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Three Steps to Stress-Free Online Teaching Using Productivity Tools

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Teaching online can bring stress in managing competing commitments, diverse teaching tasks, and multiple modalities. To free online educators from overwhelm and stress, productivity strategies provide structure to the work. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares three productivity tools that include a prioritization matrix, task batching, and time boxing to help online educators structure their work and keep time investment within limits. Learn how to simplify your approach to the daily work of teaching online and feel a sense of relief by reducing your stress.  

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host Bethanie Hansen, and I’m happy to be with you today to talk about stress-free online teaching.

Why would you want stress-free online teaching? I mean, is online teaching stressful?

It really depends on who you are, what you’re teaching, and what your context is. There are a lot of people who have taught online recently who never taught online before. If you had to learn it quickly, it might be stressful. Or if you have a high workload because you have a lot of commitments, a large number of students you teach, and you’re also writing courses, this could also be potentially a stressful situation. Depending on how it’s managed and what you’re facing.

There are all kinds of reasons for stress in our work, whether we are teaching or in some other profession. Stress can come from the conflict between what we’re trying to do in our personal lives and what we’re doing at work. Or stress can come from our perception of the way people are treating us or the way the situation seems to be.

Whatever it is in your life, I want to help you let go of your stress. So today, I bring you three steps to stress-free online teaching. You might be surprised that these steps could be used in any profession, anywhere. They’re actually not that unique to online teaching. So, if you happen to stumble upon this podcast by mistake and you’re not an online educator, listen in.

These tips just might help you in your “day job” or the way you manage your life.

Prioritization Matrix

The first step I’m going to share with you is called a prioritization matrix. Now a prioritization matrix is a really fun quadrant-based tool. It’s kind of like that Y and X axis thing that you learned in algebra one, way back when. If you draw a line horizontally and another one vertically that intersects it somewhere in the middle, you’ve got your four quadrants.

And when you think about prioritizing your work, you can really try a variety of approaches. There is the Eisenhower matrix made popular by Stephen Covey, and that would be the urgent and important. So, on this very four-quadrant tool I just described, you can list “urgent and important” in one corner, “urgent and unimportant” in another corner, “important but not urgent” in one corner, and of course “not urgent and not important” in another.

And the goal of that tool is to shift as much of your work as you can to the important but not urgent category, which is where your strategic goals and your long-term planning happens. I’m not focused on the Eisenhower matrix today, but it’s a very similar way of doing this.

In your prioritization tool that I’m sharing, this is four quadrants where you’re going to list what you must do yourself and it has to be done with excellence, what you must do yourself but could be B-minus level work or lesser quality, what others could do but it must be done with excellence, and what others could do that could be B-minus or lesser quality work.

If you think about tasks that must be done with excellence, whether you or someone else must do them, you can often delegate some things. And if we think about the domains of work and home life altogether, this could include things like household chores. It could include hiring someone to do housekeeping because maybe you’re going to take a little more time for your online teaching and won’t have time to clean up the house. And it would give you a lot of relief to have someone else come in a couple times a month and do that. You might find a family member that could pick up the slack.

You might also consider teaching tasks that must be done with excellence but don’t need to be done by you. There are course design tasks, where if you’re working with colleagues or a course design team, sometimes you can share those responsibilities with other people. You could have a teacher’s aide who helps you grade the work that needs to be done well with excellence, so the students get great feedback and can keep growing, but maybe it doesn’t always need to be done by you. Think about the different tasks that you must do, or others can do that need to be done with excellence either way.

And then in the other two boxes, we’re going to think about tasks that could be done at a lesser quality, like B-minus level work. And then of course there are the two categories: tasks that you must do, tasks that others can do. And when you think about those things, not everything needs our most detailed, highest-quality, best level of effort. When we think about B-minus level work, I’m sure there are many things that come to mind that could be done.

Putting things in these categories either for yourself or for others to pick up, that can help you let go of some stress. Especially if you have a tendency toward being perfectionistic. So, think about who could do that work at the B-minus level or if you can do it at a B-minus level.

