The false dichotomy of The want to vs The have to

We struggle to achieve balance with so many parts of our lives. We see things in dichotomies and try to weigh one against the other believing that we must give time to one and not the other. This tendency to see things in often false dichotomies leads to the problem of the “want to’ vs the ‘have to’. Unfortunately, when we are faced with this dilemma we often make a choice in favour of the 'have to’ but we chose this option for the wrong reasons.

The ‘want to’ are all those things we want to achieve for ourselves, our families and as teachers, for our students. They are the things which have significant long term value but they take time and energy. The ‘want to’ are the ideas we have which we may well be passionate about but never get to put into place. Maybe we discover a new teaching method and want to try it out. Perhaps we see that our students would benefit from more thinking time in their lessons and we want to try some thinking routines with them. We might want to master a new piece of technology or develop a collaboration with an inspiring colleague. Every teacher has a long list of the things they ‘want to’ achieve.

The ‘have to’ are the things we feel we have to get done, we have to do, the things that get in the way of the ‘want to’. We have to mark the role, we have to check our emails, we have to do our yard duties, we have to update our day book. The ‘have tos’ all matter and we can’t not do them. The problem is that when we are confronted by the dichotomy of the ‘want to’ and the ‘have to’ we always find time for the have to and not the other. The trouble is not that we have to do certain things but that as we squeeze things into our day it is the things we ‘want to’ do that get squeezed out first.

For fans of Stephen Covey’s work this will have you thinking of his ‘Time Management Matrix’. Some of the ‘have to’ fall into quadrant one, the important and urgent. These are things we have to do and cannot put off, the things with deadlines and the immediate problems that we must solve. However, many of the ‘have to’ fall into quadrant four. The not-important and not urgent time-wasters that occupy large chunks of our day; acknowledging an email message, rearranging items on our desktops (physical and virtual), checking social media (again).

By contrast the ‘want to’ are often straight out of quadrant two, the important but not urgent. These are the actions that build capacity and are preventive in nature. Spending more time on the ‘want to’ would not only bring benefits now but would have a transformative effect making future learning more successful. A simple example shows the thinking here. Attending to a smoke alarm is without doubt both important and urgent but developing safe practices in the kitchen is not; yet time spent on this may reduce the chance of a fire in the first place. It is the shift between being reactive and becoming proactive. Schools are confronted by this sort of division regularly. Developing awareness of cybersafety takes time away from other areas of the curriculum and requires staff time to develop and implement. Not attending to cybersafety can lead to embarrassing situations for schools, reactive policy development and long term damage for students.  Developing a culture of thinking takes time, attention to detail and considered school wide planning but in the absence of a whole school approach quality thinking will remain sporadic and disjointed with students left to make the connections themselves as they move from one teacher’s approach to the next.

Often we claim that there are simply not enough hours in the day to do everything. Ask any teacher what they want more of and the answer will be ‘time’, but time is a finite resource. A better approach is suggested by Ron Ritchhart. Manage your energy and not your time. This is particularly relevant when dealing with the ‘want to’ and the ‘have to’. Do you find that you are better able to cope with the ‘have to’ when your energy levels are low or when they are high? The answer will be an individual one. You may find that many of the ‘have to’ tasks require minimal energy levels and are less cognitively demanding than the ‘want to’ tasks. The ‘want to’ tasks may require your best thinking and highest energy levels or they may be so intrinsically rewarding that they provide the boost you need. Unlike time, energy is not a finite resource and with the right conditions and a shift in thinking you can find more of it when you need to.

The consequence of managing your energy levels and aiming to spend more time in quadrant two with your ‘want tos’ is that in the long run your works should be more productive and more rewarding. For your students the extra time on your ‘want tos’ will enhance the quality of their learning and allow you to be the model of energy management that they need.

by Nigel Coutts