As we head into spring, many of us are ready to feel the benefits of greener environments, sunnier days, and warmer winds. In the field of education, spring also signals the final stretch--the fourth quarter--and the rounding out of a year (hopefully) well spent.
With spring, there tends to be a resurgence of hope, eagerness, and energy. We borrow good vibes and joyful moments from the changing landscapes, outdoor activities, and moments of transformation with family and friends.
While the weather often impacts our overall wellbeing, it's important for us to talk about other factors--yearlong factors--that can impact us, as well.
There's much that's been said lately about self-care, and I personally believe that some of the best care is the kind that helps us preserve our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual energy. If you want to care for me, actually do something that calms my nervous system, promotes regulation, and protects my energy.
While district and school teams should utilize systems, individuals can utilize boundaries--often limiting or abstaining from activities or actions--in order to create protective space for your wellness.
Here are 10 ways you can protect your energy, and create helpful boundaries, any time of the year:
1. Take a weeklong break from social media.
Starting off with a big one, I know! While I realize there are many positive benefits of engaging with family, friends, and colleagues through social media, the truth is--it's an energy vacuum. Social media apps are designed to keep us engaged. They want us to spend our energy partaking in their content. If you are looking for ways to protect and conserve your energy, you've got to start by creating boundaries around digital content and the amount you consume. I'm not suggesting you delete your accounts or never scroll again; however, I am suggesting you give yourself at LEAST a week off here and there to give your brain some breathing room.
If you're not ready to take a break, at least do yourself the favor of truth and audit your screen time spent on social media. Know your numbers and decide if the amount of time you spend on social media aligns with your values or not.
2. Delete social media apps from your phone.
While I'm not suggesting that you delete your accounts, I am suggesting that you delete the apps. Ha! You can keep the accounts, just not on your phone. By eliminating the immediate ease and instant gratification of clicking on the app, you create a system of engagement where you have to really, really want to look at the content. Deleting apps will help you to pick up your phone less, which means you'll spend more time doing...anything else. Literally anything else. Read. Cook. Take a nap. Take a shower. Play a game with someone IRL. Walk. Workout. Clean. Sleep. Write. Create. Sleep. Eat. Play. Dream. Sleep.
Try this out. You can always add an app back, but just see what it feels like to have a little less of a pull, a little less of an instant access.
3. Keep and maintain a strict bedtime routine.
Speaking of dreaming...setting and adhering to a strict bedtime routine is suggestion number 3 if you are serious about wanting to protect your energy. I know it's tempting to stay up to watch one more episode. And I recognize that staying up or staying out can make you feel a little less "responsible" and a little more "human" but the truth is: your body needs rest. If you are looking for ways to protect your energy you need to create energy-creating situations (aka--sleep). I am a firm believer in attempting to go to bed at a relatively common time each night. Not only does a "bed time" take the mental guesswork out of your brain, it also helps your body get into a more natural rhythm of rest and rejuvenation. And, if you no longer have social media on your phone...your urge to sit and scroll will quickly become non-existent.
If you have children, it's possible that your nightly round of sleep may be interrupted (though I hope for you that it isn't!) so why not give yourself the assurance of at least knowing you chose sleep at a reasonable time--especially if you anticipate any type of night waking with your kids.
4. Make your bed each morning.
Confession: I didn't make my bed, routinely, until I turned 36. I read Admiral William H. McRaven's Make Your Bed (because our 8th graders were going to adopt the book at this time) and I was hooked. I starting making my bed, and after about two weeks--I felt calmer. More capable. Dare I say put together. I honestly couldn't believe I hadn't been making my bed up until that point. It seemed, all of a sudden, so out of character for the new me. Now I love making my bed so much--I can't stand it when my husband, Brad, offers to do it.
I semi-cringe at the cheesiness of the last sentence, but seriously I do love making my bed! There is something about actually starting the day with that task that just feels...good. It is settling. Calming. And so, so simple. If you are not a current bed-maker, please understand that not long ago, I was just like you. Also: start making your bed. Go make your bed right now if it's unmade. You will feel better, calmer, less edgy. You will, over time, feel energized from this simple act of integrity each day. You know that you will make good choices because you've already made one. You learn to trust yourself more, follow-through more, and generally seek goodness. Trust me on this one. Make your bed.
5. Take a break from shopping--at least for a month.
When I say take a break from shopping, I don't mean take a break from household necessities like food, medicine, hygiene or cleaning products. This break is specifically around shopping for "stuff." For me, it is clothes. For one of my best friends, it's make-up. For another--it's anything random on Amazon that looks good. If you want to try this, but feel a little intimidated, you may want to delete your shopping apps off of your phone for the month. Another tactic is to unsubscribe from monthly boxes and bags that bring random stuff into your house. We think* subscription services are going to feel like a treat or create ease in our days, but really I think we end up with more unused stuff.
