In my hardest year of teaching, we had a toxic school culture after a leadership change. I had panic attacks in the parking lot. Eight teachers quit by December. I had a stretch of nineteen days where I had no prep period. For me, community, counseling, and creative work were my lifelines. It’s why I ultimately didn’t burn out.
I realize that every educator is different. For some people, the notion of a personal Genius Hour feels overwhelming. It seems like one more thing to add to your plate. So, I want to point out that this isn’t for everyone. Some people are leaning into exercise. Some folks are binge-watching Ted Lasso episodes. We’re all in a different place. I also want to recognize that self-care is hollow and meaningless without systemic changes. It’s an idea I explored in my last article.
But today I want to share something that has been helpful for me over the last fifteen years, from the years when I was thriving to the ones where I was close to burnout.
Taking a Personal Genius Hour
This has been an exhausting semester. The teacher candidates in my cohort are the first to do a single semester practicum rather than a full year and the typical questions, challenges, and overall growth curve of a student teaching experience has been condensed down to four months. Meanwhile, with a larger course load (8 classes) and a brand new cohort that began in August, I’m feeling tired.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. For me, this sense of tired is more of a “too much of a good thing” kind of tired rather than the result of trauma or negative working conditions. But I am finding a sense of rest and renewal in creative work.
Creative work has been my escape. I realize that “escape” has a negative connotation, but I think there are two types of escapes. The first is an “escape from,” where you avoid the challenges of your current situation through distraction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of escape but it can lead to avoidance over time. But then there’s an “escape to,” which allows you to pull back from your situation and see things differently. This escape is a refuge where you can reflect on how you’re doing while also rekindling a sense of joy and passion.
In my second year of teaching, I started giving myself a personal Genius Hour. My wife and I would give each other one evening per week to do a “date night with yourself” or an “introvert’s date night.” One of us would watch our newborn son while the other would pursue a creative outlet. This tradition has morphed over the last fifteen years but it has been a lifeline for me in the most challenging years of my career. When I first taught self-contained 6th grade and had several students who struggled with behavioral issues. I would drive home feeling like I had failed as a teacher. But my personal Genius Hour projects were a place where I could get low-pressure easy wins.
Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. Made famous by Google, this process actually began at 3M, where they allowed employees to spend 20% of their time working on their own passion projects. Here’s a brief overview of how it works at the student level.
Although we tend to think of Genius Hour as a process for students, I want to explore how we might use Genius Hour in our own lives as educators as a form of professional development. Here, you might spend hour Genius Hour acquiring a new skill. You might learn a new language or learn how to play a new instrument. Or you might question you have and engage in your own personal Wonder Day project.
Students Benefit When Teachers Have a Genius Hour
The first time I ever did a personal Genius Hour, I sat down to plan out the plot for a novel but I found myself reflecting on the day’s lesson and I spent the whole time at a Barnes and Noble typing up my lesson plans for the rest of the week. I left feeling relieved to be all caught but also a little sad that I hadn’t worked on my novel. Over the next few weeks, I found myself working a little bit on my novel but also thinking about everything I needed to do as a teacher.
I felt guilty doing creative work when I could be grading or lesson planning. It felt selfish. However, over time, I realized two things. First, self-care is student care. If I am experience a sense of renewal and restoration, I am better able to give back to my students.
Creative work can also help me develop empathy with students. I am more likely to think about inquiry, choice and creativity in my lessons because I know the value of this in my own life. I am more patient when students get scared of failure. I see what happens when I make mistakes. I understand the frustration. Right now, I am designing a creativity journal, revising a graphic novel, and designing a card game. When I engage in this creative work, I notice the following trends:
- It forces me to struggle with a new craft or concept
- I get to do creative work outside my normal domain of education
- I become more innovative in my teaching practice as I discover new ideas
- I become a little more empathetic toward my own students who are learning the craft of teaching.
I have known a few innovative principals who treated Genius Hour as a form of professional learning. They had to navigate their state and district policies to allow teachers to earn professional development hours. They were able to do so by creating some reflection pieces and aligning the process to professional learning goals.
However, it’s pretty rare for this to occur. Most of us will have to carve out our own Genius Hour away from the classroom. I realize that Genius Hour can feel like a luxury. Not everyone has a spouse where you can trade off nights to do Genius Hour projects. If you’re a single parent, for example, you might not be able to have one night a week for a Genius Hour. Some teachers really are in a place where they have to work excessive hours after school because of unreasonable demands regarding parent emails. The lost prep time due to covering classes has led to an increase in work time at home. However, in some cases, you might be able to carve out some time for a Genius Hour.
Setting Up a Genius Hour Plan
If you’re curious about how to plan out your personal Genius Hour, I have developed a template to guide you through the planning process. It consists of a series of questions and explanations that can help you plan with a sense of intentionality. You can download it by filling out the form below. You’ll receive the Genius Hour plan and you’ll have weekly access to my articles and free resources.
