A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Five levers to reshape our work-life narrative
Recalibrating our daily existence through realistic expectations
By Suzette Lovely | September | October 2023
Once upon a time, we left work at 5 p.m. and did not physically or mentally return until the next day. Today, work is slippery. We roll out of bed in the morning, shoot off a quick text and start our to-do list. Work has no slow lane or off ramp in any true capacity. Like gravity, work is a natural outcome of our existence in time and space.
It’s easy to blame unrealistic expectations, 5G or the pandemic for the blurred lines between one’s personal and professional life. Yet, Americans have a long history of being driven. Busyness is a badge of honor. Science shows that certain elements of busyness can become addictive. Novel events satisfy our curiosity, provide a dopamine rush and condition us to want more. Moreover, jam-packed days make us feel “morally admirable” no matter the output. According to Harvard Business Review, the human desire to stay busy generates unnecessary work, extends the time it takes to complete a task and exacerbates burnout (Waytz, 2023).
Out-of-sync expectations
While most leaders say they encourage staff to take time off to “recharge,” it’s often a soft push. After all, staffing shortages and workloads are exacerbated when people take time off. Consider your own office culture. It’s likely the “best” employees come in early, stay late, answer emails on weekends and have excess vacation days on the books.
There’s no better time than the present to get real about work-life balance and the out-of-sync expectations that surround it. The term itself implies an artificial separation between work and life. Yet, trying to separate the two creates undue pressure to achieve a sense of utopia that doesn’t exist. Even if we believe this separation was once possible, it isn’t anymore. The start and end of the workday is a moving target. Our minds don’t turn off and on with the flip of a switch. As women, we’re forever mulling “work stuff” as we drift off to sleep, drive the kids to soccer practice and rehearse a difficult conversation in the morning shower.
To find harmony and joy in the interconnected roles that comprise daily life, a new narrative is needed. Until we move past self-deception like “People will think I’m a slacker if I don’t attend this meeting,” or “I have no control over my schedule,” the biggest obstacle to recalibrating our daily existence is ourselves.
Aligning reality with aspirations
Running in high gear from dawn to dusk gives the impression to subordinates that they should be doing the same. While school leadership may require a sense of urgency at times, operating in constant code-red is ill-advised. Of all administrators, principals are the most prone to burnout. No matter where they are assigned, enthusiasm and high hopes drive principals through the first few years on the job. But soon the unanticipated twists and turns of the position make them question their career decisions. Initial euphoria is replaced by worry and despair. Nationally, the average tenure for school principals is four years. Roughly 35 percent of all principals leave their school, move to another site, or leave the profession within two years (Levin & Bradley, 2019). The fact that one in five schools experience annual principal turnover should not be lost on us.
Many women leaders accept their positions thinking they’re going to change the world. But school leadership is not a superhero competition. To be someone’s hero, we don’t have to be the best principal, the best parent, the best birthday gift giver, and so on. Aligning reality with aspirations requires the synchronization of desires with actions and then tricking our brains into thinking differently. No extraordinary powers are needed!
Reversing course
If busyness is sucking you into an abyss, it’s time to reverse course. It’s far better to take one small step that brings about real change than spend months planning all the bigger steps you might take. Consider five levers to escape the whirlwind and reshape your work-life narrative:
1. Dream smaller: Conventional wisdom says if students are encouraged to have big dreams, one day these dreams will come true. But what if the opposite is true? When we’re young, our sphere of reality is tiny. While my third grade niece may dream of going to the Olympics one day, she’s more excited about getting to gymnastics class to practice for her weekend competition.
But as we get older, our dreams grow. Opportunities abound. Grandiose goals are set to bring grown-up dreams to fruition. Sadly, the small ordinary dreams of childhood — especially for women — often become so imposing in adulthood they cave in on us (Flanagan, 2017). Big lofty professional goals may sound impressive to the boss, but they can lead to shame, self-loathing and guilt when we don’t achieve them.
Conversely, microscopically small dreams can actually catapult us to make strategic decisions that set bigger dreams in motion. For female leaders, this supplies much-needed momentum to move from a state of feeling overwhelmed to a state of doing, and ultimately to a state of dreaming bigger (Lovely, 2022).
2. Chunk it: “First Things First” author Stephen Covey noted that people can want to do the right things and can want to do them for the right reasons, but if they don’t apply the right principles, they’ll hit the wall. How many times have you hit the wall in the past week? The past month? The past year? One strategy I use when I get overwhelmed is chunking. Chunking is a way to simplify assignments when taking on a massive project (think LCAP) or when juggling several projects at once. The idea is brilliantly explained by NBA star Michael Jordan. When Jordan was asked how he was able to average 32 points per game over the course of 15 seasons, he told reporters that he broke his scoring into quarters. Figuring he could get eight points a quarter one way or another, the NBA legend chunked this feat into manageable pieces as opposed to thinking about an entire 32-point spread. Chunking work works!
