

Your best defense is filtering. Filter and narrow down your options to protect yourself from the mental fatigue that results from too many choices and too many decisions. To save your bandwidth and gain control of how you filter choices and information, here are some techniques you can try to avoid decision fatigue:

What Individuals Can Do to Reduce Decision Fatigue

  • Make the time you spend deciding equal to the decision’s importance. Research your next car for longer than you search for the image to put on one slide in your presentation. Get clear on your criteria and aim for “good enough” in most cases.
  • Schedule decisions for when you have bandwidth available. For example, planning a week’s worth of dinners on Sunday will probably result in better choices than waiting until everyone’s hungry to figure out what’s for dinner each night.
  • Automate decisions where you can. President Obama famously wore only gray or blue suits to free up mental space for weightier decisions.
  • Allow yourself to brainstorm about what you want before you begin looking. This will help keep you focused and save you from advertiser-driven distractions.
  • Identify experts or curated collections you can go to for a high-quality selection, and then don’t waste your time looking elsewhere. [The Main Idea is a perfect example of a curated collection of books that are also summarized for you.]

What Leaders Can Do to Reduce Decision Fatigue

  • Filter information for your staff. Likely, they do not need to read the entire page-long memo from central office or every part of the newly-published ten-page research paper on literacy. Share a few bullet points instead.
  • Encourage teams to specialize when research-heavy decisions must be made. Ask one teacher to research new read-alouds, another to research virtual manipulatives, and so on. They report back to teammates and share the decision-making.
  • Point teachers to curated, high-quality resources you are aware of and create a shared list of these collections.

Thief #3: Interruptions

Think for a moment about your typical workday. Are you able to spend blocks of time focusing on tasks that require deeper thinking? What is the longest block of time you can usually work uninterrupted? Do you interrupt yourself during these times by checking email or phone notifications? All these interruptions might be disguised as important tasks, but whether they are important of not, they are stealing your bandwidth. Your best defense against the constant interruptions is protecting your focus.

Research tells us that the ideal block of time for focused work is about 52 minutes (followed by a break of about 17 minutes). Is 52 minutes of concentration something you are able to achieve on a regular basis? Ever? If it’s not, you’re depriving your brain of the opportunity to use its energy most effectively and efficiently. Task switching (also known as multi-tasking) seriously depletes your brain energy, leading to more errors and increased time to complete the tasks.

So, what can be done to improve your ability (and opportunity) to focus? As with the other strategies, there are things individuals can do and things that can be done by leaders and communities. The best results will come from the efforts of both groups and individuals.

What Individuals Can Do to Protect Their Focus

  • Use environmental cues to encourage others not to interrupt you such as a gentle or humorous “Do Not Disturb” sign. One principal used a door sign indicating they would be happy to talk after 10:00 AM – allowing for focused morning work time.
  • Keep a list instead of multi-tasking. If an unrelated task occurs to you in the middle of focused work time, jot down a note to yourself to take care of it later.
  • Use your phone wisely. If it’s time for you to focus, turn off notifications, and put the phone out of sight.

What Leaders Can Do to Support Focused Work Time

  • Give permission for teachers to do what’s needed to protect their focus. Provide teachers with a script they can use for an automated response on their email indicating when messages will be checked and what response time can be expected.
  • Consider whether you need to adjust building norms around classroom interruptions. Are parents allowed to pop-in with forgotten lunches? How frequently are announcements made over the public address system? Set new rules if needed.
  • If teachers tend to multitask during meetings, investigate why. Is the meeting relevant to everyone? Are there parts that feel like a waste of time? Do teachers have more work than they can realistically complete, so they must bring it? Once you’ve addressed these possibilities, consider a no multi-tasking rule at meetings.

Keep in mind that focus is not only for work. You can use focus strategies in your personal life, too. Spending uninterrupted time playing with your child, talking with your friend, or reading a good book can do wonders for restoring bandwidth.

Thief #4: Unhealthy Habits

The fourth thief of bandwidth is the unhealthy physical habits we have. Poor quality sleep or nutrition, lack of exercise, or inadequate hydration can all drain your bandwidth. This thief is often disguised as ease (“Well there’s pizza in the break room…”) or convenience (“I’m working too hard to spend time exercising.”) or even self-care (“I deserve this late-night Netflix binge because I just need a treat.”), but these habits are sneaking off with your mental and emotional bandwidth. The antidote to these unhealthy habits is to fuel your brain with healthy ones.

