October has dug her heels in, and with this (hopefully) chilly and transitional month, it’s possible that you’re a little stressed.
If there ever was a honeymoon in your class, it’s surely over at this point. Reading tests are over and you’re teaching actual content. Administrators are popping their heads in for a visit every now and then. Maybe your first report cards are due. Conferences are right around the corner.
Just thinking about it can exhaust you.
It’s almost like your head is a hotel aquarium of fish. Only they’re not the nice kind of fish. They’re the kind with teeth and swim around glaring at each other, ramming into the sides of the aquarium as hard as they possibly can for no reason.
So you try to empty the water, so to speak, through strategies like meditation, yoga, or wine. And yet, the tank fills up again and the fish are back. There are too many to count and even worrying about the fish creates more fish.
We can’t solve our angry fish problem just by thinking about it. Thus, we need a system.
What I’ve got for your today is something to have ready in your back pocket for when life gets overwhelming and you feel so squashed that you can’t even think about your own thoughts without shutting down. It’s something that can take 10 minutes and, unlike yoga and meditation, will put you on a direct path to chopping down the trees of the forest that is growing in your brain.
It’s called a brain dump. (If you don’t like that term, you might want to call it a mind spill. Or a head drip. You get the idea.)
Get yourself a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. Label the first column “STUFF.” Yes, with capital letters. The capital letters are important for therapeutic reasons.
In the stuff column, you’re going to write down everything that is on your mind. Big, small, wide, dark, light, depressing… it doesn’t matter. You’re going to write it all.
Write down your biggest fears. Write down what’s bothering you about your room. Write down how you don’t know how to do your taxes and will have to call your mom again. Write down your anxiety over the broken floor tile and how a student might trip over it. Your column might look a little like this:
• Taxes frighten me and I’m 32 and it shouldn’t be this confusing
• That broken floor tile will most definitely hurt a child and get me fired
• I still don’t have a new lunchbox and have been carrying soup in my bare hands to work every day
• Long flight to Africa next month and I have flight anxiety
• Jamie’s mom forgets to give him medication and he goes nuts in my class
• My grandma is sick and I’m not sure how long she has
Everything you possibly can. When you can’t think of anything new for more than a full minute, you’re at the end of this phase.
Now, look at this list. Look at all of its pain and misery. Now, those fish are out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Your head’s lighter. Congratulations.
Label the second column NEXT. Again, all caps.
This is the column where you will write the very next action needed for each of the items that are worrying you in the STUFF column. The stuff column is not nearly as important as NEXT.
The next action needs to be something you can reasonably do in one sitting (whatever a sitting is for you). And it doesn’t need to solve the entire problem; it just needs to make a dent. It could be something as simple as googling something, or sending an email. The key here is something that requires no real critical thinking.
Now, your list might look more like this:
• Taxes frighten me and I’m 32 and it shouldn’t be this confusing –> Send email to cool accountant uncle asking what I should do
• That broken floor tile will most definitely hurt a child and get me fired –> send an email to facilities staff
• I still don’t have a new lunchbox and have been carrying soup in my bare hands to work every day –> research thermal soup containers on amazon
Long flight to Africa next month and I have flight anxiety
• Jamie’s mom forgets to give him medication and he goes nuts in my class –> take 5 mins to scribble down a rough plan for Jamie on his non-medicated days to review later with his social worker
• My grandma is sick and I’m not sure how long she has –> Call grandma to say hi
Notice that my next action for Jamie requires a little bit of thought – this is okay, as long I allow my “rough plan” to really be rough. In other words, I’ll actually spend 5 minutes, without judging it, because I know I’ll be looking over it with a colleague later on anyway (and you’ll be surprised at how good your 5 minute rough ideas end up being much of the ).
Also, notice that I crossed out the item about my flight anxiety. This is because I couldn’t think of a good next action for this worry. And if I can’t think of a good next action, it means I have absolutely no control. Assuming I don’t want to cancel the flight.
And if you have no control, you might as well cross this worry off your list. This physical action represents the oh-so-important ritual of “letting go” of what is beyond your control.
And for everything else, there’s the next action. A to-do list that you can actually do in an afternoon or less. There will be more next actions, of course.
But for now, you’ve made progress. Your mind is clear.
And that’s important.