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The Brilliance Two-Step: Turning Ideas Into Action

How To Attract Brilliance

Why do some people seem like they’re rocking it, making big things happen in their schools, while other principals can barely manage the day-to-day?

The basic answer is, of course, productivity. High-performance leaders can simply accomplish more in the same amount of time.

But we don’t want to just speed up; we want to do better and more impactful work.

And that takes thinking. Better work comes from better ideas.

Setting Yourself Up for Brilliance

As school leaders, we make an enormous number of important (and unimportant) decisions every day. Our brains stay busy.

How can we set ourselves up to have great ideas and turn them into action?

The same way an Ivy League university recruits its student body: attractiveness and selectivity.

Or as Nobel laureate Linus Pauling put it:

The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.

Sometimes we attract good ideas, and sometimes we don’t. When the day is a frantic blur, we don’t have good ideas, because we’re not prepared for them.

I find that great ideas pop into my head the more I:

  • Prepare for what’s going to happen that day
  • Build physical activity into my day
  • Read widely and talk with other people (especially my brilliant wife, Dr. Amy Baeder) about what I’m reading
  • Write down all of my ideas

This last point—writing down all of your ideas—is one of the most powerful recommendations I can make.

But where do you write them down, and what do you do with them?

To Do, and Not To Do

I write my ideas down in my to-do list inbox. A lot of people are surprised when they hear that modern to-do list apps, such as ToDoist, have an inbox, since that’s something we associate with email.

The inbox is essential, because it allows us to implement Pauling’s second step: throwing away the bad ideas. When I write something down, I’m essentially brainstorming. We can’t—and shouldn’t—act on every idea that ever pops into our heads.

From the inbox, we can process each idea, just like we’d process email: We can delegate it, defer it, do it, or delete it.

Many of my ideas go on an “ideas” list within my to-do app, so they’re not deleted, but they’re not mixed in with my current action items.

From there, it’s a matter of planning projects to turn the good ideas into action.

Write down ideas, and separate the good from the bad. That’s the Brilliance Two-Step.

1 When Do I Need a Database? How Can I Make One?

How do you keep track of the many kinds of data that you deal with? You probably have a variety of reports and spreadsheets, but you may also want to consider a database.

This morning I was consulting with a principal who was very organized, but was reaching the limits of her system for keeping track of student information. In order to keep track of different student data, she was using an excellent system of spreadsheets and forms, but they were proving too much to keep track of in a growing school.

Being organized is great, but every system reaches its limits periodically. A system should be only as complex as it needs to be, but when that complexity makes it harder and harder to use, you may need to switch to new tools.

In our work as school leaders, this often means switching from spreadsheets to databases. (You may also need to switch from loose records to a spreadsheet, but that’s a topic for another post).

In most cases, your district, region, or state will provide a database for student information, but if not, or if you have other data-tracking needs, it’s important to know when and how to switch to a database.

Signs You Need a Database

  • You regularly receive information that requires you to update more than one record, e.g. a student file and two spreadsheets
  • You need to share the task of entering and/or accessing data
  • Your spreadsheets require you to re-enter information each time a new record is added (e.g. contact info for a student each time a discipline incident is logged)
  • It’s hard to tell what action to take based on the status of all of your records
  • You’re having to sub-divide your spreadsheet into different sections for different people, e.g. to record multiple payments for each student

If any of these apply to the data you use in your work as a school leader, you may need a database. Feel free to leave a comment if you’re not sure – spreadsheets are powerful, but they can’t do everything.


You need a database if you have multiple records that need to be associated with a given person or issue. For example, if you have five emergency contacts for some students and only one for other students, a database is better than a spreadsheet, because you can have a set of emergency contact records, and a set of student records, and connect the correct contacts to the correct students. You’ll only have to ever update a record one time, since the information is linked rather than duplicated when it’s related to several people (such as contact info for siblings).

Making a Simple Database
It used to be that databases were beyond the reach of ordinary professionals, but new tools like Zoho Creator make it easy to drag and drop form fields together to make a simple database. If you’re willing to invest a bit of time in learning the system, or if you have a technically minded staff member who is, you can even make a powerful custom application that can generate reports.