In order to function at its best, your brain needs good quality fuel: nutritious food, enough water, physical exercise, and sleep. These needs are no secret. You’ve probably known about them since kindergarten. These healthy habits are not only good for your long-term health, but they also have a direct impact on your mental bandwidth. A simple walk around the block boosts your bandwidth. Too much sugar and processed junk foods drain your bandwidth. A good night’s sleep starts your day off with more bandwidth than a night of poor sleep. Dehydration can tank your bandwidth and your mood, too.

While it might be “easiest” to force yourself to push through your lack of sleep or your vending machine “lunch,” it’s not easier on your brain. Running on Cheetos and coffee or telling yourself you’ll start an exercise habit once “life is less crazy” robs you of the mental and emotional bandwidth you need work effectively or be present for and enjoy your life.

What Individuals Can Do to Fuel Their Brains

  • Don’t try to change too many habits at once. Make incremental changes, one at a time, across sleep, nutrition, and exercise. They’ll last longer.
  • Find a buddy with whom you can work together on new, healthy habits.
  • Beware of highly processed foods. The snack food industry spends millions of dollars finding ways to make their products addictive and enticing.
  • Pair a healthy habit with something you enjoy, like listening to an audiobook or catching up with a friend while walking. It’s not a depleting form of multi-tasking if one of the tasks is something you can do automatically and without thought.

What Leaders Can Do to Support Healthy Brain Fuel

  • Share research about the restorative power of napping and then make it clear that it is okay for teachers to nap during their lunch period if they choose.
  • Hold walking meetings when you need to communicate with someone one-on-one.
  • Allow staff access to athletic and workout facilities at school. Can teachers be encouraged, or at least permitted, to use the gym or walk the track?
  • Encourage healthy food options, perhaps in potluck style, when food is offered at meetings or celebrations. Discourage the “dumping” of unhealthy treats (like leftover Halloween candy) in the break room.

Thief #5: Your Phone

It’s always with you: on your desk while you work, in your pocket as you walk, waiting to wake you when you sleep. The fifth thief that’s stealing your mental bandwidth is, you guessed it, your phone. It disguises itself as a friendly companion when you’re alone or bored, but while busy with your phone, your brain is not engaging in more brain-friendly activities that help you restore bandwidth.

In the years before you had a smartphone, what did you do when you had to stand in line, or wait in your car? Most likely, you spent the time just thinking or daydreaming. If you were in a public place, you might have made small talk with those around you. While these activities don’t necessarily seem highly valuable, they actually help you restore mental and emotional bandwidth.

Processing your thoughts or letting your mind wander helps you de-stress. A brief but friendly conversation with a stranger gives you a small positive connection with humanity. When you use your time to read the news, check your email, or scroll your social media feed, you’re depriving yourself of an opportunity to de-stress by simply letting your brain be idle for a short time. Our brains need times of idleness to make sense of our life experiences and process our own thoughts and emotions.

But what if I’m using my phone to de-stress? It’s much more likely that when you think you’re de-stressing with your phone, you are actually using your phone to dissociate (or distract yourself) from your stress. Even if you’ve chosen not to have social media and not to check work email on your phone, you may still be using your phone to play word games or browse products or do something else that’s acting as a mental and emotional pacifier but is stealing instead of contributing to your bandwidth. You would regain more bandwidth by staring at a wall for a few minutes.

There may be a few things you could do with your phone that would truly help you to regain bandwidth. Maybe for you Facetiming with your best friend or using a meditation app could have this effect. But take the time to objectively reflect on whether your chosen phone activities are really contributing to your bandwidth instead of stealing from you. Even texting a friend or family member, which we might want to count as social connection, activates the same part of our brains that is activated when we check an item off a to-do list, not the part of the brain that activates during a face-to-face conversation.

The smartphone is a valuable tool that enables us to do many useful things but be careful when and where you allow it to take the place of other things in your life. Do not let it steal your desperately needed mental downtime. Even those few minutes in the carpool line can help you regain bandwidth if you allow your mind to wander instead of reaching for your phone. And do not let the phone steal your in-person opportunities for social connection. Chatting with a colleague while you wait for a meeting to start can help you restore bandwidth in a way that your phone never can.

