How decision fatigue is wearing down your homeschool (and 4 things you can do about it)

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Written by Sarah Mackenzie of Amongst Lovely Things.

It’s 11am. The twins are emptying the tea cupboard onto the floor, the 2 year-old is fussing, and I’m standing at the fridge, trying to decide what to make for lunch. Just then my 11 year-old walks into the room. “What should I be doing right now?”

As the volume of the din steadily rises, the 9 year-old whizzes past me, flinging his math book onto the kitchen counter and tossing a comment about making a break for the basement. Somebody pulls on my pant leg and I rub my head.

“Mom? What am I supposed to be doing?” She’s getting more persistent.

“I… don’t know,” I sigh, exasperated, “Just… we’ll figure it out later.”

Sound familiar? It’s a classic case of homeschooling mama decision fatigue, and I can predict it’s arrival in my house (and yours!) like clockwork every day of the week.

By now enough studies have proven that making decisions is exhausting, and as a homeschooling mom, you’re probably making a whole lot more of them than you realize.

My friend Pam came to this conclusion not too long ago. She was recently trying out my spiral notebook hack and said that as she sat and wrote out those checklists, she made about 20 different decisions that she hadn’t at all anticipated.

“These were 20 decisions that were now already made and did not have to be made in the heat of the moment while we were doing school,” she said.

Here’s why I think those spiral notebooks work so well- they force us to make decisions ahead of time, before we’re knee-deep in a busy homeschool day, thereby reducing our in-the-moment stress and frustration. We don’t have to decide every little detail in the throes of a hot moment because most of it has already been decided. [Exhale.]

So how does a homeschooling mom actually combat decision fatigue?

If we have a million decisions to make each day, how do we set ourselves up for success? I’m pretty sure I can’t avoid decision fatigue entirely, but here are a few ways I’m minimizing the number of decisions I make in the heat of a homeschool day.

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1. Write out assignments the night before.

I’m currently doing this using simple spiral notebooks, and I can’t believe how much more productive we’ve been in our little homeschool since implementing them. I’ve come to realize a hard truth about myself: when the house is loud (and it is always is) and the day is long (and it often is), I tend to default to, “That’s enough for today. Class dismissed.”

It’s hard for me to be objective about what a reasonable amount of work is when I’m being bombarded with requests for crackers and help over a grammar lesson.

Writing out each child’s lessons the night before has made all the difference.

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2. Make a schedule and (try to) stick with it for a set amount of time.

Choose a length of time to make your “term,” if that’s helpful, and then just be as consistent as you can be for its duration. You aren’t committing to a whole year or even a quarter- just try 4 or 6 weeks!

Anne tells us that a schedule is just “another way of narrowing choices,” and narrowing choices reduces decision fatigue. Once your term is over, adjust your schedule as necessary- you’ve given it a fair shot by this point, and it very well may need a little mindful tweaking.

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3. Put ideas into a queue.

To counteract my incredibly impulsive nature, I’ve started a discipline of recording ideas into a place I call “The Idea Shelf.”

Stop laughing, it’s a real thing. It’s just a sheet of paper in my notebook, really, but it’s a very, very important sheet of paper. 😉 Here’s how it works: whenever I get the urge to change directions or toss one curriculum in favor of another, I write it down on my Idea Shelf page first.

I write the idea and the date it burst into my brain, and then I let it sit. If I wait a week before doing anything with it, I end up saving myself a lot of headaches (and often a lot of money, if my brilliant idea was buying something new!). The things that really do need to change- that math curriculum that’s just not working, or the grammar book that is about to melt my 12 year old into a puddle of woe- are still a good idea a week later.

If it’s just some bright shiny curriculum I’ve seen on someone else’s blog (and must! try! right! away!), I may not feel so exuberant about it a week later and can cross it off entirely.

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4. Encourage your kids to eat their frogs first thing.

There’s an old saying that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a frog, it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day.

Basically, it tells us that tackling the most challenging task of the day can free up a lot of mental space and energy and help us get more done.

Your kids are at just as much risk for decision fatigue as you are. I tend to let my kids choose which order to tackle their daily assignments, but I encourage them to choose the hardest/most loathsome task first (math, anyone?).

It can be so freeing to know that your hardest task is already done for the day by 9 or 10 am, and you may find your kids making better (more cheerful) decisions if they get their frog swallowed bright and early.

What have you done to reduce decision fatigue in your homeschool?

About Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah is a smitten wife, mama of six (including twins!) and the author of Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace.
She hosts the Read-Aloud Revival Podcast and spends her time running the vibrant, active membership community there.

Comments

  1. I love this! I print our checklists out weekly (rather than putting them together each day), and having that list keeps our kids moving because they can always move on to something else on their list if I’m not available to help them at the moment.
    Mandi’s latest post: “Love is a Verb” {and that’s not just a song title}

  2. This is genius. Decision fatigue happens in more than just homeschooling, but when it does crop up there it can make moms and kids crabbier and less productive. We’ve incorporated spiral assignment/chore notebooks into our days recently, and they are cutting my DF by half, at least!
    Hannah’s latest post: Things That Are Saving My Life This Winter

  3. Wow. This is exactly what I needed to read. I work full time and we homeschool 3 kids. I do the planning and my husband makes sure the work gets done. So I hit the “planning wall” often, and find myself considering a change in curriculum, etc often. I love the idea of the spiral notebook!
    Kayra’s latest post: What I’ve learned from my dog

  4. So true! One thing that has helped my sanity is serving boring snacks. I decided to always serve some fruit and nut combo in the morning and always have smoothies and popcorn in the afternoon. Then once a week, we have a special teatime with something more interesting. Now I’m not starting my day frantic because I didn’t make muffins.