At the end of 2022, I decided I wanted to try a year of not buying clothing. I love to shop, I love to buy new clothes, I love it all. Except I also love simplicity, and integrity, and doing more with less. I realized that my frequent, unnecessary, random shopping trips where causing me to live out of integrity with other values that I hold dear. I also noticed myself wanting to buy new clothes when I felt anxious about a trip, situation, or life event. Shopping was an emotional crutch--and one I realized I didn't really want or need.
So, for all of 2023--I am have gone shopping (for clothes) free. The truth is, I feel so much lighter. I actually started mid-December of 2022, but who's counting, right?
I am happier, I have time back (that I would have spent online shopping) and I am continuing to pair down my current wardrobe to only items I actually really love. In truth, I could really donate so much more. I think as the year goes on, I will do just that--and I'm excited to see what's "left" when I'm done.
I feel better in the clothes I do wear because I must like them if I'm keeping them. I also know I'm making a positive impact on the environment (not to mention the savings account) because I'm not continuing the cycle of fast fashion or consumerism (for this year). I chose to take a year off of clothes shopping because I also realized that buying clothes gave me a dopamine hit. It created a fleeting spike in satisfaction that would then lead to a dip of energy later. I'm 39 years old. If I want to actually increase my energy, I need to take responsibility for where I've wasted it--and the truth is--I've wasted a lot on clothes shopping in the past.
If you're really wanting to protect your energy, think of where you're spending your time, energy, and money--especially on truly unnecessary items. Maybe you don't take a break from shopping for a month--maybe it's Starbucks or wine. Maybe your break is from make-up, or you decide to only borrow books from the library from now on. Maybe you take a break from eating out. Your shopping break doesn't have to be for a year--it can be for a month. Just figure out where you can gain energy back by spending and consuming less.
6. Reduce items in your home.
When we feel overwhelmed and stressed, our brain is experiencing dysregulation. While there are many simple actions you can take to regulate your body (breathing techniques, tapping, sips of water, sensory activities, etc.) there are also actions you can take to regulate your environment. Clutter--even tucked away clutter--can add to our energy consumption and burnout. There is no shortage of lists that exist to guide us through de-cluttering every square inch of our homes, so the good news is: there are tools we can use to slowly but surely purge unnecessary items taking up mental space in our environments.
You may start with junk drawers or closets; you may organize or tidy up the garage. You may tackle one space at a time, or give yourself an entire month to go through one room. I don't know that the speed matters, but rather, the actual pairing down feeling of minimizing more of your things.
Some people embrace the idea of a capsule wardrobe for this very reason. Others will simplify the types of food or health products they use. Believe it or not, every item you purchase, and every item you keep--it's taking up energy space in your life.
Now apply this same idea to your classroom or office at school. Do you really need to keep all of the files in the filing cabinet from 10 years ago? Do you really need to keep those random decorations, old curriculum resources, or fidgets that you've collected through the years from students? Consider files on your devices--what can be purged or deleted there?
Then, take a look at your wall space in your classrooms, too. I know we want our classrooms to be inviting spaces of dignity for all students, and to accomplish this, we may need more quiet, blank space than we once thought. As a coach, I've had the joy of visiting thousands of classrooms through the years, and the truth is--when I walk into a room with very little blank wall space--I struggle to focus. Imagine what a conflicting message this sends our students' brains on a day to day basis: focus on the lesson, not the 2.7 bajillion cute things all around the room. What?!?!?
Environments impact our energy, and the more "stuff" in the environment, the more "stuff" cluttering your mental energy, too.
7. Decrease sugar intake by at least 50%.
While we're on the subject of reduction as an act of conservation, let's reduce our sugar consumption, too. We know that sugar provides a momentary metabolic burst--and then--we know we will eventually crash. The more sugar we take in, the more we need to maintain sugared-energy levels. If we can look for ways to reduce our sugar intake from the start, we can replace those calories with more satiating nutrients, fibers, and fats. Truthfully, stabilizing our blood sugar is an act of self-care.
So imagine how counter-intuitive this is in our schools! Because we are stressed and overwhelmed, we often celebrate with pitch-ins, shared meals, and food. Often the celebration takes the shape of a donut, cookie, ice cream bowl, or candy dish. And while I am 100% a fan of eating sweets and treats (I'm not suggesting that we cut all sugar, forever and ever indefinitely) I can take a step back and see that to combat our energy zapping environments, we reward ourselves with energy-zapping food. Ahh!
This is really hard. Resetting and protecting our energy means we need to eliminate what's draining our energy and increase what's protecting it. Sugar, in truth, is an energy drainer. The good news is we know this and we can easily, without any cost at all, reduce it. This doesn't sound fun or glamorous, I know. But we aren't making a list of 10 ways to create fun and glamour in your day; we're making a list of ways to protect your energy--and I'd rather have a continuous glow than a fleeting sparkle.
