Posts tagged productivity
To make it easier to create a tickler file system, here’s a printable PDF (2 pages) of tickler file labels, sized for Avery 5160 standard mailing labels.
Note: I’ve also included two other labels:
- BILT, which stands for “Before I Leave Today”
- To Sign – a great folder to keep outside your office for signature-only items
Enjoy, and please send me any feedback or suggestions.
I used to check my email only at certain times of day, in the belief that I’d get more done if I limited email to a few narrow timeslots each day. For years, productivity experts have recommended that we not check email in the morning, and even set up auto responders telling people of our email practices.
Since I’ve been carrying an iPhone and iPad, though, I’ve found that I prefer to see new messages as they arrive, so I can filter out the junk in any spare moment.
No More CrackBerry
Using your smartphone to monitor and filter your email throughout the day is increasingly essential. This isn’t the same practice that became ridiculed among professionals as “CrackBerry addiction,” because I don’t answer most email from my phone.
If you try to answer all of your email from your phone, you’ll find that you end up with more email (because faster replies encourage additional replies), awkwardly terse and less productive exchanges, and more time sitting and typing on your phone when you could be otherwise engaged.
So I want to be clear that I’m not talking about obsessively answering every email from your phone the moment it arrives. Monitoring and filtering from your smartphone, though, has several benefits.
1. Clutter doesn’t accumulate.
When I sit down at my computer and open up my inbox, I can be confident that it’s not full of junk, and that the work represented there is worth doing.
2. I don’t waste valuable time “checking” my email.
Monitoring and filtering from my phone has let me get out of the habit of using the inbox on my computer as a low-energy, pick-and-click, non-work activity called “checking.” Checking email, as I tell people in my workshops, is not the same as doing work. Checking shouldn’t consume valuable get-stuff-done time at your desk. Separate the two in your mind, and you’ll find that your sit-and-work time is a lot more productive.
3. I know what’s going on in my world.
Imagine if a teacher stood at the front of the room and plugged his ears whenever he started teaching a lesson. Silly, right? Just as teachers need to know what’s going on in their classrooms—not just on the chalkboard—school leaders need to maintain an awareness of what’s happening around the school even if they aren’t presently involved in it. This doesn’t mean we read email when we should be engaging with the people around us, but it does mean using spare moments in the hallway here and there throughout the day to stay abreast of what’s coming in, so we can mentally prepare ourselves and reprioritize as needed.
4. I can deal with the tough stuff in person.
How many times have you received an email about something that really needs to be discussed face-to-face? Often staff members will email us because that’s the only reliable and timely way to get in touch, but these emails need to turn into person-to-person conversations, not stay in electronic form. When I’m monitoring my email from my phone, I can go and respond in person whenever I need to.
If you’ve resisted trying email on your phone, I’d say give it a shot for a few days, and see if it helps you get a better handle on your inbox and your work.
School leaders know well the power of policy to increase clarity, reduce conflict, and simplify decision-making. We have policies for tardies and absences, discipline, appropriate dress, and more, and these policies save an enormous amount of time and hassle.
When we have a policy, it means we’ve thought through a particular situation enough to realize that it’s going to come up again, and that having a well-thought, consistent response as a school is a priority.
When we have a policy, we don’t have to rely on persuasion or personal capital to convince others to go along with our decisions. If the policy says it, we’re doing it; the debate was over when the policy was created.
When we have a policy, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel; we can do what we did last time and not spend too much time on a simple matter.
When we have a policy, we can make purposeful decisions about when to update or revise our approach to particular issues. Many schools, for example, are revising their cell phone policies to enable students to use their phones for learning. If we aren’t as clear on our rules – for example, if every classroom has a different policy about cell phones – we end up wasting time on endless debate and negotiation as students move from class to class, and making changes is a more involved process because there’s no agreement to start from.
Policies don’t take the place of caring and responsive leadership, but they do allow us to focus our time and attention on the truly novel and emergent situations.
One day, I was the only person in the office for a few minutes while the nurse and secretaries were dealing with something. A student came in complaining of a stomach ache, and I spend the next 5 minutes talking to the student and trying to figure out whether to call the parent. The student wasn’t made to feel better, and I got nothing done until the nurse returned and followed her well-rehearsed policy for dealing with (real or imagined) stomach aches.