What Individuals Can Do to Reconnect with Self, Others, and the Present

  • Use the screen time feature on your phone to discover how much time you are spending and on what apps. Set goals to reduce time on your phone.
  • Delete unwanted apps and keep your phone farther away from you to avoid picking it up without thinking.
  • Make calls instead of texting when you want to communicate with a friend or family member.
  • Go phone-free (or at least put your phone in airplane mode) when you spend time in nature so that you can concentrate on your surroundings.
  • Try striking up a conversation with a stranger next time you are waiting in a line. Compare how you feel afterward with how you feel after a few minutes of mindless phone use.

What Leaders Can Do to Support Reconnection

  • Set community norms around electronic availability. For example, no answering emails between 5:00 PM and 8:00 AM. Provide teachers with away messages to use and communicate these norms to parents.
  • Discourage phone use while driving and model this choice by not calling into meetings or taking work calls while driving.
  • Make time for collective breaks for socializing and provide fun ways for teachers and staff to connect.

Thief #6: Calendar Chaos

If you work in an environment where everything’s always urgent and instead of being allowed to set your priorities you often feel like priorities are being thrown at you, then calendar chaos is stealing your bandwidth. The chaos disguises itself as “dealing with important things,” but if the chaos is non-stop, then, in fact, no one in your community will have the bandwidth to deal with important things. Everyone needs some to exercise some agency in how they spend their time in order to defend against this particular thief.

To function well and build up our bandwidth we all need the opportunity to set and act on our own priorities. Of course, your job description and some goals will be handed to you by your boss, but every teacher and leader needs some latitude to reflect on what’s important, make goals, and take action toward meeting their goals.

If you constantly spend your days reacting to unpredictable demands and rushing from one “fire” to the next, your bandwidth will be quickly depleted. When we give ourselves (or assign to others) more work than can be realistically accomplished, we’re creating an unsustainable, low-bandwidth work environment.

Of course, there are elements of the chaos you don’t control. Even leaders have state and district mandates, as well as unpredictable student and parent needs to contend with. But to regain some bandwidth you’ll need to look for what you can control, and this starts with some self-knowledge:

  • When are you at your best? Do you get the most done in the mornings or have the most energy in the afternoons?
  • What is your organizing style? Do you work your way through a to-do list? Or are you inspiration driven – working on what feels right?
  • What priorities do you apply or want to apply to your work? Are you someone who says, “I put relationships first,” or “sticking to my schedule helps me sustain my energy best in the long run.”

Knowing yourself, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, and your must-haves and nice-to haves can go a long way toward helping you keep some bandwidth amid the chaos. You may not be able to stop all the demands being thrown at you, but you can take some ownership in how you process them. Exercise agency where you can by saying things like, “I’ll make a better decision if I take five minutes to write a pros and cons list,” or “I’ll compose a more thoughtful email response tomorrow morning than I will at 5:00 PM when I’m hangry and worried about traffic.”

What Individuals Can Do to Take Ownership of Their Time

  • Protect some time in your schedule during which you can define your priorities and plan proactively.
  • Put your goals or top priorities in plain sight. A sticky-note or photo can act as a reminder of what matters most.
  • Create an individual schedule for yourself that reflects what you know about your daily energy patterns and priorities.
  • Instead of facing down a mile-long to-do list each day, choose three goals for the day (considering what is most consequential and what is most urgent). Include an estimate of how long each will take to accomplish.

What Leaders Can Do to Support Agency in Scheduling

  • Ensure your plans are realistic. A beautiful vision for the future of your school will never be carried out effectively if everyone’s bandwidth is depleted. Break down big-picture initiatives into smaller, achievable steps and make sure no one is being given more work than they can do.
  • Allow yourself and others the necessary time to make big decisions. Instead of pushing to move forward now, delay important decisions to allow time for mental clarity.

Increasing Our Bandwidth Together

Now that you have an understanding of your own bandwidth, what adds to it, and what takes away from it, the next step is looking at bandwidth as a community. If you already took the bandwidth survey yourself, you can share it with your school. Again, you can find it in the Appendix and at:

Look for easy-to-implement changes to jumpstart your journey. No email from 5:00 PM to 8:00 AM, or no meetings on Friday afternoon could be easy to implement and give everyone back a bit of bandwidth right away.

The journey toward real bandwidth increase makes take several months. It will be an ongoing process ensuring that everyone in your community has what they need to maintain balance in their lives and keep enough bandwidth to do their jobs and live their lives with energy and passion.

Some of your results might come quickly and some might take more time, especially if both personal and organizational changes are needed. Optimizing your energy, passion, and time is an ongoing process of blameless discernment of the current state, and mindful adjustment toward the desired state.

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