Task Batching

Now, there’s a second step to stress-free online teaching that, as I mentioned, can also apply in different types of work. And this I stumbled upon recently, a fabulous strategy called task batching.

This is a productivity hack, and it’s a process where you group similar activities together and this improves your focus and your productivity at the same time. Let’s just imagine you’re an online teacher and you’re teaching three different classes. Task batching would be like, you know you need to respond to emails, you know that you’re going to go into the discussion and engage with dialogue, and you’re going to type some conversational parts back and forth, you’re also going to create some course announcements for the week. Maybe you’re going to make some quick impromptu videos and you’re probably going to grade some assignments.

If you’re using the task batching strategy, you’re going to group those things into similar tasks. So, you might do all of your grading first. You might do all of your forum engagement and replies all together, like pop in to all three classes and post your comments. And then you might do your announcements and do all three classes at the same time. And you might do your videos, so create one video for class A, one for class B, one for class C.

When you do this, you don’t have to shift your focus as often, as you’re doing a similar type of work, and it can add nice variety into your day by giving you some high-focus activities and some fun activities. I would suggest ordering those in a way to make sense to you, so it is that way. They’re not all serious concentration. Some tasks only require light concentration, some need a break in between.

So, think about the way you’re going to do the task batching and how you can break it up so that you’re not switching so much from class to class. Now if you have an energy slump in the afternoon and you already know it’s really hard to concentrate at that time of day, think about how you might put something more engaging or fun at that part of the day to help you raise your focus and reduce your stress.

I have a great link to an article on task batching that can help you figure out how to task batch your day by prioritizing your to do list, breaking down your projects and your different tasks, and grouping them into the different functions that they represent. Think about how much time this is going to save you by not switching so fast between things, and how much energy it’s going to save you when you only have to focus on one type of task at a time.

When I’ve taught a lot of courses at one time and had a high student load, that really was the energy drain. To go in to one class and have to do each task in that one class and then move on to the next class. It can make the process of teaching online very overwhelming. So I highly recommend task batching. Many of us have tried this strategy at times but just didn’t know what it was called. So check it out.

Time Boxing

And your third step to stress-free online teaching, this one is called time boxing. Closely related to task batching, you’re going to actually take chunks on your calendar, and you block them out for certain activities so that they’re uninterrupted and you’re not tempted to check email or Facebook or go get lunch. You are going to sit for that designated amount of time and then you can adjust your level of work to get the work done in that window. If you take this approach that means you don’t let your work spill over and take an extra hour or two. You really do keep yourself within the limit.

So, for example, if you have three hours and you know you have 30 student essays to grade, you would take those three hours, block that out—time box that space on your calendar—and figure out how to get each essay done in the amount of time it’s going to take to get through all 30 essays in those three hours.

Now there are some advantages to time boxing. First, this helps you take a look at your big picture of all the jobs that you have to do and all the tasks that you can take care of. Second, it’s another way to prioritize those tasks. Whatever takes the most effort, you’re going to put your best time of day.

It will help you see progress when you’re getting things done. It also really kills perfectionism. It increases your ability to communicate with your colleagues or family members about what you’re doing and when. It also drives predictability to your work.

If you’re a spontaneous person and you really resist this, I do encourage you to try it anyway, because you might find that it keeps your work within limits and it helps you get your work done during the workday, so it doesn’t spill over into your family life. Also, it keeps a record for you of the work that you’ve completed. You can see what you’ve done throughout the day, and it helps you be much more engaged in your process so you’re not feeling like everything just keeps coming at you in an online course and you’re in reaction mode. It helps you to be a lot more proactive.

To just to sum up, we’ve got the quadrant prioritization list, whether it’s high-quality or B-minus level work, work done by you or by others. We’ve got the task batching tool to group similar tasks together, and lastly, we’ve got the time-boxing technique.

Of course, all three of these steps can work together, or you can focus on just one of them. Either way you can find your online teaching is a lot more organized and a lot less stressful and you can enjoy your students a lot more. Thanks for being here, and best wishes in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is the Department Chair of Religion & Philosophy, Art, and Music an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) for the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is a Professor, coach, and teaching excellence strategist with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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