This means all of your data can go in one place, multiple staff can access and update it, and you won’t have to worry about updating several records when there are changes to make.

Here’s how to get started with Zoho Creator, and here’s a video tutorial.

If all you need is a one-page form for entering data, you may not need a database; take a look at Google Forms and see if that will do what you need. Google forms are simple, web-based forms that allow people to enter information, which is then saved into a spreadsheet.

But if you need to link multiple kinds of records, or if you find yourself juggling several spreadsheets and getting lost in the mess, a database may be the way to go.

Again, feel free to leave a comment on this post if you have questions.

To Do (But Not Today)

How do you track the work that you won’t get done today, but still need to get done? As I talk to school leaders around the country, one of the most vexing challenges I see time and again is the need to track work that doesn’t fit within a single day.

plannerWe tend to be creatures of the moment, always ready to act whenever called upon to solve a problem. Yet school administrators are also project managers for countless projects, large and small, that must be accomplished over time.

One of my favorite tools for managing tasks over time is OmniFocus, which is available for Mac, iPad, and iPhone. If you’re looking for a Windows-compatible tool, I recommend the web-based to-do manager Remember the Milk, which has apps for most smartphones. Both tools can handle start and due dates, and make it easy to hide, find, and postpone tasks.

What are the essential steps for multi-step projects?
1. Write the project down. While this seems like common sense, it’s anything but common to take this basic first step. Instead of using the blank form or a printed-out email as the reminder, actually write the project down on your to-do list.
2. Write down at least some of the steps that you’ll need to complete, so you have a place to start.
3. Set a few milestones that are doable within the next few days. Don’t scope out the whole project at once, lest you set unrealistic expectations for yourself later in the project. But give yourself a way to get started and show some progress.

For single-step actions that just need to be done at some point in the future, use either your tickler file or your to-do list. If you set a start date that’s in the future, the task can be hidden from view until the appropriate day. Let me know if I can provide specifics for your situation.

2 Top Tools for Getting Your Desk Clear

I was talking with another principal on Twitter about having a clean office, and I must say it’s understandable if it sounds like an unattainable goal.

My office is not always clean; here’s a photo of my desk from late September, shortly after I wrote this post on this very topic:

But more often, it has only one pile of paper on it – the pile I’m currently working on – and for most of this week, there was no pile at all.

I believe that a desk is a work space, and the only things on it should be what you’re working on right now, and the tools to support this work.

A desk is not:

  • A visual to-do list
  • A horizontal file cabinet
  • A museum

Looking at the photo above, I can easily identify a destination for almost everything that doesn’t belong permanently on my desk. The binder goes on the bookshelf, the envelope goes in someone else’s mailbox, and most of the papers need to be filed or put in a tickler file.

Here are a few tools for gaining some traction when your desk is a mess:

  • A tickler file for papers you’ll need in the future
  • Next-action stickies for papers that require action on your part (especially the ones that have been there long enough to declare homesteading rights)
  • A to-do list, which will let you get rid of papers you’re keeping only to remind yourself of action you need to take

How do you get your desk clear?

4 Tips on Using Your Tickler File

It’s very easy to set up a tickler file, but learning to use it effectively and make it an essential part of your work flow is another matter. One sign that you aren’t using your tickler file effectively is that it’s empty every morning when you check it. I found this to be the case for myself sometimes, and if it’s empty 3 or 4 days in a row, chances are that my desk is not clean. There is something on my desk that has been there overnight, probably several nights, that does not need to be there.

tickler file diagram

The purpose of the tickler file is to get things that you’re not ready to work on or decide on out of sight and out of mind until just the right time. The tickler file is a way to intentionally postpone action on a document until an appropriate date in the future. See this post for more information on how to set up and use the tickler file.

If this is the situation you’re in and you’re wondering how to make your use of the tickler file system more effective, here are some tips.

Clear Your Desk Daily
First, make it a rule that your desk will be clean everyday before you leave. This can be accomplished by simply picking up everything on your desk and putting it in tomorrow’s tickler file. However, you can take it a step further by quickly looking at each thing that you’re picking up and deciding if there is anything that you know you won’t get to tomorrow, and putting that in a future day’s folder. Flyers and handouts for meetings that aren’t happening for a few weeks, mail that you aren’t ready to send, and forms that you aren’t ready to fill out are a great example of this type of material.

