There’s little that’s more guaranteed to drain your energy than a sense of not being in control of your own agenda. If you find yourself constantly reacting, rather than having the space to plan and implement your own agenda, it’s time to stand back and take stock.
If you’ve ever tried to Skype someone on an inadequate internet connection that’s constantly disconnected, or had your favourite television programme interrupted with the message ‘Sorry, you don’t have enough bandwidth to play this right now’ you’ll have an objective illustration of what’s happening to your brain when you’re trying to do too many things at once. You simply have insufficient ‘cognitive bandwidth’ (working memory) to be able to think through all the items that require attention.
Add to that the fact that the part of the brain you’re compromising is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for complex decision-making, planning and creative thinking, and you’ll see how easy it is to get into a vicious circle. You’re too busy, so you make less helpful decisions, so you agree to undertake work when you already have more than you can deal with.
A meeting that’s cancelled at the last minute feels like a gift from the gods. The psychological effect of suddenly having space where there previously appeared to be none may well be greater than is merited by the amount you achieve in the two hours that you might otherwise have been at the meeting, fretting about the fact that you’re wasting your time.
Some of us are larks, some are owls and some fall in between. Recognising the circumstances under which you do your best work will allow you to focus on the more difficult aspects when you’re at your best.
An ‘open door policy’ that involves being constantly available if you’re in school is death to productive working. If you’re constantly available to others, are you in danger of contributing to a culture of dependence? When headteachers justify their constant availability by telling me they want to be approachable and available to staff, I sometimes want to ask whose needs they’re serving.
Think back to recently. How many people’s difficulties did you hand back to them with encouragement to find a way forward, and how many did you pick up? Just like a parent who holds the bicycle seat of their child as they learn to ride, sometimes you need to let go, even if they might fall, in order to allow them to learn to ride without stabilisers. Questions, rather than answers, will help individuals to find their own solutions.
Emails are insidious. If we allow them to, they become like earworms, nagging at us, and diverting us from our own agenda. If I leave my email client open in the background when I’m working on something else, I’m constantly aware of emails pinging in to my inbox and can’t avoid seeing the name of the sender and the first few words of the email.
Even if I choose to ignore the email after that, the very fact that I’ve registered its arrival is sufficient to have taken my focus from the matter in hand. Reading it in full can take me off track altogether, as I make a decision regarding whether I’m going to respond instantly or not. Maybe I need to look up something in order to be helpful to someone else. Before I know where I am, my morning’s planning has been hijacked by leaving my inbox open.
I’ve learned that a moment’s hesitation in responding is a good thing; it allows me to consider whether I have the time and the expertise to meet the demand. Then, of course, there’s the dopamine rush to my brain when I respond to (or indeed delete) an email and see the numbers in my inbox diminishing. That’s a clear indication of how I’ve spent my morning. As I’m strongly driven by a need to achieve, providing myself with tangible evidence of a productive morning is motivating.
There’s a difference between not allowing constant interruptions and working without interruption. If you have a lengthy and demanding task to undertake, it’s wise to build in some breaks in order to be able to sustain your levels of concentration. You’ll find your own rhythm, but if you spend three hours in front of a computer screen without a break, each hour is likely to be less productive than the one before.
Set an alarm to remind you to get up and walk somewhere, to give your pre-frontal cortex space to recover before you ask more of it. Signs that you need a break include re-reading the same sentence several times without taking it in, checking emails or checking something on the internet (a great distraction, but not a proper break). If you know you’re tired, stop working.
If you were to insert an energy smart meter into your brain, you’d find that the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for executive function, often referred to as the PFC – is energy hungry. It operates at its best when well rested and when bouts of intense activity are interspersed with low-level activities, such as answering routine email. For maximum efficiency in using the PFC, it’s a good idea to allow periods of respite between intense concentration on complex issues. How often have you struggled to complete – or indeed begin – something creative, only to find that if you leave and come back to it, suddenly things become clear?
Who drains your energy?
Sir Tim Brighouse, sometime leader of the London Challenge and a wellknown writer on UK education, used to talk about radiators and drains in the staff room.
The radiators are the enthusiasts who are always up for a challenge and greet each day as an opportunity to learn. The drains are the ones that sit in a huddle in the staffroom until the last possible moment when the bell goes. They mutter under their breath when a new idea is proffered at a staff meeting, and phrases such as ‘That’ll never work’ and ‘We tried that five years ago’ are frequently heard to pass their lips.
Leaders need to be eternally (though not unrealistically) optimistic if they’re to win hearts and minds. On a day when things aren’t going well, it’s easy to feel sucked down by the drains. Radiators give off warmth; their heat is your energy. In your professional life you may be unable to avoid the drains, but the more radiators you have, the greater the chance of the warmth reducing the damp of the drains.
Julia Steward is a school leadership consultant providing one-to-one coaching, workshops and development programmes focused on resilience in leadership. This article is based on an edited extract from Julia book, Sustaining Resilience for Leadership, published by John Catt (johncatt.com).