Are Your Duties Interfering with Your Responsibilities?

Crossing guard

As leaders, we spend some of each day—perhaps more than we’d like—on various duties, rather than on new work. Think of all the duties that fill your calendar:

Lunch duty. Hallway duty. Sporting events. Ceremonies. Routine meetings that just need an administrator to be present. Recess duty. Bus duty. The list goes on.

Often, we don’t even have to do anything when we’re covering these duties; we merely need to be present, and hopefully we can use the time strategically to accomplish multiple goals at once, as I suggested in my article Turning Student Supervision into Instructional Leadership.

Other duties involve more symbolic work, such as when we show up at a PTA, school board, or community meeting, even when we aren’t on the agenda.

We attend these events out of duty, not because we’re really needed, but because it’s expected. And that’s not a bad thing, but we have to be careful.

Other Duties As Assigned

It’s a running joke among administrators that virtually anything can fall under that all-inclusive clause in our job descriptions: “…and other duties as assigned.”

The life of an administrator is filled with wild cards, and that’s part of what we love about the job, isn’t it? Without a little variety and unpredictability, I know I’d get bored.

Even so, we need to be very careful about what duties we allow to be assigned to us.

I’m perfectly willing to deal with any problem that comes up—I’m happy to be responsible for dealing with just about anything—but I’m extremely wary of committing to a new duty.

Responsibilities vs. Duties

As a leader, you’re accountable for results—for what actually happens. You aren’t accountable for merely trying, or being on duty, or just showing up.

In other words, we get very little credit for covering our duties. As leaders, we’re expected to take care of our responsibilities.

There’s an unavoidable tension here: duties—the stuff we do just because someone needs to do it—compete with our responsibilities.

A Vicious Cycle

If we’re not careful, we can become so booked up with duties that we can’t effectively be responsible for everything we oversee, and this can create a vicious cycle: poorly functioning systems in our schools require more regular involvement by administrators, and that means more duties—and less time to manage our responsibilities.

It means more time in firefighting mode, more stress, and less…well…leadership. Leadership requires perspective and strategy, which are difficult when you’re constantly on duty and constantly having to intervene to address problems.

To reverse this cycle, we need to invest in system-building, so that fewer problems require our regular attention. And that means we may need to cut back on duties that aren’t a good use of our time.

Cutting Back on Duties

Here are some simple questions to ask yourself to decide whether you should keep your current duties or delegate them:

  • Does it let me accomplish multiple goals at once?
    My friend and mentor Heather, a K-8 principal, did curb duty every morning, helping students get out of their cars and into school safely, because it allowed her to connect with parents and students.
  • Does it serve a symbolic as well as practical purpose?
    The SPED teachers I’ve worked with have done a great job of letting me know which IEP meetings I should attend, to communicate the school’s commitment to the student as well as contribute to decision-making. The other meetings? I can send another staff member to meet the legal requirements and serve on the team.
  • Is it of great ceremonial importance?
    At these events, like award ceremonies, I may serve little or no practical role, but it’s exceedingly important that I show respect by being present.
  • Am I the best person for the job, or was I just available?
    Often, we cover duties because we’re free and no one else is, but as a leader, your time is incredibly scarce and valuable, even if you’re “free.”

Availability vs. Affordability

This last point deserves special attention. Too often, we take on new duties because no one else can.

But ask yourself:

Would I go and get a minimum-wage job at a fast food restaurant to raise money for the school to solve this problem?

No. Of course not. Your school has a budget that’s probably in the millions of dollars, and it’s your job to ensure that enough of that money is allocated to cheap-to-solve problems that you aren’t effectively doing minimum-wage work.

If you’re tutoring individual students because it’s a powerful form of professional development for you as an instructional leader, great—go for it. But if you’re tutoring because you can’t scrape together $8 an hour to hire college students to tutor, it’s time to step back and re-assess.

As a leader, “doing what needs to be done” can actually be a mistake. It’s our job to ensure that the work gets done, and to ensure that the entire system functions smoothly on behalf of students.

So if something needs to be done, do it today, then create a system—through delegation, better procedures, or even new staffing—to ensure that it’s taken care of.