Tracking for Follow-Up
Second, think of things that you have forgotten to do recently, and how you could have used the tickler file to remind yourself of them. For example, today I addressed an internal mail envelope to the appropriate person and put it in my tickler file for a day next week with some papers that I need to send down to the central office. I’m waiting for other people to give me their forms too, so I’m not ready to send the envelope yet. The tickler file reminds both that I need to send the papers that I do have and that I’m waiting for more.

Recognizing Avoidance
Third, if I notice that I’m moving something from one tickler file to the next every single day, chances are I’m less than fully committed to dealing with it. When you get the feeling that you are tired of seeing something, that’s a good indication that either you aren’t committed to doing it (in which case you should just decide not to do it), or you should just sit down and dedicate some time to getting it done because it’s important.

Deciding not to do something by default – by postponing it indefinitely – wastes time and mental energy. I think it’s better to decide immediately when something is not worth your time.

Finally, if you have a pile of things you’re still not getting it done in a timely manner, it may be time to implement next action stickies. The basic idea is simple: get a sticky note and write what you will physically do with that document, on the note. Stick it on the document, and take care of it immediately or the following day.

Dr. Frank Buck goes into more depth on how to use a tickler file to handle recurring tasks and organize notes in his great book Get Organized!

Do you have a tickler file? How do you use it?

1 New Tool: Daily Planning Sheet

My new High-Performance Administrator Daily Planning Sheet is designed to help you plan your day to maximize your impact on student learning. You can download the PDF here.

This sheet is easy to keep with you throughout the day to ensure that you’re keeping track of your work and getting things accomplished. It also fits well with the workflow I recommend in this article.

image of planning sheet

This document is inspired by David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner, a sheet Seah created to guide his work as a self-employed designer. For principals, time is one of the most important and difficult-to-manage factors in effectiveness; in particular, I find it hard to connect the big-picture goals with my day-to-day actions and use of time. I developed this sheet about a week ago and have been using it daily, making small refinements each time.

Here’s a quick overview of how to use it:

  • At the top, list one or two major goals for your school, and one thing you’ll do today to advance those goals
  • In the Communication box, list people you need to talk to, and figure out when you can talk to them (based on class schedule, your availability, etc.
  • On the right side, write out your schedule, including both actual meetings and things you plan to work on at various times. Write in the hours based on which hours you’re at work.
  • In the “Task Inbox” section, write down anything that you need to do that comes up today; later, copy anything that’s not done into your full to-do list system
  • At the end of the day, check off each “inbox” as you clear it out

I would appreciate your feedback if you try it – leave a comment or use the contact form if you have any insights to share.

Word version
PDF version

What’s a Tickler File?!

How do you get paper that you’ll need in the future off of your desk for now, without losing track of it? How can you have a clean desk and still make sure you have the documents you need in front of you at the right time?

Inevitably, you will have paper that you can’t use yet, but that you will need at a specific time in the future. For example, if you need to bring a report to a meeting, you don’t want to stick it in the file cabinet and forget to bring it, but you also don’t want the report sitting on your desk for three weeks – it’ll clutter your workspace, and it might get buried under something else in the meantime.

If you want to ensure that you have the right documents in hand at the right time, you need a tickler file. Your secretary probably knows how to set one up, but here’s a quick description.

First, get 43 regular manila file folders. Read more (PDF)…

3 Next Action Stickies

Here’s my favorite strategy for dealing with a pile of paper that never seems to go away. If you have stuff that’s been on your desk for far too long, defining the next action – a key strategy described in David Allen’s Getting Things Done – can help you get it taken care of. For a stack of paper, sticky notes are a great way to make it clear what needs to happen with each item.

gradient of postits

Next Action Stickies

  1. Put all of the papers on your desk in one pile, and get out a pad of small sticky notes and a pen
  2. Go through each item and write yourself a short sticky note as to what to do with the document. For example “Give to secretary” or “Make edits and send to staff” or simply “file” – and put it on the bottom of the pile
  3. Don’t stop and do any of the actions unless they’ll take less than two minutes, and don’t make any new piles
  4. Keep going until you’ve sticky-noted everything in the pile
  5. If you have time left to keep working, start working on the top item in your pile – just do exactly what the note says

It sounds simple – so simple you might wonder why I’m even writing about it – but it works. Allen explains that often, when something is un-done in our lives, it’s because we haven’t actually defined what we need to do. Once we do the (fairly simple) work of defining what needs to be done, actually doing it is much easier.

