by Richard White
When I was a young boy of 11, I was a little bit of a geek (go figure), and for a while there, I really wanted to be a mathematician when I grew up. My main inspiration at the time was the Time-Life book of Mathematics, with pictures of a roomful of glowing computers, and a transistor, and logic tables, and logarithmic spirals, and a Klein bottle (not really, of course), and… well, I never did become a mathematician. Kind of like my brief fling with racing motorcycles, it turned out to be one of those things that seemed really cool and do-able at the time, but then later on turned out to be a really bad idea. For me, anyway. (I had one look at Grand Prix roadracer Kenny Roberts dropping a knee on turn 11 at Laguna Seca, turned to my friend Dave, and said, “I am NEVER doing THAT!”

It was somewhere in that Time-Life Book of Mathematics that I learned a little game theory, and probably there that I first heard of a zero-sum game. The general idea is that–in games, economics, and in daily life–many things are zero-sum: wins and losses balance out and add to zero. Not ALL situations are like this, of course, but some things–playing chess, or betting in poker–are. If White is checkmated, Black has won. If I lose $5 in a hand, my opponent wins $5. Those things are zero-sum.

And the workday is zero-sum as well, of course. The hours, minutes, and seconds add up to a day worth 24 hours and change, and time I spend sleeping is time that I don’t get to spend reading. Time I spend working is time I don’t get to spend playing (usually). We all make choices about where we devote our time and energy. To quote a former district superintendent of mine (who I didn’t like very much, but she was right about this one thing): “You can have anything you want. But you can’t have EVERYTHING you want.”

So a few years ago, anytime someone at work suggested I start doing something new, I decided it was time for me to acknowledge the zero-sum day. “That’s fine, I’ll start doing XYZ, just as soon as you tell me what I DON’T have to do anymore. I’ve got a limited amount of time here, so…what do you want me to STOP doing, so that I can do your new thing?”

This isn’t just brash impertinence or a snotty case of “you can’t make me.” It’s an honest question, with increasingly important consequences. You want me to email parents regularly? That’s fine, as long as I can give up calling them. I’ll take on Facebook, and give up MySpace. I’ll start blogging for friends, if I can use the blog to replace writing the majority of my personal letters. But in a world that makes increasing demands on my time, it’s increasingly important that I take an active stand in not parceling out my life to the detriment of my family, my friends, my health…

The one exception I’ll make for this rule is this: I’ll consider investing time upfront, with the understanding that I’ll have a good chance of reducing time/energy expended on the back end. I few years ago, I decided to transition from using a whiteboard in class to using PowerPoint-based presentations, and I knew that moving three 3-inch-thick ring binders worth of material into electronic form would require some time. The payoff came the following year: lesson preparation was a simple matter of tweaking a few slides that I wasn’t happy with, and I was now in a position to be able to distribute copies of discussion materials in-class or online, as desired.

Here’s an interesting exercise. Assuming that you ARE going to have to incorporate some new activity, process, or technology into your life in the next few days… what would you give up? What are you ready to let go of in your workflow? What previous commitment are you ready to say “goodbye” to?

P.S. Just a quick follow-up to this post: Will Richardson over at Weblogg-ed laments that many teachers have difficulty in being “selfish”: taking time from the day to learn something new for themselves, rather than always focusing on delivering in the classroom. He wonders if it’s “just not in our DNA?”

I think that’s about right, at least metaphorically speaking. Teachers do tend to be caring, giving, nurturing people–those that aren’t get out of the profession fast; it doesn’t pay well enough! If I’ve got 30 minutes in the evening, I might:
a. Spend it with my family / friends,
b. Grade those papers, or
c. Spend that time reflecting on my practice and thoughtfully reading blogs from my Personal Learning Network (PLN).

In the Zero-Sum day, it’s not hard to see which of these tends to get neglected.

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