Some of our policies, like this one, are more personal than organizational, and it’s these policies that store what we’ve learned from experience.
Think about the situations you encounter over and over again in your work (if you need help, check out Dr. Frank Buck’s book Get Organized!). What personal policies could save you duplicated effort and time?
When we fall behind and become overwhelmed by our work, or just aren’t as effective as we could be, sometimes the answer lies beyond the obvious mess, such as a pile of paper on the desk or an overflowing email inbox.
Over the past few years as a principal, I started to collect a fair amount of data and other artifacts from teachers – math test scores, reading levels, class newsletters, and a few other things. What did I do with all this potentially rich information? Usually, not much, but when I did use it effectively, the impact was palpable. Too often, though, it piled up on my desk, waiting for attention I never gave it.
I’m convinced that this happens despite our best intentions because we haven’t created a PEEP – a Place for Everything so we can have Everything in its Place (thanks to the blog Unclutterer for the phrase).
When I created a list in my to-do app to log all of the newsletters I was receiving (with a sub-list for each teacher), I could quickly see who was consistently communicating with parents and who wasn’t. The pile on my desk didn’t yield this information quite so readily.
The importance of dependencies and roadblocks became clear to me today when I was putting dirty dishes in the sink. It occurred to me that the first step in preventing your kitchen from becoming a mess isn’t to wash all of your dirty dishes – it’s to put the clean ones away so you can load the dishwasher.
This sounds basic, and it is, but when we’re hunting for the source of a problem in our workflow, we often look for the biggest mess. Giving all my attention to the dirty dishes won’t get me anywhere if the real blockage is the dishwasher full of clean dishes.
To take it back to school, let’s say I’m having difficulty having follow-up conversations with teachers after doing walkthroughs. Simply identifying the barriers can make the solution obvious:
Teacher is busy and can’t talk to me because it’s not their planning time.
I need to talk to them during their planning time, but I don’t know when that is.
There’s a schedule showing everyone’s planning time, but I don’t have it.
The assistant principal has the master schedule in a PDF file.
The assistant principal is always covering a duty when I’m free to talk to him.
Email the assistant principal to ask for the schedule.
Solution: Put the schedule on my iPad or print it out.
As in this case, the problem can often be solved by a tool – one we could easily obtain – that is missing from our repertoire. Just as easily, a little bit of backtracking from the obvious problem to its source can help us get around a vexing roadblock.
Roadblocks and dependencies show up in tons of places. What are some you’ve identified? What PEEPs or tools could help you get past them?
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.
We 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.
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?
Yesterday was an office day. I stayed in my office writing observation reports and doing other office work almost all day. My door was open, and some people came to see me, but I didn’t venture out to observe in classrooms or elsewhere during the day.
Today was a classroom day. I visited every classroom at least once, and spent a great deal of time interacting with students and staff. I got very little office work done, but got quite a bit done in terms of communicating with people and having a pulse on happenings around campus.
I’m more comfortable mixing office and classroom time in the same day, since it doesn’t create the nagging guilt that I’m ignoring part of my role, but I seem to get more done when I split my week into office days and classroom days. One reason: I’ve realized that I sometimes would use visits to classrooms as a form of procrastination: Whenever facing unpleasant office work, why not “exercise instructional leadership” by visiting classrooms? Of course, unpurposeful time in classrooms isn’t instructional leadership; even if it has some benefits, I don’t want to get in the habit of deluding myself about the purpose and value of what I’m doing.
However, I’ve also realized you can’t always decide ahead of time whether a day will be an office day or a classroom day – sometimes the events just unfold in a way that determines the question for you.
What do you think – is it better to block off whole days for classroom time, and separate days for office work? Or is it better to mix it up and get into classrooms whenever you can?
How high is your fence, and what gets over it?
How important does something have to be to interrupt what you’re working on?
I’ve realized that if I don’t decide in advance what I will spend my time on, any little interruption can take over my day and prevent me from accomplishing the important things I need to accomplish.
Interruptions and emergencies are inevitable, but by deciding ahead of time what we’ll allow to pre-empt the work we’ve chosen for the day, we can make better decisions and ensure that we spend enough time on our true priorities.