What duties do you need to unload so you can be more available to fulfill your responsibilities?

Don’t Kill Mario – Calendaring Pitfalls And How to Avoid Them

Mario pitfall

“Time Management” is a tricky topic for professional development, because it’s rife with knowing-doing gaps.

Ever play Super Mario Brothers? You know where the pits are. All you have to do is avoid them. Run when you need to, jump when you need to, and Mario lives.

With time management, everyone knows about the tools, and even how to use them (the basic features, if not the more advanced features of digital calendars).

But professional development isn’t about knowledge; it’s about practice. We get no credit for being aware of best practices; it’s only implementing them that counts.

And we know this, yet—like a kid who keeps letting Mario fall to his pixelated death—we often fail to make it across the knowing-doing gaps.

What are some of these pitfalls, and how can we avoid them?

Here are two that I’ve experienced, and that I see all the time in schools.

Pen vs. Pencil

There’s a reason we say “pencil me in” rather than “pen me in” or “permanent marker me in.” We know our schedules are subject to change.

So why do we write things on our calendars, but not update those appointments when they change?

I recently had a major schedule conflict because a “maybe” appointment had turned into a definite appointment, and I didn’t note the change on my shared calendar. At the same time, the same thing happened to my colleague. This meant we couldn’t coordinate our schedules, and we had to scramble to adjust our plans.

This was totally avoidable because our shared calendars communicate our real-time availability…if we keep them updated.

Defiance and Unrealistic Plans

Have you ever hired a personal trainer, shown up for your gym session, then refused to follow your trainer’s directions?

We know it’s not smart to burn a $60/hour session with a trainer.

So why do we burn our equally valuable time by making plans for how we’ll spend the day, then not following them?

Often, it’s because those plans are unrealistic to begin with.

If I tell my trainer I want to run ten miles tomorrow, yet this is my first time off the couch in weeks, I’m going to have trouble following the plan.

Likewise, if you schedule 6 hours for “work on observation reports” during the school day on Friday, you’re going to get interrupted. That’s the job, and you have to plan for it realistically.

When you plan realistically, the only thing keeping you from following the plan is discipline—and that’s something you can control.

Last Call

Today is the last day to join the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network and get Upgrading Your Calendar and Streamlining Your Meetings for free. December can be your first paid month.

Upgrading Your Calendar

In this workshop, we’ll explore more of the common pitfalls—the knowing-doing gaps—school leaders experience in managing their schedules. You’ll learn how to get the most out of your calendar tools, whether you should switch to better tools, and even how to ensure that your meetings are more productive.

More urgently, registration for the Network closes indefinitely this Friday, and I have a bunch of workshops that will be going in the “Disney Vault” for up to a year.

So if you’ve been thinking about it, take another look, and I hope you’ll join my by this Friday, November 22 at midnight Central time.

Optimizing Google Calendar Notifications and Alerts

Too many devices

I’m a big fan of Google Calendar, and a major reason is that it can send me whatever kind of notifications I want, to whatever device I want. Among my options:

  • Email reminders, daily or per-appointment
  • Popups from the browser-based Google Calendar window
  • Popups from the Mac Calendar app
  • SMS (text message) reminders
  • iPhone or iPad push notifications—which can be either banners that disappear, or alerts that stay onscreen until you dismiss them
  • Carrier pigeon messages

Just kidding about that last one, but it’s a pretty comprehensive list. In fact, we can go overboard. Here’s how to get just the reminders you want from your Google Calendar.

Pick Your Defaults

You can set reminders on a per-event basis, but you can also set up default reminders for new appointments, so you don’t have to fiddle with reminders.

I personally like a 2-hour popup and a 15-minute popup, in my browser and on my iPhone. I’ve turned off Mac and iPad reminders because they’re redundant since I always have my iPhone with me, and if I’m at my Mac, Google Calendar is open.

To customize your default alert settings, click the gear icon, then Settings:
Google Calendar settings icon
Google Calendar settings 2

Then, under the Calendars tab in Settings, click the Reminders and Notifications link for your calendar:
Google Calendar reminders settings notifications 1

Then, you’ll see a truckload of options for reminders and notifications:
Google Calendar reminder all options

Prevent Noise

You can customize your notifications to your heart’s content, but the key strategic element is this: don’t give yourself so many alerts that you start to tune them out. I don’t need five emails to remind me I have an appointment. I don’t need 100 text messages.

