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Earlier this week, my friend George Couros wrote a wonderful post about seeing the value in balance and it had me thinking about the role of balance in creativity and teaching. 

Years ago, my friend Wayne gave me some great advice about balance and self-care. Although this was about the non-profit world, I think it pertains to teaching as well.

He said, “John, people think about balance like a scale but it’s more like a highwire balance where you are also spinning plates. You can picture that, right? The sticks and the spinning plates?”

I nodded.

He continued, “The point is not to keep the plates going. You do that and you’ll fall off the wire. The real point is knowing which plates deserve to fall. That’s balance. It’s not a scale where you can easily move weight back and forth until you have something precise. It’s a high-wire balancing act with spinning plates.”

And I’ve thought about that metaphor so much. As a classroom teacher, I let certain plates drop: data charts, nice-looking bulletin boards, committee work. As a professor, I see the same plates dropping. And I’m okay with that.

I’m convinced that the balance I have right now has everything to do with which spinning plates fell to the ground years ago and which ones I said, “no matter what happens, this one has to keep spinning.”

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Breaking Up with Busy

When I was a new teacher, I believed I had to give 110% in everything I did. I thought that the best teachers were the ones who arrived first and left last. I was a busy teacher, taking on all kinds of committee work and saying yes to every project. But then I had a moment when I decided to “break up with busy.”

I arrived home from work and my five-year-old son was already holding up a baseball.

“We can play, but I don’t have a lot of time,” I told him.

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All I could think about was my to-do list. I had a department meeting to plan, papers to grade, and small projects to finish. However, as I slipped on the baseball glove, something changed. I forgot about my list. We tossed the ball back and forth.

But my son kept asking, “Is there still time?”

Is there still time?

I couldn’t answer it.

So, that night, I met with my wife and talked about my schedule. It was a hard conversation, where we talked about long-term priorities and what kind of a dad, husband, and teacher I wanted to be. I realized something critical: I was chasing perfectionism and trying to make a bunch of people happy and neglecting the people who mattered most.

That’s when I broke up with busy. I quit committees. I limited my projects. I set a curfew for myself at work. I learned when to give 110% and when to give 11 or 12 percent.

See, I was drowning in busy and yet I’d been wearing busy like a badge of honor; like I was winning some imaginary competition. But life isn’t a game. Actually, Life is a board game and I think it’s also a cereal (at least according to Mikey).

But here’s the thing: You don’t get a trophy for packing your schedule with more projects and more accomplishments and more meetings.

All you get is a bigger load of busy. But busy is hurried. Busy is overwhelmed. Busy is fast. Busy is careless. Busy is a hamster wheel that never ends and a sprint up the ladder without ever asking where it leads. There are moments when life gets busy. I get that. But I never want busy to be the new normal. I never want to look back at life and say, “Wow, I was really good at being busy.”

In this moment, I started to distinguish between being busy and being productive. The following video explores this in-depth:

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There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. Being busy is about working harder while being productive is about working smarter. Being busy is frantic while being productive is focused. Being busy is fueled by perfectionism while being productive is fueled by purpose. Being busy is about being good at everything while being productive is about being great at a few important things.


I Became More Creative and More Productive When I Embraced Balance

When I decided to “break up with busy” and let some of the plates drop, I noticed something happening. I actually became a better teacher. After the difficult conversation with my wife, I remember thinking that I would be making sacrifices as an educator. However, that’s not what happened. I actually had more time, more energy, and more mental bandwidth to create epic projects for students. It turns out that I was more productive when I was able to rest. Here’s what I mean:

  1. I crafted better projects. I finally had the time to prepare project-based learning unit plans and resources because I wasn’t spending insane amounts of time inputting grades or putting together bulletin boards.
  2. I took creative risks. Once I found the root cause of overworking, I began to experiment with student-centered learning and get over the fear of making mistakes as a teacher. I had already been shifting toward project-based learning and design thinking but now I felt the freedom to take it to the next level.
  3. I started transforming my practice. I began to focus on the things that mattered most and giving myself permission to be less-than-perfect in areas that were not as important. This ultimately helped me to prioritize and focus on transforming instruction in my own classroom.
  4. I became more of a maker in my own life. I began to engage in creative work in my spare time. For example, I started to do a Thursday evening Genius Hour project which ultimately led to things like a novel or sketch videos. I still make time for passion projects each week. For years, my wife and I have both taken one night a week to go work on our own passion projects.
  5. I shifted further toward student agency and empowerment. I had already been asking the question, “What am I doing for my students that they could be doing for themselves?” I was on the journey toward empowering students with voice and choice. However, once I was truly able to “break up with busy,” I took this student ownership to the next level by letting students self-select the scaffolding, engage in their own project management, and assess their own learning.
  6. I grew more reflective. When I was no longer rushed, I was able to step back and think about my practice and focus on long-term ideas and strategies.
  7. I was able to embrace more of a growth mindset. The truth is perfectionism had kept me madly spinning plates but now that I let a few plates drop, I found that it was okay for things to be imperfect.
  8. I became more optimistic. When I was tired all the time, I grew resentful and entitled. I felt like my students owed something to me because of how hard I  was working but now, instead,  I was able to appreciate the craft and experience of teaching.
  9. I started leaning on others. I  recently wrote about the idea of a mastermind group and that’s what I had. I would meet with a few close teacher friends and have a beer because I suddenly had time to meet with others and, more importantly, I was learning how to be vulnerable.
  10. I became curious again. I started to see the wonder in  the world around me. I started creating my own Genius Hour projects and learning new things that had nothing to do with teaching. I started reading books and listening to podcasts that weren’t about education. But here’s the wild part of it – even though these things had nothing to do with teaching, they ended up building my background knowledge for the years when I ended up teaching math, science, social studies, and language arts.

In other words, I became a more relaxed, more creative, and more curious teacher when I let the plates drop and shifted from busy to being productive. This idea is at the core of a great book called Essentialism (and I’ll be leading an online book study on this in January).


Embracing Essentialism

Essentialism is the idea of doing fewer things better. As the author of Essentialism, Greg McKeown describes it this way:

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

This means focusing on the few things that actually matter and learning to say “no” to opportunities that aren’t essential. It’s also the idea of choosing to engage in deeper work with fewer distractions. It’s why I’m on Facebook and Twitter less often lately.

I love the drawing he created of two different approaches to how you spend your energy:

In the first diagram, you focus on so many areas that you end up scattered. By contrast, in the second one, you are going in a single direction and actually accomplishing more. You can focus your time, attention, and energy on a few singular goals that you care about rather than frantically putting out fires.

But it’s not just a matter of letting the plates drop and staying in a singular direction on the highwire. Rest is also about stepping off the high wire and into the building, setting the plates down, and resting. In fact, it turns out that rest is vital for creativity.


Why Rest Is Crucial for Creativity

When you look at some of the most productive and creative people in the world, they have something surprising in common. They rest. They tend to sleep a full eight hours a day. Many of them work out on a regular basis and they meditate daily. You see this in history as well. Charles Darwin regularly went on long walks where he would give his mind a chance to wander and mull over ideas. Now, I get it. There’s a certain luxury to this that teachers rarely experience. You’re in a profession that can be a  grind. Even when you love it, the job can be exhausting.

However,  it turns out rest is actually a critical element to our productivity. Thomas Opping describes why the brain needs a break:

According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.

When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.

We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.

I love that idea. We need rest. It’s actually a critical element for creativity. In the book RestAlex Soojung-Kim Pang describes how the professors who work the most actually publish the fewest papers and why the people who push forward without stopping inevitably fail to reach their goals. It turns out rest is vital for divergent thinking. It’s how we make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Furthermore, it turns out that routines and boundaries don’t diminish creativity but actually help to facilitate it.

However, he warns, “If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”

If you’re interested in joining a book club on  Rest in December, check out the details at the bottom of this post.


This Takes Courage

So, if we want to have balance, we need to let the plates drop and focus on the essentials. But we also need to do less and embrace rest. When this happens, we are more creative and more productive.  We improve in our craft and we ultimately become better educators. And yet, this is scary. It can feel risky to let people down and to say “no.” If you take pride  in your  work, it can be tough to say,  “I’m going to  give 20% here so  I can give 100% elsewhere.” Other times, the larger fear is that you might miss out on a cool opportunity. But ultimately, it’s worth it. You’ll be more creative and more productive when you let a plate or two drop.


Join the Book Club

I will be starting a book club on the book Rest starting on December 1st. If you’re interested, please fill out the following form and I’ll send details in the upcoming days.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Sacha Hunt says:

    I love your podcasts! They provide so many ideas and encouragement. In my busy day, I love that I can listen to them. However, this particular one and the podcast about struggle seemed to have been cut short. They are 7 mins and 10 mins respectively. I came to the website to read the rest, but would have loved hearing the entirety of this blog. Was this just some kind of glitch?

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