  5. Ever since reading about your checklist idea on your blog we have been getting so much more done. It was like a smack to my head kind of thing. Why do we try to make things harder than they need to be? It was such a simple solution. Our homeschooling has also been more productive using the “Loop” system. I love your ideas, your blog, and your adorable kids. Thank you!!

  6. Decision making fatigue is so real and something I’ve struggled with at various points of my life. The more we can put on auto-pilot in our lives, the better. That said, I think being decisive is especially challenging for certain personality types.
    Sallie Borrink’s latest post: Presidents’ Day Lapbook, Activities and Resources

  7. Great post! I have this issue constantly and plan on implementing these ideas. I like the “idea shelf”.
    Lindsey Loo’s latest post: What Feelings Say { Embracing Your Inner Guide }

  8. What program did you use to prepare the schedule (photo between item 1 and 2). We have a unique situation, My husband does the hands on homeschooling. This would help me prepare the lessons so I can plan things out and get him the things he needs before hand.

  9. oh. My. Word! God so knew that I needed this today. My school has been utter chaos, and I’m constantly making decisions on the spot…and it IS exhausting! I have wanted to quit more than once in the past couple of weeks, because I’m so overwhelmed. I make a nice pretty routine that looks great on paper, but then I don’t implement it because I get overwhelmed trying to make it all work.

    All that to say that I LOVE your blog and am constantly benefitting from what u share!
    Patty’s latest post: “Loss” has become my theme…

  10. This is so helpful! We use a workbox system and it saves my sanity so much. Taking the small amount of time to load their boxes the night before means I don’t have to do it in the middle of changing a diaper. We also have a “busy basket” of books that go along with what we are working at the moment that they can go to if I am busy and they need to wait for my help. I think I need an idea shelf as well!

  11. Hi!
    Wow, a word for what has been happening to me!! Wonderful post, great idea, I relate so well! I too have 6 kids including twins (all under ten). I am currently disassembling each child’s workbooks, dividing them into weekly chunks and stapeling them all together. This is a tremendous help and then I don’t have to write out schedules we know what to get done that week, then we get used to how much to do for each day as well. I just haven’t finished setting it up yet, so it’s chaos right now! I did it this way last year and don’t know why I abandoned it. I look forward to eliminating confusion for all of us. Love this post!

  12. Unfortunately my decision fatigue is coming from too many field trip and park day options coming up. I keep getting invited to so much and it is so hard because there is just only so much time in a day and it’s so hard to choose. But I do want to try schedules.

  13. My kids are too young to have the their own checklist, but our routine and anchors keep everything flowing without me having to figure out “what’s next.” It’s also vitally important to keep our routine with one child who has fairly severe anxiety. When things are off course, it really messes her up, so that helps me stay on track and our home is much more pleasant as a result. I’m sure as my kids get older and are more independent learners we’ll do more with individual checklists. (I remember my mom doing this with me–I was homeschooled K-12) .
    Johanna’s latest post: January 2015 read-alouds

  14. I love this post. I, too, find that life goes so much more smoothly if I take ten minutes the night before to plan a little bit. The spiral notebook idea has revolutionized our little world over here. I love when the best solutions are the simplest. I think I’ll go plan tomorrow now 🙂
    Cait Fitz @ My Little Poppies’s latest post: Asynchronous Development and The Gifted Child

  15. Ack! I read this a day too late! I have literally just bought TWO new American history programs, on top of the one I already own, because the new ones will make ALL the difference in allowing me to teach from a state of rest!!?!? I’m starting the Idea Shelf asap 🙂

    Your post on spiral notebooks has changed my homeschool life, no joke! It’s amazing how WRITING down plans the night before can make me more confident, and how much my kids love checking those boxes as they finish a subject. I also add a personal note at the end of the page, which has become a nice way to show the kids I’m connecting with events in their lives, or to remind them they are loved (which one tends to forget during her math lesson).

    I’m also reducing fatigue by trying to follow the motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Even though I may be getting a bit bored with AAR or Sequential Spelling, they work for us so I refuse to allow myself to change.

  16. Wow! this really came @ the right time! Glad to know its NOT just me!!

  17. This article came at just the right time for me as well. We’ve been testing out the “spiral notebook” wonder this month, and it’s just simplified and calmed both the mama-teacher and kiddo sides of our school day. Think I’ll add the “idea shelf” suggestion as well. Thanks for the inspiration!

  18. I did this when I was homeschooling and it worked great. There were even times when my kid would get started before I got up. I guess this is why teachers have lesson plans. You can always deviate from it, but it helps to have a foundation…spirals for the win!

