Banishing The Culture of Busyness

At the start of each year we arrive back from our break hopefully rested and energised. The new year brings many new opportunities including new students, new team members and new teaching programmes. We begin again the climb up the hill with a fresh group of learners arriving at our doors full of excitement who will rely on us to meet their learning needs in the year ahead. All of this means we are at risk of starting the year with a certain level of panic. There is so much to do, our students are not accustomed to our routines, we don’t know each other well, there are parents to meet, assessments to be done and before we know it we are back to being busy. 

Being busy is rapidly and disturbingly becoming the new normal. Our days seem to get shorter and while we feel like we are fitting more in we also seem to get less of what really matters to us done. Like poor Bilbao Baggins playing riddles in the dark “We need more time”. And yet all this busyness is perhaps the biggest part of our problem. Increasingly those how are interested in time-management, mindfulness, human performance and leadership are offering research that reveals the damage our cult of busyness is causing. The upshot of all this is that to get more done and to start the year positively we need to include time to slow down, switch off, let our minds rest and rebuild our cognitive capacity. Not only does this down-time allow us to better cope with the challenges of the times when we need to be on, it is in these down-times that our brains process and synthesise new understandings and generate creative ideas. Einstein understood this and said ‘Creativity is the residue of time wasted’, revealing the importance of giving our minds time to process thoughts in the background of our subconscious.  

Last year at this time I compared the days at the beginning of the year to a sprint and the weeks that come afterwards as the marathon. The initial pace we set for ourselves in these early days as we rush to do all we can as quickly as we can clearly cannot be sustained. The year ahead of us is much more like a marathon and we know we will need to conserve our energy for the many challenges that lie waiting for us; however, there is more to how we approach the start of the year than just conserving our energy for the mid-year reporting cycle. How we start will determine how we finish and wise carefully considered decisions now will set up positive patterns for later in the year.  

For our students, this is the time when they learn to trust us as the guide they will require for the year ahead. Across the days and weeks at the start of each year they are told what to expect and what is expected of them. Promises are made and exciting opportunities for learning are outlined. In the coming weeks, they will judge the reality of their experience. Handled well the result will be students who feel known and trust that their teachers will meet their learning needs; handled poorly and the damage can be hard to undo. If we move too fast now, make quick choices, react rather than taking the time to reflect and get things right the first time we miss opportunities to model to our students our fullest understanding of what it takes to be a learner.  

For students, new to a school the next few weeks may be very important. The initial celebrity that comes with being new has worn off and friendship circles are rapidly forming about them. Some will negotiate this with ease but many will find challenges here. This is the time when our pastoral care programmes earn their keep and a culture of acceptance and inclusion pays off. It is also a time when they need opportunities to switch-off and experience moments of quiet calm. They will rely on their teachers to set this tone and create these spaces for them.  

The initial panic at the beginning of the year is often a construct of our fear that we have so much to achieve and so little time to do it. Compared to the students who have just left us this new group naturally seems to need so much; after all they are a full year behind. The desire to quickly fill that gap is natural but will not benefit our students. Taking a step back and identifying each little step towards our goal for the year is important. This is also the ideal time to remind ourselves that learning should be more about the journey than the destination. Our students might need to be ready for high school or final exams or even University in just twelve months’ time but they also need to enjoy where they are now with their learning.

For us as teams of teachers the start of the year also brings new challenges. Some of us will be new to the school, others will be in new teams and some will be renegotiating well known connections. At the start of the new year a period of ‘storming' within our teams is typical as relationships are tested and negotiated. Beyond this phase comes a somewhat dangerous period of ‘norming' where team cohesion appears. This can be a time of calm as much of the stress of the initial weeks is put behind us and the team’s natural rhythm surfaces. The danger is that too much cohesion can lead to 'group think’ where divergent thinking disappears. Effective teams should be able to shift back and forth between divergent patterns of thinking where new ideas explode into possibility and convergent patterns where the best of those ideas are put into place. Throughout the marathon that is a school year including opportunities to shake things up with some quality divergence can keep teams fresh. 

To maximise the benefits of divergent thinking, innovation and creativity will require that all important down-time. Our busy, always connected lives mean that we are more likely to react to divergent thinking badly, more likely to reduce the space available for creativity in our teams and are less likely to personally engage in innovative thinking. If we hope to have innovative organisations or we desire to produce a culture of learning where new ideas are embraced, we must respond carefully to divergent thinking. Rather than worshiping at the altar of busyness we need to respect the times we spend quietly, calmly and reflectively ‘wasting time’. 

By Nigel Coutts - Adapted and updated from - Between the Sprint and The Marathon

To better understand the cult of busyness join me in reading "Too Fast to Think: How to reclaim Your Creativity in a Hyper-connected Work Culture' by Chris Lewis