How to Ease Into Back-to-School Without Losing Your Mind

The back-to-school season can be incredibly demanding. Modern Mentor shares her own experience - and advice - for easing into the fall season with grace. These tips will help you balance high-productivity with a sense of humanity.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #663
The Quick And Dirty

Maintaining your equilibrium during the back-to-school season means staying on top of the Four P's:

  1. People
  2. Priorities
  3. Practices
  4. Promises

Every change in season commands a change in energy. And the transition from summer to fall may be the most demanding.

Though we always know it’s coming, there’s something jarring about watching the languid days of summer button themselves into the rigor and structure of fall. And this year’s transition is more complex and consequential because…well, you know. (Um, yes, we are still in the pandemic). 

Working parents, with still-healing battle scars, are once again wading through the uncertainty around back-to-school. Business forecasts and customer behavior remain hard to anticipate. To return or not to return to the office continues to haunt, and we can’t seem to collectively kick burnout and loneliness.

Whether or not you have kids, this season can punch you in the face if you let it. So let’s all agree to not let it. Fall demands that we shift into high-gear. But bumping up productivity shouldn’t mean losing our sense of self-preservation. 

I’ve been running a workshop with leaders to help them implement strategies to support their teams in finding productive and self-loving ways of working. Today let’s talk about how you can apply the workshop’s principles for your team or for yourself.  It’s grounded in 4 P’s: People, Priorities, Practices, and Promises.

Let’s dive into each one:


People refers to you and anyone who relies on you to be whole and present. This may be a team you lead, your family, your students, your community of faith, your customers, etc.

Summer, for many of us, provides a bit of healing space. We breathe easier, we take in more sunshine, we travel (or staycation), we have barbecues with friends. We refuel our emotional tanks. And the fall seems to want to push us back to empty.

So before the chaos of the back-to-school season overtakes you, start by checking in with yourself and your people. Are you fundamentally, Okay?  Do you have access to the essential tools and resources you need, be it childcare, sufficient Wi-Fi connection, someone to check in on your parents, a quiet place to work?

You can’t deliver amazing results without having your basic needs met. 

Here are some ways I ready myself and my people for fall:

Extra kid-time: I hang with my kids making sure they have their schedules and supplies, while addressing their anxieties about the new school year. (I can’t erase their anxiety, but I can show up and listen!)

Friend-checks: I check in with my nearest and dearest working-parent friends so we can vent, cry, scream, or do whatever we need to do to ready ourselves for the barrage of fall.

Life-proofing: I get my resources lined up – my carpool buddies, my tutors, my trainer at the gym – everything I need to keep my train on the tracks.

There’s no shame in needing help. What will you need to feel whole and armed and ready to jump in? Prepare yourself.


Ask yourself: What must you deliver in this season, the final quarter of 2021?  And what are the critical few projects, actions, or areas of focus that will move you there most efficiently and impactfully? Be reflective and think holistically – about work and beyond. 

On my end, I have some critical client projects that must be homeruns. But also, in full disclosure, I have one daughter who’s struggling with some things right now, and another who’s made the freshman soccer team. I want to delight my clients, support my kid in pain, and cheer on the left striker. 

What matters is clear. And that clarity fuels my ability to say no to speaking gigs or marketing projects that are interesting but aren’t going to move my priorities forward.

How can you find that gift of clarity for yourself? Get clear with your boss, team, and people around what must be delivered by year-end. Work meetings, doctors’ appointments, open spaces for learning and networking – these all matter. Your job is to ask and answer – what makes the cut this quarter?


Now we’ve covered your "who" (people) and your "what" (priorities). Let’s talk about your "how." How will you hit these critical priorities – all of your priorities – out of the park? This isn’t about “best” practices – it’s about your practices – the ones that will serve your needs.

In looking back over the past 18 months, it feels like I’ve caught only fleeting glimpses of my best self. But when I pause to reflect on what that version of me was doing well, I can spot some trends: 

Scheduled self-care: My workouts, walks, and even short deep-breathing sessions go on my calendar. Because these are non-negotiable, I can wiggle on the “when” but not the “if.”

Consuming widely: I’m always reading fiction, non-fiction, listening to podcasts of all genres, and chatting with an array of people. All of these habits feed the creativity I need to deliver at my job.

Celebrating daily:  I keep a daily list in my Bullet Journal of that day’s wins because every victory deserves recognition. And celebrations make us want to do it again. Here are some from today’s entry: 

o      Had a two-minute conversation with my daughter that didn’t end in “OK Boomer!”

o      Got a note from a client telling me she just used one of the strategies we discussed, and it worked.

o      Felt anxiety creeping on so I took a two-minute breath-break.

o      Had a lightbulb moment that I’ll test in the new program I’m designing.

Now it’s your turn. What are the things you can do in a day that keep you feeling effective, aligned, and caring for yourself and your people?


We begin with priorities and practices. But it takes promises – commitments to ourselves – to stay on track and evolve as we need to. Priorities change, new means of self-care emerge, and routines can get stale. And you need a means of observing and responding. So how will you continue to monitor what’s working and what should be adjusted? 

Here are some of the strategies I use to keep myself honest and on track:

The spouse test:  My poor husband is the first to know if I’m off my game. He’ll note my crankiness or antsy-ness (sorry, honey) when I’m overworking or under-break-taking. And he knows to call me out gently but firmly.

Accountability buddy: A beloved and trusted colleague and I touch base weekly – sometimes even just by email. We share our commitments with each other and report on successes and failures. I hate reporting failures. So knowing that check-in is coming motivates me to do what I should.

Watch for my “tells”: For many of us, heightened anxiety leads to excessive social media checking. We are seeking distraction from whatever is difficult in our lives. So when I’m falling down that social media rabbit hole, I know it’s time to pause and reset. 

Now your turn. What promises will you make in service of keeping yourself productive and in balance? Doing a few critical things unforgettably well will beat doing everything at baseline every time.

Wishing you a graceful season of back-to-school filled with ease!


About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.