8. Use timers and Do Not Disturb features on your devices.
I'm going to shift back now to our devices, and how timers and setting Do Not Disturb hours can create the mental boundaries that we need. It is not healthy to feel "on call" 24/7, and once again--we can do something about this. At home, create very clear start and end times for yourself regarding your devices. Create email-free hours. An email free hour is not just that you won't reply. An email free hour is also that you won't check your inbox. Yup. And I totally need to heed my own advice on this one!
A few years ago, I realized how inappropriate I had been (for years and years) by sending work related emails to colleagues after the school day. For our intents and purposes, I'm going to call 5:00 pm the end of the school day because for many teachers we do need some time outside of the student day to reply to communication. I'm not suggesting that you should go until 5:00, however, I do think most people believe that's an acceptable time to send or receive work communication.
If you are a colleague, set norms with your team around communication open/communication free times. Also, establish one main channel of communication. Managing email, text, Polo, Slack, messenger and whatever else you can think of is just too much. Pick a place and communicate there.
If you are a school leader, set very clear communication free times for your staff. Tell them you will not send email or communication past X time unless it is an emergency. In an age where we all have the ability to send emails at a scheduled time--we need to use this feature. We need to send the message that we respect the boundary around work/home time--and then we need to stick to it.
In terms of our phones, I also suggest that you set Do Not Disturb messages for yourself once you enter your bedtime routine hour. Simply knowing that there is a virtual filter for you to slow or pause the communication from the outside world will allow you to de-stress, calm, and more easily prepare for rest. And if you want to be really adventurous, consider having tech-free challenges within your family or home for certain amounts of extended time. Simply knowing that there will be less access to your brain space will remind you that you do have control over your energy expenditure!
9. Find 30 minutes a day of noise-free time.
We're still sticking with the theme of less is more, especially in regards to regulation and energy conservation. Constant noise is constant clutter for our sense. For some of us, this will be incredibly uncomfortable. Without background noise, we'll be left with whatever thoughts or emotions flood through. For others, the quiet will feel like a waking nap--providing your mind, body, and spirit a little surge of calm and rest.
Some people enjoy waking first in their homes to start their day with quiet. If that is you, consider additional rituals you can create in this time. Light a candle, meditate, pray, journal, or sit with a warm cup of tea or coffee--and just feel the mug in your hands.
Because sleep is such a precious commodity, and many teachers already have to get up ridiculously early, you may want to create those moments of noise-free time elsewhere. If you typically drive or commute to work, occasionally travel in silence (ie, no radio, music, or podcasts). If you work out or walk, try experiencing the movement without noise. If you typically come home and turn on the TV or some other type of noise right away, consider giving yourself 20-30 minutes without.
During your day, find more moments of quiet time during your classrooms. Whisper more to communicate important information (I promise, this works!) and actually name the noise-free/quiet time for your students. You don't need 30 minutes of consecutive quiet, so please don't think I'm suggesting that you magically get your 1st grade class to sit, read, or think in 30 minutes of silence every day (ha!) However, there is power in the energy-creating space that noise-free moments can bring. Our students need this time, too.
If your work space is too much, consider sitting in your car for 10-15 minutes during your prep or your lunch. If a place can provide you quiet and rest, seek it out, especially when you feel yourself entering overwhelm, frustration, and dysregulation.
10. When possible, plant both feet squarely on the ground.
This suggestion comes from my sister who is a licensed massage therapist. In her experience with bodywork, groundedness is an incredibly important tool we must use to stabilize our energy flow. By planting both feet on the ground, we send a signal to our brains that we are stable and safe. There is a calming effect from this simple action. So consider for a moment the next meeting you need to attend--especially if this meeting would typically create anxiety or overwhelm. During the meeting, pay attention to your feet. Place them both firmly on the ground beneath you. Avoid crossing your legs or feet--simply keep them planted on the ground.
In your home, before laying or lounging, take 2 minutes and sit with your feet squarely on the ground. Or, stand for that time--breathing in and out--with both feet on the ground. Again, to protect your energy you have to assure your body that it is safe, capable, and strong. Grounding yourself by planting your feet is a simple, effective strategy to signal honest care.
In order to create safe, regulated spaces that protect our energy, we have to create boundaries for ourselves and embrace the idea that less is more. More mental space, more emotional space, more spiritual space. More time, more room, more true joy. More calm, more rest, more connection to ourselves. More patience, more quiet, more in-between.
Energy is always there and it's always moving. If we fill our time and space with "stuff" our energy will flow into it, and out of us.
If we leave enough space around ourselves, intentionally, our energy will be restored.