I need the habit of looking at my calendar regularly, and maybe a push notification to my phone to remind me when an appointment is about to begin.

How do you approach calendar reminders? What are your strategies, tools, and habits?

See also: 4 Reasons to Switch to Google Calendar

Workshop: Upgrading Your Calendar & Streamlining Your Meetings

My next Network workshop is coming up on Tuesday, November 19:
Upgrading Your Calendar
In this workshop, I’ll go in depth on the high-leverage opportunities we have a school leaders to manage our day’s scheduling more effectively. I’m thinking of adding bonus tutorials to supplement the live sessions, so let me know what questions or suggestions you have. More info on the Network »

Interruptions as Useful Information

As school leaders, we tend to dislike interruptions. We want everyone, ourselves included, to stay focused and on track, and it’s annoying when that doesn’t happen.

Or is it?

There’s plenty of advice circulating about minimizing interruptions, such as turning off email notifications.

Woman checking phone

But I would suggest that at least some of this advice is misguided.

You see, interruptions aren’t just noise. They aren’t like litter in the hallways.

Interruptions are actually very important information for leaders, because they tell us about problems that haven’t been solved yet.

If you’re getting interrupted, that’s an opportunity to permanently solve a problem.

If your secretaries are constantly asking you how to handle parent inquiries, that’s an opportunity to empower them to respond on their own.

If you’re getting questions about an upcoming event, that’s an opportunity to communicate more clearly with everyone so people don’t have to ask individually.

Of course, I don’t want to be physically interrupted every time an email comes in. So for the love of all that’s decent, turn off those awful Outlook dings and phone buzzes. But it’s worth thinking about how often we should check our email.

Emails As Interruptions…Or Not

For the past year or so, I’ve had email push notifications sent to my iPhone. My phone doesn’t buzz when an email comes in, but a banner comes up on my lock screen, so I can see what emails have come in since last time I’ve used my phone.

The traditional advice is to turn off this type of notification, because it encourages “CrackBerry” behavior—dashing off a hasty reply rather than waiting for the right time and place to deal with the message.

But I like seeing my emails as they come in, because it helps me keep track of what’s on my plate. I can also use spare moments to delete anything I don’t need to see. And it gives my thoughts a chance to percolate, if I have any especially challenging emails to deal with.

As leaders, we deal with an ever-changing glob of priorities and emergencies. If we don’t know what’s in that glob, or if our information is 6 hours out of date, we can’t make good decisions about how to spend our time.

The High-Performance Triangle

How does the High Performance Triangle help us examine this issue?

Tool: Phone (or iPad) with email notifications turned on (but not vibrations or audible alerts). Here are my settings:

Gmail notifications

Strategy: Remain aware of what messages have arrived, in order to re-prioritize as needed and give yourself time to think about how to respond.

Habit: Check your phone whenever you want, but not with the goal of responding to messages right away. Delete the junk, read the FYIs, save the rest for when you’re back at your computer.

How does this idea sit with you?

Coming Soon

My next Network workshop is coming up on Tuesday, November 19:
Upgrading Your Calendar
I don’t have registration open for this workshop or the Network open at the moment…stay tuned.

How to Be Productive Even When You’re Interrupted Constantly

doorknob-hand.jpg

The boss turns to the secretary and says “Clear my schedule.” With just those three words, the boss turns and retreats to the seclusion of a closed-door office.

I always chuckle when I see this scene repeated in a movie or TV show, because it’s something that’s nearly impossible in our line of work.

It’s tough to shut the door and work without interruption, because so much hinges on our availability.

Even so, we have to be very purposeful about ensuring that we’re able to work on our priorities, and not just deal with other people’s crises all day. 

The 15-Minute Rule

A helpful strategy is to plan your work in 15-minute blocks, four per hour, all day every day.

