A School Director Talks Sustainability: 5 Productive Ways to Improve Your Work and Life Satisfaction

Leah Peters, graduate of Cornell University (BS, 2007) and the University of Houston (MPA, 2011), began her career at YES Prep as a TFA corps member and 7th grade math teacher in 2007. She has served as School Director of YES Prep East End since 2011. Peters and her husband have a 7-month-old daughter. The post below is an excerpt from her personal blog, found at http://bossgirlproblems.blogspot.com/ .
I saw the article, “25 Jobs Employees Say Have the Best Work-Life Balance,” on Facebook today, and it made my blood boil. I am of the fundamental belief that we engage in conversations about “sustainability” because we are too scared to have a fierce conversation with ourselves about what we truly want from life. Each of us has tremendous power over our work and life satisfaction. No one can define what sustainable means for you but YOU. I currently enjoy a high level of satisfaction with my life and career. I am SO grateful for that. But it didn’t happen by accident or by luck. It happened because of an intersection of privilege* and owning my power over my life.

Here’s my list of 5 things you could do to improve your life and work satisfaction.

1. Decide what you value.

In order to feel any level of satisfaction with your job or your life, it must align with your values.

I’ve known that I wanted to work in education since I was 16. The iterations have changed: I thought I wanted to be a Special Education attorney, an education policy analyst, a math teacher, etc. I do not value making a lot of money or having a super flexible schedule or having a lot of autonomy. I just want to work in public education, and in particular, I want to work in educational systems that serve the most vulnerable populations of our society. I believe educational equity is our generation’s civil rights issue with every fiber of my being.

When I engage in an honest conversation with myself about what I value, I KNOW that I wouldn’t be happy doing a job creating spreadsheets for 40 hours a week that made lots of money. I choose to be happy and fulfilled, so I understand that I have to forgo certain things (fat salaries, Fridays off) to work in education. I have made peace with that because it doesn’t matter what industry you work in, you can’t have it all at once. Fortunately, at least in my school system, I have it pretty damn good.

Do work you value. 

2. Determine how, when, and under what circumstances you work best. 

Know yourself and under what circumstances you are your best self. Be strategic about how/when/where you work as a result.

My job requires me to interface with a lot of people on a daily basis. I am super introverted, and this is often really, really hard for me. I went to a professional development session called The Breakthrough Coach that shared the brilliant idea of breaking your week into days you’re in the office and days you walk around campus. If I know my only job is to engage with people all day, I am MUCH better at it. When I know I have at least one day per week to sit in my office and jam through tasks, my inner task master is at peace.

I know that I work best alone and in the early morning hours. I am most alert in the mornings, and I love working in a silent house with a hot cup of coffee. I build my days strategically so that I complete outside of work tasks in the early morning.

Finally, actually WORK at work. I got this from The Breakthrough Coach, too. This brilliant guy postulated that we are too casual with our time at work and then wonder why we’re doing tons of work at home. He challenged us to work EVERY DAY like you work when you know you’re going on vacation. Get real about doing your work at work and living your life at home. If you are more mindful, more fully present, and more committed in both settings, you’ll be AMAZED how much gets done.

Make the work you have to do work for you.

3. Communicate your boundaries and commitments clearly; then align your actions.

I took e-mail off my phone. Why? Because I want people to use e-mail to communicate non-urgent information, requests, and actions. I want to check e-mail during designated times in my day. I work best when I am able to fully unplug after work. I do not want to respond to e-mail in less than 24 hours, and I definitely don’t want to be held hostage to responding immediately. I want people to know they can call or text me if something is urgent.

When I first communicated that I wouldn’t respond immediately to e-mail, I was still doing it. It’s one thing to SAY you’re not going to respond immediately and another to actually align your actions.

People stopped e-mailing me urgent requests/information when I aligned my actions to my own boundaries and commitments.

Set boundaries, then follow them. 

4. Protect what’s most important to you.

It is unreasonable to say that you want to be a highly successful professional, get 10 hours of sleep, work out 7 days a week, make organic meals from scratch, volunteer at your local animal shelter, play on Facebook 6 hours a day, go out for drinks with your friends whenever you want, and spend 3 hours a day with your family. I often feel like complaints about sustainability are complaints that boil down to: “I don’t get to do exactly what I want to do when I want to do it.” No adults get to do exactly what they want to do when they want to do it.

Decide what’s most important to you and protect it fiercely. Here’s the catch: EVERYTHING can’t be important. That will set you up for disappointment and dissatisfaction. Pick 1-5 things that REALLY matter to you, and protect them with all you’ve got.

Here are mine, in order of importance:
– Spending time with my daughter in the evenings (bath and bedtime) at least 4 nights per week Monday through Friday.
– Cooking dinner and eating dinner with my husband at least 3 nights per week Monday through Friday.
– Sleeping at least 6-7 hours a night most nights.
– Exercising for 30 minutes at least 4 times per week.

What does this mean in practice? If there are two nighttime events at school and one is mandatory and one is optional, I say “no” to the optional event. I don’t feel guilty about it or worry that someone will judge me, because life is too damn short for that. I’m going home to put my baby to bed. I fulfilled my mandatory commitment, and I did it to the VERY best of my ability. The end.

Know what is important and protect it without apology. 

5. Be grateful.

I started using the Five Minute Journal this month. I LOVE it because it reminds me to be grateful every, single day. I have not yet reached the level of gratitude expertise where I’m good at telling people what I appreciate, but I DO think about it a lot, which is the first step.

Take time to be grateful for what’s working and what you love.

Acknowledge and celebrate the good. 

Finally, know that a career is a long, meaningful trajectory. It is unlikely you will feel “sustainable” in your first year in a new role or after a major transition – there are too many unknowns. If you’ve recently made a commitment to a new job or new role, OWN your decision and know that it’s going to take some time to get your feet under you. That’s why doing work you value is so important – you’ve got to play the long game.

I feel confident that we can use our energy productively to drive our satisfaction with work and with life. Use your power; take charge of your own life and sustainability.

*This set of beliefs comes from a place of privilege – privilege of race, SES, education, marital status, employment, etc. The discussion of the way privilege and cultural identity intersect with my beliefs and perspective and current work/life satisfaction is WAY beyond the scope of this post. Please just know that I recognize that I have been afforded SO many opportunities that permit me to have this perspective.

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