1 Wrangling the Piles On Your Desk

I have a large desk, probably close to two square yards. It can hold the equivalent of 27 separate piles of paper. Sometimes, out of fear that I’ll forget about something if it goes into a pile, I’ll make a new pile for it, using the document itself (say, a discipline referral) as a reminder of the task (e.g. talking to the student and calling the parent).

But each reminder is also a distraction, because I can only do one thing at a time. Piles are scary to the extent that they can hide things you need to act on, but they’re helpful in that they hide everything except what’s on top. A large desk with only one pile (ideally in a basket) looks neat and is less visually stressful.


Out of sight is out of mind. But is this a good thing? Yes, if you can keep track of everything that’s out of sight reasonably well.

The key to making this work, of course, is knowing what’s in your piles and dealing with it in a timely manner. If the pile is three days old and you don’t know what’s in it, it’s likely that you’ve already missed some deadlines or kept someone waiting too long.

At the end of every day (or the next morning), go through the pile and decide whether to file each item, keep it in the pile for action, or toss it. It will take less time than you think, and if any of the actions are quick (under two minutes), you can do them on the spot.

What about those items that will take longer? Write them on your to-do list or calendar, and make time for them at the right time. If that’s not today, put the document in your tickler file so it’s out of sight until you need it.

Your desk will be cleaner, your mind will be clearer, and you’ll be able to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Getting Organized in the Google Era

One of my first summer reads this year was Douglas C. Merrill and James A. Martin’s Getting Organized in the Google Era, a book on organization and productivity.

Getting Organized in the Google Era CoverThe book is devoted to two primary themes: Merrill’s insights on organization and information management (from his PhD and background in cognitive psychology, as well as his career as a Google and EMI Music executive), and descriptions of how he uses various digital tools (mainly free Google products) to stay organized.

An unstated core premise of the book is that search (e.g. in Gmail) can replace a lot of labor-intensive organizational strategies, such as meticulously filing everything message or document in folders. This is a fairly straightforward idea, and not one that I thought needed a whole book to explain it.

However, the book is full of other ideas that are smart and useful, such as keeping track of important documents by emailing yourself a PDF and describing it in the message with keywords that you can use later to easily find it. He also suggests stating in the email where the hardcopy original is filed, which is particularly useful for legal documents.

If you haven’t read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you should do so before reading Getting Organized in the Google Era. But Merrill and Martin’s book is a fun read and a great tour of the mind of a highly productive and creative leader.

Getting Organized in the Google Era is available in hardcover and Kindle e-book editions.

See also: Get Organized! Time Management for School Leaders, which I reviewed recently.

2 Organizing Your Workload: Junk Drawer or Silverware Drawer?

Is your workload as a school leader more like a junk drawer, or a neatly organized silverware drawer? Is your work spread out all over your desk and mind, or neatly arranged into manageable lists?

silverware pile

Think of every piece of information, communication, and work you have on your plate right now, and imagine that it’s all represented by something that might literally be on your plate: silverware.

Is that how your work feels – all jumbled up in a big pile? When things just get dumped in a drawer, the drawer can become difficult to open and close, and it can be hard to find what you’re looking for. This is as true for the ideas and obligations that clutter our minds as it is for the utensils that clutter our kitchens.

If all of your work is represented by random sticky notes in your pockets, on your desk, and around your monitor, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Your life starts to look and feel like a junk drawer.

But you probably keep your actual silverware in a drawer with dividers:

Silverware drawer

It’s cleaner, easier to keep updated, and much less stressful to look at.

But the work of a school leader is not so neat a collection of knives, forks, and spoons; you have eggbeaters, cheese graters, and countless other miscellanea cluttering up your desk and mind.

Junk drawer

The problem with miscellaneous items is that it’s hard to create places to put them. Each unique item requires unique thinking about what to do with it, and this is very time-consuming.