If you schedule your work in 15-minute blocks…

  • You’ll be able to deal with most interruptions before the next block begins
  • You can get significant work done on most kinds of projects in 15 focused minutes
  • You can easily reshuffle your blocks as needed
  • Anyone who needs to interrupt you can wait till you’re done with your current block, and they’ll never have to wait more than 15 minutes
  • Your attention span can handle 15 minutes, even during the summer

The Interruption Ratio

Try this for a few days, establish a baseline, and determine what’s realistic.

If you know you’ll get interrupted 25% of the time, you’ll soon learn that you need an hour to catch up after every 4 hours of work (One 15-minute block per hour gets interrupted x 4 hours = one hour of catch-up).

If your interruption ratio is 25%, you’ll know you can only realistically schedule 3/4 of your available hours for focused work (not including meetings and other inflexible responsibilities).

Big Blocks

Of course, you’ll need sustained blocks of uninterrupted time to work on more involved projects, and that’s why many administrators find that the early morning is the best time to get this work done.

Before everyone else arrives (or after they leave, if that’s more your cup of tea), you can work without interruption on whatever most needs your attention.

I don’t recommend slicing up this time into 15-minute blocks; work for as long as you need to and can sustain it. When else are you going to have the luxury of working without interruption?

But when others are around, and interruptions are inevitable, 15-minute blocks can make a big difference.

What About Classroom Observations?

How does this strategy fit with the need to get into classrooms? Pretty well, actually. Unless you are doing a formal observation that’s required to be more than 15 minutes, you can learn a lot and provide good feedback in 15 minutes.

You can even fit in two classrooms in 15 minutes, or one classroom plus an interruption. 7 minutes is plenty of time to see what’s going on and provide meaningful feedback if you have the right systems in place.

Get into three or four classrooms and provide feedback, every day, and you’ll be in the top 1% of school leaders anywhere.

Start Today

Don’t wait until the new school year begins. Try this strategy today, even if school is out and you’re unlikely to be interrupted.

Because you know what? I bet that even with four uninterrupted hours, you’ll get bored or distracted without breaking things up a little bit. Sure, take advantage of the big blocks of time when you have them, but also be smart about your own attention span and desire for variety.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Look at your calendar and identify your time that isn’t already spoken for with meetings and other obligations. Let’s say you have four hours today.
  2. Estimate your interruption ratio. Let’s say this is 25% (maybe it’s as high as 50% or 75% if you’re still wrapping up the school year). That means you can get three hours of work done in four hours.
  3. Look at your to-do list and pick out your biggest, most time-consuming project you want to work on today. Estimate how many 15-minute blocks you’ll need to get it done. Let’s say you’ll need five blocks for a big project.
  4. Schedule these blocks on your calendar, non-consecutively but as early in the day as possible. Alternate your blocks so you can do other work that’s sensitive to the time of day.
  5. Look at your to-do list and fill in the other 15-minute blocks with whatever else you need to accomplish. If a task is shorter than 15 minutes, group it in a block with other short tasks. If it’s bigger, give it more than one block.
  6. Throughout the day, drag and drop your blocks to keep your calendar accurate. If you get interrupted, drag the block to a free slot later in the day (you did keep free slots, right?).

One more tip: Assuming you’re using an electronic calendar, you might pick different colors for these work blocks and your actual appointments with other people, so it’s clear what can be easily reshuffled and what can’t.

Let me know how it goes!

Can Principals Work Just 9 to 5?

9to5clock

What if the principalship was a 9-to-5 job? Could you quit when the whistle blew, and go home with a clear conscience and a spring in your step?

Being able to take our work home with us is a blessing and a curse: it gives us the flexibility we need to be effective, but it also takes away a constraint that can actually be helpful.

What if principals only worked 9 to 5 (or more realistically, 7 to 3) and couldn’t do any work outside of those hours? How would we approach our work differently?

I’ve actually had this experience due to furlough days, when we were forced not to work beyond certain hours and prohibited from working more at home for the entire week. (The furlough days were part of budget cuts, and federal labor law imposes these rules even for salaried staff.)

What I was going to get done, I was going to get done during school hours, which forced some hard choices.

