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The Set Aside: How to Eliminate the Midnight Worries

Last night I made a rookie mistake. At the end of a relaxing night, just as I was getting ready for bed, I picked up my phone, saw a notification of an email from one of my students’ parents, and clicked on it. I really should have known better.

Luckily for me, my coaching training has taught me a trick or two about handling stress because, as you guessed, this was a potentially stressful email. The parent was concerned about her son who was struggling with his first week at school. A common worry which, just a year ago, would have completely ruined my night’s sleep.

It’s an all too familiar complaint of the classroom teacher: lack of sleep due to worry about a student, tossing and turning over how to respond to a parent’s distress, a roller-coaster of doubt contemplating different approaches and all the various ramifications of whatever next step you may have to take. I am pleased to say, I have found the answer: the ‘set aside’.

The ‘set aside’ is a neuro-linguistic technique that helps your brain when it is trapped in a particular line of worrying or stressful thoughts. In a nutshell, you formally ‘schedule’ a time to worry, giving your brain reassurance that the problem will be dealt with and taking away your conscious need to dwell on it. It not only works for niggling professional stresses, but also for persistent unhealthy doubts, habitual negative emotions and big-picture global worries that continuously plague your thoughts.

The steps are simple: when a concern or negative thought pops up, first thank your mind for bringing it to your attention, then set a very specific time for dealing with it (for example, Tuesday afternoon at 2pm). Imagine yourself putting the thought in a box, closing it and labeling it “Tuesday”. I recommend writing it down on a post-it, or literally scheduling it in your calendar, to reinforce the idea. Then when the appointment arrives, take the time to think through the thought or emotion again. You don’t need to solve the issue, just recognise it and explore it. This trains your mind to only worry about something when you are ready to worry about it and takes away the need for your unconscious mind to constantly nag you.

So that’s exactly what I did. I told myself “thank you for bringing this to my attention and alerting me to its importance. I will set aside time on Sunday at 11am to think this through”. Then I actually set the appointment “reply to X’s Mum” on my Google Calendar and that was all it took. I was able to lay my head on the pillow and relax. It took one quick reminder when a nagging thought popped up again, but once I reinforced the set aside, sleep came easily. The next day,I had a few vague, but not worrying, thoughts about how I could phrase my reply, but the knowledge that I would deal with it on Sunday meant those thoughts were quick little fly-aways rather than lingering distractions. I did not experience the preoccupation or stress that I would have had in the past. By the time Sunday 11am came around my subconscious had done all the work and I was able to frame a reply within 10 mins.

An important side-note: I wrote my email reply to the parent on Sunday morning but then I used “schedule send” to ensure it would not be sent until Monday morning. This is one way I protect my weekends. When people have the impression I answer emails outside of work hours they are more frequent at sending them. Of course this little slip has also reminded me not to check school emails on Friday evenings. I have to take responsibility for my own well being too. Everyone within a school community should look after themselves while looking after each other. That’s a win-win for us all.

I thoroughly recommend trying out the set-aside on your next niggling worry. Whatever is on your mind is important, acknowledge that and appreciate it. Then assert to yourself that it will be dealt with at a specific time. Make sure to schedule it in, writing it down in your calendar. Then simply let it rest. Be strict with yourself if the nagging starts up again; it may take a while for your brain to trust in this strategy. To reinforce that trust you must follow-up. Make sure you address the issue at the scheduled time. You will likely find the problem isn’t as difficult as you originally thought, as in the intervening time you have found perspective and your subconscious has been able to work through it peacefully.

Investing in the initial diligence and persistence needed to make the set-aside work will bring you many stress-free hours in the future. Soon it will become a habit of thinking and your brain will fully trust that when you say you will address something, you will. The need to stress will reduce along with your sleepless nights, leaving you with more energy to bring joy into your classroom. You can thank me later (schedule it in:).

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