How to Stick with a Personal Genius Hour
It’s one thing to create a plan but it’s another thing to stick with it. You may find that Genius Hour isn’t your jam (and that’s totally fine). You might also find that the systemic demands of the job make a personal Genius Hour unrealistic right now. But if you’re like me, you might have another challenge of building habits and sticking with them. I’d like to share a few strategies that have been helpful for me.
1. Treat Genius Hour like an appointment.
Fifteen years ago, my Genius Hour plan involved one night per week. Over the years, I have modified these plans. I’ve done single Genius Hour weeks at the close of a quarter or semester. I’ve had Genius Hour mornings. I’ve also done a single writing retreat, where I took a full day off as a personal day and devoted that time to writing fiction. In each case, though, it worked because I treated this time as an appointment. It helped that I had the mutual accountability of a spouse who was also planning her own Genius Hour project.
Treating it as an appointment involves the following:
- Setting aside the time in your calendar far enough in advance
- Treating the time in the same way you would treat an appointment with a professional (after all, you are a professional who deserves respect)
- Letting the people around you know that you are unavailable during your Genius Hour time. Set an email auto-responder letting folks know you are in an important meeting. Let friends, family members, or colleagues know that you’ll be unavailable.
- Setting parameters of what work-related stuff is “off-limits”
One of the challenges I faced was my to-do list and the temptation to lesson plan. I would work on a creative project and suddenly start thinking of projects I wanted to do with students. This is why I keep a notepad next to me. Each time I have a new work-related idea (whether it’s something to add to my to do list or a new classroom material I want to create) I just jot it down on the notepad and then let it go.
2. Redefine success.
I have a sticky note that I keep in my office that reads, “This could fail.” I know it sounds negative and maybe even pessimistic to say, “this could fail.” But, actually, it’s the opposite. For me, “this could fail” is a reminder that every single creative act is an experiment. It might work. It might fail. But if it fails, it doesn’t make me a failure as an artist or a writer or a teacher. Because every failure is another step closer to success. But it’s more than simply a do-over card. It’s also a clarion call to take creative risks. It’s a reminder to write blog posts even when I’m not sure what my audience will think. It’s a reminder to sketch these videos even when I don’t feel like a “real” artist. It’s a reminder to keep working on a novel, even when I’m afraid it won’t turn out right. Sure, I could take the safe route. But I’d rather take a plunge into the creative unknown. I’d rather do things that are challenging. Because ultimately that’s where the creative life is found.
Giving yourself the permission to fail can help create pyschological safety. This sense of safety can lead to more creative risk-taking and more creative endurance. In other words, you’ll stick with it and develop a growth mindset because you know that your mistakes don’t define your sense of accomplishment.
Genius Hour is supposed to be a chance to play. The world is full of big demands and huge responsibility but Genius Hour should be low-risk. It’s a chance to make big mistakes and grow. This is why it helps to define success as showing up. Did you plan to write but only got out 500 words? Fine. You showed up. That’s what counts. Did you try to learn the guitar only to get stuck on how move from chord to chord? Again, you showed up.
3. Build momentum rather than habits.
Creative work is frustrating at first. You feel like you don’t know what you are doing and you constantly ask yourself if you’re doing it the right way. You’re also slower. You haven’t hit that place of creative fluency where you can spend hours lost in a task. Everything seems difficult. Chances are you’re not that good at it, either. So you are able to identify quality work in others but you can’t seem to pull it off on your own.
The same thing happens when you start lifting weights or running. You’re slow. You’re sloppy. Everything takes a long time. Progress seems painfully slow. You don’t have the capacity or the stamina. Everything seems new to you – but not in that cool, exciting novelty kind of way. You feel lost. In other words, the early stages in your creative journey can feel like the first few weeks of getting into running or weight-lifting or yoga. It’s painful. It’s confusing. Everybody around you seems to know what they are doing.
However, it helps to start small and build up over time. We often think about building creative habits but it’s more about building creative momentum. I make the distinction of habits and momentum in the following visual:
Note that consistency alone can help build habits. However, combining consistency with continual improvement can help lead to creative momentum. Slowly, you start improving and building up your creative endurance and eventually it gets easier to engage in daily creative work. In my experience, habits alone can lead to stagnation. You get bored with the creative process. But by continually improving, we build a sense of momentum that keeps us going.
So if we want to set goals in our creative work, we might start out by creating process goals rather than product goals:
Then, we can start off small and build over time. If you’re writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, you might start the month off with 400 words per day and then move to 600, 900, 1300, 2000, and eventually 3500 per day. Or if you want to focus on a time-centered approach, you might start with 3 minutes of writing, then 8 minutes, 13 minutes, 22 minutes, 43 minutes, etc. The reason for using strange numbered targets is that we are more likely to stick with the number if it’s not in increments of five or ten (where we have been conditioned to start later or end earlier).