Of course, with a furlough day (or a day you’re going home sick, as I wrote about recently), you can always put things off. You can always tell yourself you’ll get to it tomorrow or next week, when things are back to normal.

But if every day were like this, how would I spend my time? If I could never work more than 8 hours a day, how would I spend those 8 hours?

As Steven Covey used to say, I’d have to put the big rocks in first.

I’d have to make sure solid systems were in place, so I didn’t have to waste time dealing with preventable organizational issues.

I’d have to stay on top of the incoming flood of messages and mail, which would probably mean going on a bit of a “diet” by having someone else filter for me. (Having 100 emails today is nothing compared to having 200 tomorrow—when tomorrow will be worse than today, putting something off loses its appeal.)

I’d have to schedule time to be in classrooms providing feedback to teachers. I’d have to protect that time vigilantly, lest it be filled with a thousand interruptions.

And I’d have to make time to deal with the interruptions, too, knowing that what needs to be dealt with, needs to be dealt with while it’s manageable and not after it’s had time to fester.

The Question

So the key question is…why not treat every day like this? If I can put in some extra hours beyond the school day, great—I can get even more done on my big projects and priorities. Or I can go to bed at a reasonable hour for once.

The key is forcing the box to be a little bit smaller, and asking “How can I fit all of this (my work) into that (my time)?

When I’ve asked that question and acted on the answer, I can pull out of the parking lot knowing I did a good day’s work, even if a principal’s work is never done.

How would you construct your ideal work day if you could only work 9 to 5 every day? How does that compare with your current reality?

Work Like You’re Going Home Sick

Ever get to work and realize you’re sick as a dog? Usually someone else helps you realize it: “You look terrible. Go home!”

Sick day

After making the decision to go home and rest, what do you do?

You say to yourself, “OK, I’m going home…as soon as I get this one thing done.” And that one thing gets done quickly, nothing else does, and you go home and collapse into bed.

We can learn something about time management from the way our fever-addled brains behave.

There’s a concept in finance called zero-based budgeting, which assumes that a department or organization needs no money at all. Then, any money the department wants has to be justified based on specific purposes.

This is a stark contrast to the typical process, which is based on incremental change: How much did we spend last year? Do we need to spend slightly more or slightly less? ZBB asks a different question: What do you need to do, and how much does it really need to cost?

What if we treated our time this way, like we do when we’re going home sick?

What if we asked ourselves “If I had only 10 minutes to work today, what would I get done in those 10 minutes?” Usually, it’s something that is both urgent and important.

But ZBB doesn’t force us to look only at the bare minimums. In the public sector, ZBB also asks departments to decide what they would do if funding remained the same, as well as if funding increased.

So what would you do if you spent exactly the same amount of time working as you did yesterday? (Not a very thought-provoking question, is it?)

A better question: What would you do if you could work, uninterrupted and unconstrained, for the next 168 hours? What would you accomplish? Knowing you can’t do that, what could you pluck out of that scenario and into the realm of possibility?

The routine of having a work day or work week lulls us into unproductive patters. We expect to always be busy, and we expect to always work long hours…and those expectations are self-fulfilling.

That’s why when someone suggests spending dramatically more time in classrooms, it strikes many principals as inconceivable.

But what if we turn the tables, and ask a different set of questions:

  • If I had only 10 minutes to work today, what would I get done?
  • If I had only four blocks of 10 minutes to work, what would I do?
  • If I could work without interruption indefinitely, what would I do?
  • If I spent all day in classrooms, except for a handful of 10-minute check-ins in the office, how would the day go?

These questions can lead us to much better decisions about how to spend our time. How do you focus yourself to get things done?

Fitting Instructional Leadership Into Your Day

I’d love to get into classrooms more, but…

I’d love to provide more meaningful feedback to my teachers, but…

I’d love to get to know students and what they’re learning better, but…

Here’s the thing: none of these are excuses. They’re reluctant statements about reality.

This is a tough job, and one that always pulls us in more directions than we can go at once. Everything we have to do is important, and everything needs to be done now, and there’s never enough time to do the non-urgent things we’d really hoped to spend more of our time on.