  19. So simple and so helpful, Sarah! Thank you for these four tips. My favs are the Idea Shelf and the Notebooks. Really, letting an idea sit before acting on it has really saved me over the years. Sometimes we just need a little more down time and then the rhythm returns and all gets back on track naturally. For me, it’s all about reducing decision fatigue by having systems in place but also letting go of some decisions and/or activities so that we can breathe!
    Jean’s latest post: One-Day Sale

  20. I can’t believe I didn’t see this post until just now! I am the most curious about the picture of your color-coded schedule. Wow . . . WHERE did you get that? What program did you use? I neeeeeed something like that!

  21. Great reminder and tips on how to reduce our decision fatigue! I love the idea shelf as I tend to be a bit impulsive in following too many rabbit trails too. I then get easily overwhelmed in the midst of deciding what to do and where to go from there. I also love the 4-6 week term planning! Thank you for sharing.

  22. I wrote about this very thing from the perspective of one that struggles with depression, but yes, it happens in homeschooling too! Great post, Sarah! Oh and I’ve been using your notebook method this summer and am about to do my own post on it because it has been SO GOOD!! 🙂
    Candace’s latest post: Simple Oatmeal Bake

  23. I’m posting this comment here and on the Facebook post linking here, because I’m so excited about this new system I’m trying this year. Sarah, I switched to your spiral notebook system in January last year, and my kids loved it! They loved having everything they needed to do laid out in black and white at the beginning of the day. The problem was… I often forgot to update the notebooks in the evening (or was just too tired to tackle it), and they were left begging for them in the morning when time to start rolled around. Enter Simply Charlotte Mason’s CM organizer! I’ve been contemplating using it, but it is a paid subscription ($100/year or one can pay by the month) which is nothing to sneeze at. This year, though, we’re in a position to swing it, so I subscribed and have been diligently plugging EVERYTHING in. It’s like the spiral notebook system, but you can prepare it all in the summer, and for me that is key! I plan best in long, uninterrupted chunks. I’m not good at planning on the fly. The CM organizer allows me to get all my great ideas and plans plugged in NOW, and the daily printouts will help us stay on track throughout the year. Simply Charlotte Mason has a whole set of video tutorials explaining how it all works. https://simplycharlottemason.com/planning/cm-organizer/ The organizer adjusts for skipped lessons and goes with YOUR flow. I am so seriously excited about this! If anyone else is using it or plans to, feel free to contact me to chat. I’d love to hear your experience!

    P.S. I know this sounds like a paid endorsement, but it totally isn’t. Those people don’t even know me, although their tech guy Jordan and I have emailed back and forth. That’s another plus – their tech support is great.

  24. I absolutely love your blog! I am new to homeschooling my 12,9 and 8 year old. I feel like I wrote this myself that’s how much I totally relate. I started the spiral notebook agenda for each of my kids and it has helped a great deal. They love the freedom of doing work at their own pace. Not to mention the constant “what am I supposed to do next” has diminished. You are greatly appreciated !!!

  25. We stared using spiral notebooks (after learning about it from your blog) at the beginning of this school year and it really has been a game changer. When I write it out in the evening, I am thinking so much clearer than I am in the middle of the day while craziness is happening all around me.

    I love the idea shelf, I NEED this in my life! I tend to jot down ideas, but they are unorganized and in random places so they are hard to find when I actually want them. Plus, I tend to be impulsive and want to change things at any given moment, this would be a good discipline for me.
    sarah’s latest post: It all started with a fork in the garbage disposal

  26. Love this. However, most of the time, I’m not a frog eater first. If I know I have to eat frog, I put almost EVERYTHING off until I’m starving. If you catch what I’m saying. Generally speaking, I like the snowball method better. Start with the smallest or easiest task and have it done. Then the next. You build momentum and feel like you are accomplishing things. And then I’ve got more confidence for the dark, looming task.
    Of course, sometimes, you know the frog is there, you might as well eat it.

  27. I’m kind of a newbie, as this is our first year of first grade and pre-school at home, but I’ve actually been packing lunch each day for my kids. Everyone gets the same thing and they each get their own little bento box. It might seem silly, but it saves a lot of digging around in the fridge and cupboards. Also, I’ve been working on planning meals a week in advance and grocery shopping online (delivery!) so that I don’t have to wander the grocery store getting things I don’t need.

  28. I love your blog and I appreciate these tips so much. But I have a question. If you let your children determine in what order they do their subjects, how do you avoid a situation where multiple children need your help at the same time? And if that’s unavoidable, how do you keep the kids you are unable to help at that moment moving along so that their school day doesn’t come to a grinding halt while they wait for you to be available to them?

  29. For me deciding what we are going to have for meal is the most difficult. I love to cook, and do fine, as long as I have a plan. So my biggest help is to plan meals for a month at a time, it’s a pain at the time, but the boys help come up with a list, then we fit them in where it works best. When the boys were younger I would write a list of what they needed to do on a post it note, stick it on the stack of books, and they would check off as they got things done. Now that they are 15 and 12, I usually give them X amount that needs done for the week. Then they can do it how they like as long as they are done at the end of the week.

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