But we don’t need to treat everything as miscellaneous junk. Much of our work arrives in predictable forms, and we need to develop systems that can deal with these common forms in a consistent and efficient manner.

To do this with the work of school leadership rather than silverware, we need lists rather than drawer dividers.

Request from the district office? Put it on your to-do list. Idea for the next newsletter? Put it on your newsletter list. Voicemail from a concerned parent? Put it on your list of calls to make.

But this can get extremely cumbersome if you’re relying on paper lists. Electronic tools can provide the flexibility necessary for getting a large workload under control.

Remember the Milk logoRemember the Milk is an excellent tool for managing lists. There are countless others, but I’ve been using Remember the Milk on and off for four years, and it gets better every day. The web interface is terrific, and there are apps for the iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, and just about every other platform you can imagine. You can even email items to RTM, and they’ll be routed to the correct list automatically.

Some lists you might start with:

  • Lists of data or other required documents you’ve received from staff
  • Lists of calls to make, tasks to complete, and projects to start
  • Lists of items to include in your next parent newsletter, leadership team agenda, or other recurring communication or meeting
  • Lists of feedback you plan to give to staff
  • Lists of ideas, which you may or may not act on

It will take some tweaking to make your lists match your work, to ensure that everything can flow neatly into your system. When your system is running smoothly, you’ll spend less time sorting through piles, less time thinking “What is this, and what do I do with it?” and more time actually doing the work of leadership.

Why You Need a Label-Maker

Filing paper is boring, and I’m a big-picture leader, so I don’t worry about little things like that. Right?

Wrong. Even as the captain of your ship, you need an at-hand file system to manage your paper. Yes, your boring, mundane, beneath-you paper.

Read this free article from David Allen for a great explanation (you have to register and download it).

I concur strongly with David’s advice that a label maker will make a huge difference. I use a Brother PT-1280, which is about $40 from Amazon.

Brother PT-1280 labelmaker

My file cabinet is a 4-drawer lateral cabinet – more than I need – and I use two of the drawers for hanging files. I put one labeled manilla folder in each hanging file, and it’s incredibly easy to use.

David says to just let your manilla folders stand up without hanging files, but I found that this gave me papercuts and cuticle damage as I tried to flip through files, so I go with the one-file-per-hanging-folder method. Here’s part of one drawer:

Hanging Files

Why can’t the secretary can’t do the filing?
Some filing – for example, student records and anything that doesn’t need to be at your fingertips – should be done by someone other than the principal.

But as David points out in the article linked above, if you can’t file things quickly – in under a minute – you won’t file them at all, and you’ll end up with huge piles on your desk – the mess productive administrators try to avoid.

There are two other reasons school administrators need an at-hand filing system:

  1. Your secretary is not really “your” secretary – she or he likely has 10 other hats to wear in the front office, and you often have to wait for others to finish before making your request. This introduces such an inefficiency that it makes much more sense just to keep your own file system.
  2. Physically, you need a lot of your files close at hand. Some are confidential (e.g. your HR files), and others are simply used so often that you don’t want to have to send someone else to retrieve or return it.

How do you file? Any tips on managing paper?

Back to the label-maker – why the emphasis on printed labels? Try it for yourself and you’ll see – they look and feel more professional, they’re easier to alphabetize, and they are just more fun to use.

3 Managing To-Do Lists

How do you keep track of your tasks? Do you have a to-do list, a random collection of sticky notes, a journal, or a more complex system?

If you keep a to-do list, a common problem is that the list gets too long, and it becomes harder to sort through it. When you reach this point, do you break it into multiple lists, and if so, on the basis of what criteria?

photo by Flickr user koalazymonkeyDavid Allen, in his bestselling book Getting Things Done, recommends collecting tasks on a “next actions” list, and only splitting it into separate project when you actually have multi-step projects.

I find it tempting to subdivide my lists by topic, even when a set of tasks isn’t actually a project – for example, when I have a number of tasks that are all about staff evaluations, but are in fact discrete tasks rather than a coordinated project in the sense that, say, planning a trip is a project. This isn’t a good idea.

The problem with creating too many lists is that they create too many places in which your tasks can hide.

How do you keep your tasks organized and visible, so you can keep track of them and make sure you complete them?