3. Bend the curve: Improving effectiveness is not about speed or quantity: it’s about velocity. Completing work around lofty (and often unreasonable) standards causes excessive effort to be put into things that aren’t worthy of such effort. Women more so than men yearn for control and perfection, causing us to lose sight of the big picture and experience disappointment when we (or others) fail to live up to these expectations. Although perfection may have helped get you where you are now, it will strangle you as you aspire to higher levels (Helgesen & Goldsmith, 2018).
For most tasks, the law of diminishing returns kicks in after a certain amount of time and effort begin to outweigh any gains. Improving output requires bending the curve in a more positive direction. To start, make a list of priority projects in two columns: 1) Projects worth doing extremely well and 2) Projects simply worth doing. For example, if you’re creating a 10-minute presentation to kick off a PD day, does the presentation have to be perfect or just done well? For each project draw a curve of diminishing returns and put an X on the point where you reach GETMO — good enough to move on (Groeschel, 2019, as cited in Lovely, 2022).
4. Recalibrate your relationship with technology: While technology is great at giving us what we want, it doesn’t always give us what we need. Tech creep takes over every aspect of life. Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007, we’ve been on an information treadmill. Scrolling, liking, sharing, DMing and searching go on and on. Life is passing us by as we choke on half-formed thoughts. Consider a few limiting beliefs about devices. If I’m not “always on,” I may miss something important. If I leave my phone in the car, someone may be trying to reach me. If the internet goes out, I can’t get any work done. If I don’t respond to this text right away, my boss may think I’m MIA.
While school leadership may require a sense of urgency at times, operating in constant code-red is ill-advised.
No one teaches us how to create boundaries around “the creep.” However, there are simple techniques to maintain a healthier relationship with the digital world. First, unsubscribe, unfollow and delete irrelevant emails, apps and social media accounts. Decluttering translates into less things to read, fewer distant acquaintances to worry about and fewer distractions. Then, pick a regular time to check email and messages throughout the day. There is no prize for being a rapid responder every second your phone buzzes. Next, substitute boredom or loneliness with a non-tech replacement (coloring, puzzles, reading a book, etc.). Finally, work out at least one day a week without any devices. Although fitness wristbands and earbuds promise a better workout, they expand into new forms of control. When we go for a walk or run, ride a bike, hike or do yoga, the goal should be to get closer to nature. Unplugging to fully focus on quality fitness experiences does wonders for the mind, body and soul.
5. Play: Pausing for play does more than take one’s mind off a problem. When we play, it engages the creative side of the brain and silences our inner editor that censors positive thoughts and ideas. While educators are all about play when it comes to the healthy development of children, we tend to ignore the benefits for adults. Just because we’re school leaders doesn’t mean school has to be all about work. Play is a powerful source of relaxation, it reduces stress, and makes us feel young and energetic.
Giving ourselves permission to play improves physical and mental health and boosts workplace relationships. Consider a few playful activities to incorporate into your day:
  • Make a list of fun things you enjoyed doing as a child and share the list with a colleague.
  • Google a “playlist” of fun ideas for adults and pick one to try.
  • Create a play drawer and fill it with Play-Doh, puzzles, coloring books, etc.
  • Put play into your schedule by heading to the playground for an exhilarating game of handball with students.
A new way forward
The notion that our jobs compete with life implies that one or the other is always vying for attention. Rather than try to balance these opposing entities, school leaders need a new way forward. Recalibration happens as we become present in the moment and strengthen our relationships with friends and colleagues. Taking small steps to replace a regrettable habit with a better choice destresses the mind, expands self-awareness and changes our work-life narrative.
Flanagan, K. (2017). Why dreaming small is way better than dreaming big (a child’s wisdom). Blog Post accessed at http://drkellyflanagan.com/why-dreaming-small-is-way-better-than-dreaming-big-a-childs-wisdom/
Groeschel, C. (2019). How to bend the curve as cited in Lovely. S. (2022). Helgesen, S. & Goldsmith, M. (2018). How women rise: Break the 12 habits holding you back from your next raise, promotion, or job. Hatchette Book Group.
Levin, S. & Bradley, K. (2019). Understanding and Addressing Principal Turnover: A Review of the Research. Learning Policy Institute and National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Lovely, S. (2022). Rising through the ranks. In J. Keating & J. Kuller (Eds.), Women who lead (pp. 93-108). Solution Tree.
Waytz, A, (2023). Beware of the busyness trap. Harvard Business Review.

Suzette Lovely is a former superintendent, author, executive coach and search advisor.