This article first appeared in the September 2021 Edition of HWRK Magazine.
I may not look like it, but I love running. When I’m at my “peak” fitness level (which is not only rare, but also far less impressive than it sounds) I’m able to get myself up at 5:30am, throw on my running gear and do a reasonable 5k. This lasts about two or three weeks, then I run out of steam. I make excuses to miss the odd day, which quickly spirals into a string of missed days. Right now, my non-running streak is at the several month mark. I desperately want to run though, so why on earth can’t I stick to my routine?
Well, I do have a theory. I can’t prove it, but whenever I tell someone, it seems to resonate with them. It’s got something to do with biscuits.
My running “routine” (if you can call it that) involves a lot of thinking about not running, then talking myself into running, then forcing myself to actually do it. If there are any obstacles in my way, like having to do something else urgently (or even not urgently), or if I’ve had a heavy meal beforehand, or if I’m tired, then I justify to myself that I don’t need to do it this time. I’ll just do it tomorrow and everything will be fine.
But, it’s not fine and it gets much worse. My routine is easily destroyed if I do something simple, like eating a biscuit. This might seem like a small thing to you, but what eating a lovely little biscuit does is signal to me that “you know what? Running isn’t that important. You can just eat biscuits. Nobody will mind”. It’s a seductive voice. Think M&S Christmas food advert voice. In the end, the biscuit always wins and I’ve found the perfect excuse to stop running. If I’m eating biscuits, then I’m already not being healthy, so I might as well quit exercising too. Game Over.
What’s this got to do with teaching though? Well, in September, we all like to start with a clean slate and embed good habits and routines, both for ourselves and our students. These take a little getting used to, but with a bit of effort, they stick and after a couple of weeks, you might even think “I’ve nailed it”. Cue, the biscuits.
Once you think you’ve embedded your routines, like setting frequent retrieval tasks, enforcing a behaviour management strategy, or keeping on top of your emails, you will inevitably hit a point where you think, “I’ll just not do it this time. I’m… too busy. Plus, I’ve already stopped doing that other Very Important Thing that I was supposed to be doing. I’m only human and sometimes I need a break… That’s it, I deserve a break” But at this point in the year, it’s a trap. It’s the M&S Christmas food advert voice again. And it really isn’t on your side.
Once you miss a day or two, or a week, or longer, your routine will naturally fall by the wayside. But worse, it will then be harder to resurrect it than it was to start it from scratch. It’s tainted by “failure” now. You’ve lost your streak. It doesn’t have that special shiny new object feel that it had, back in that first week in September, that felt so motivating.
Fear not though, there’s something I’ve found helpful in exactly this situation: Plan for the inevitable breakdown of your routine.
Make a decision, ahead of time, about what steps you will take when your routine goes to pot. Think about how you’ll feel when it happens and also what your lack of routine will do to your day. Then, make a To Do List which deals with those issues. Keep it brief, actionable and realistic. Then have it ready for when the inevitable happens. You’ll thank yourself.
Tonight, before I wrote this, I enacted my own To Do List: I laid out my t-shirt, shorts, socks and trainers. I’ve set my alarm for 5:30am and, in a rare stroke of genius, I even set the timer for the coffee machine to come on. I am going to run. There’s nothing to get in my way. I’ve removed the metaphorical biscuits.
Then, tomorrow night, I’ll just lay out my gear again. It’s much easier to get back into my running routine (and stick to it) once I’ve greased the wheels a little by taking the effort out of the period where I’ll be at my most vulnerable to giving up, i.e. bleary-eyed at 5:30am.
So, grease your wheels too. Automate and schedule your recall tasks in Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, or whatever platform you use. Have a handy phrase that sums up the behaviour principle you need to keep remembering and repeating. Display it on your classroom wall so neither you nor the students can miss it. Set aside a time of day where you are undisturbed and ONLY allowed to deal with emails. Remove those biscuits.
But most importantly, when it goes wrong, just remember: If I can get back into running (and hopefully one day soon my favourite work trousers), then you can get back into your good routines. After all, you chose them for their usefulness in reducing your workload, or because they help students make more progress. They may even serve an important moral purpose. To thrive in this job, you need your good routines to stick and you really can do it.
Best of luck (and don’t forget about the biscuits).