4. Gamify the creative process.
Exercise apps and fitness organizations have found success in helping people develop fitness habits by using elements of gamification. Think of it this way. Video games are designed to be habitual. Whether you’re playing a simple game on your phone or a complex game with rich world-building on a gaming console, there is something inherent in video games that draw us in. This is by design. Game designers have crafted the user experience to make gameplay habitual. And it’s not just game designers. Social media apps use notifications, badges, and metrics to get us to spend more time on their platforms. Health apps use these game elements to get people to get active and eat right. What if we used principles of game design to gamify creative habits in real-life? I explored this idea in sketch video:
By using elements of gamification, we can develop creative momentum. Here are a few ideas:
- Make it easy to start. Games work because the barrier of entry is low. Similarly, in developing creative habits, you might want to start with an easier goal. So you might be ten minutes a day learning to play a new instrument or you might start out writing just 100 words per day. You can also start off with smaller projects that allow you to hit the finish line faster. There’s actually a strong rationale for this approach. By making our goals easier to attain and experiencing some “big wins” early, we gain confidence and are then able to stick with a habit over time.
- As you improve, you can increase the challenge incrementally. Here you create “levels” for yourself where you can hit benchmarks and increase the challenge level. This allows you to keep the challenge level just above your skill level. According to the Flow Channel model, if the skill level is too low, you’ll often experience worry and anxiety. But when the challenge is just above the skill level, you are more likely to hit a state of flow.
- As you go, you can track progress. You might have a progress bar or a series of tally marks. You might create badges for yourself. Another option is to use three jars with marbles and move the marbles from a “haven’t started” to “started” to “finished.” You can also create a streak that builds with each day you have participated in the habit. If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen how they keep track of consecutive days. Runners will often do a “run streak.” The same can be true of writing, painting, or reading. When you keep track of a streak, you build momentum. As you succeed, you might even create small rewards or celebrations for yourself as you hit key benchmarks.
- You might also need to create visual cues. On phones, we have alerts and notifications for games. But you can also create notifications by creating visual cues in your physical environment. For example, if you want to read 50 books in a year, leave books throughout your home; on the coffee table by your nightstand, by your computer and maybe a few other places, just make sure things are sanitary. You might also put a book in your car or in your backpack. The point is to put these cues everywhere. You might also use sticky notes with reminders of your commitment to a creative habit. Finally, you might want to join a community. Gaming often includes social interaction. As a maker, you might create a mastermind group with fellow makers who nerd out on their craft. This can give you a sense of belonging and help you take creative risks.
In the end, there is no single formula for developing creative habits. By using elements of gamification, you help make these habits stick.
5. Connect with a community.
Right now, all of my Genius Hour projects are collaborative. I’m designing a card game with my son and my brother-in-law. I’m rewriting a novel and co-illustrating it with my other son. My daughter and I are making home made ice cream and experimenting with flavors. We’re also going to create our own custom-painted Chuck Taylors.
Although I’m an introvert, I need a community in order to thrive in my craft. Creative work is often solitary. Even in collaborative projects, you will spend hours working alone. You will find that you need people to affirm you, challenge you, and share their insights with you. This is why I’m a big fan of mastermind groups. A mastermind group is a tight community where people share their creative journey with other members of the group. Typically, a mastermind group will do the following:
- Share your needs with others and ask for ideas or resources
- Share your frustrations (there’s a power to being vulnerable)
- Share your success stories
- Share your hopes and dreams that sound crazy to the world
- Share your goals and your progress toward those goals
- Share strategies with one another and solve problems together
- Share the emotional aspects of the creative journey
- Talk about potential collaboration options together
I’ve been a part of a mastermind group for about two years now and it’s been a powerful experience. If you’re not familiar with a mastermind group, here’s how it works:
A mastermind group is a self-initiated, democratic community with members who share similar goals and interests. Members meet together in small groups of 3-6 people to provide accountability, structure, and feedback. Often, they share strategies and ideas. Mastermind groups are used in in the arts, academic communities, in entrepreneurial circles, and in the non-profit world. When you join a mastermind group, you will share your journey and learn from others around you. Together, you will also share your ideas, prototypes, or work and give one another feedback. You will share your challenges and frustrations. It’s a chance to be vulnerable. As a member of the community, you will listen and provide empathy when others struggle. But you might also help others problem-solve and find solutions. Members will share success stories and celebrate those successes together. Mastermind groups can meet in-person but also online through video chats. I am a member of two mastermind groups focused on creative work. I find that the informal community has been a sort of “soft accountability” that keeps me going.
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