Steven Covey called them Quadrant II activities – things that are truly important, but not urgent compared to the fires we’re constantly putting out. Things that tend to get crowded out by the urgent.

Most of our instructional leadership work falls into Quadrant II.

The secret of Quadrant II work is a principle I call ergopneumatics, which combines the Greek roots ergo, meaning “work,” and pneuma, meaning “air in motion.”

air compressor

Like compressed air, “compressed work” moves faster and is more useful. With an impact wrench, you can take the wheel off a race car in a few seconds. With your work under compression, you’ll get things done when you need to be done with them, not when you get around to finishing them.

If I have the rest of the day to write this evaluation, it’s going to take me…you guessed it: the rest of the day. And I might still decide I need to take it home and work on it more after the kids are in bed.

If, on the other hand, I have 45 minutes to write this evaluation, and then I’m leaving on a trip, I’m going to get the evaluation done.

The surprising secret? The evaluation I spend all day on isn’t going to be any better. I can write just as good an evaluation in 45 minutes, and if I have to, I will.

This is why I’m not completely anti-procrastination. Procrastination forces us into compressing the time we spend on a task. But it has downsides too, so I think purposeful compression without procrastination is even better.

Give it a try: impose a deadline on yourself, and commit to stopping and doing something else the moment that deadline arrives. (It’s essential that the deadline be made real by a commitment you make to someone else.) More often than not, you’ll be done with your task. Some examples:

  • Writing anything
  • Processing your email
  • Working through a stack

When we compress our work, it gets done in less time, just as a compressed pile of clothes fits into the suitcase even if it looks too big before we compress it.

Why does this work? A couple of reasons:

  • It focuses us on a clear goal
  • It forces us to mentally keep track of whether we’re on pace, and we can adjust as needed
  • It energizes us to push through and avoid distractions

Give it a try and let me know what you think. If you need to finish an evaluation today, commit to visiting a classroom 50 minutes from now, and get cranking on that eval.

Report back in the comments. How has the principle of ergopneumatics worked for you?

4 Reasons to Switch to Google Calendar

I’ve used just about every calendar tool out there over the years, and the time has come for just about everyone to switch to Google Calendar.

Calendar

Forgive me for being blunt, but I think the benefits are undeniable.

1. It’s Free
That’s right – Google Calendar costs you nothing. If your district is using Exchange/Outlook, they’re paying a license fee for every account, but Google Calendar is free, and you don’t need anyone else’s permission to start using it. Just create an account and get started. If you already have a Gmail account, just go to google.com/calendar and start using the calendar you already have.

2. It Works on Every Device
I’m an iPhone/iPad guy, so I wish I could recommend iCloud’s calendar, which is built into your iPhone. Sadly, I can’t, because the iCloud calendar is terrible at talking to anything that isn’t an Apple device – and this includes other humans who need access to your calendar.

The good news? Your Apple device will work with Google Calendar – in fact, the built-in Calendar app on iOS works perfectly with Google Calendar. Just go to Settings » Mail, Contact, Calendars and enter your Google account details. Turn Calendars to “on” and you’re good to go. Now you can access your calendar in your:

  • Computer’s web browser
  • Mac Calendar app
  • Outlook calendar view (yes, really!)

As well as on your:

  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • Android phone
  • Android tablet

So you always have access to your calendar.

3. It’s Powerful
You might assume Outlook has the most powerful calendar features because it’s a desktop application and is used in many professional settings. But Google Calendar is just as powerful, and has a number of tricks up its sleeve. Did you know Google Calendar can do all of this?

  • Send calendar invitations just like Outlook
  • Send you a text message (SMS) appointment reminder whenever you want
  • Create recurring events with complicated patterns, like “every 4th Wednesday of the month”
  • Respond to keyboard shortcuts – my favorites are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 j, and k
  • Show your appointments in daily, weekly, monthly, or list view

4. It’s Shareable
I’ve saved the clincher for last: Your Google Calendar can talk to other calendars in whatever way you want:

  • Share your whole calendar with your secretary or family
  • Share your free/busy info—your availability—but not your specific appointments with anyone you want
  • Designate others who can edit your calendar, e.g. secretary
  • Link your calendar to scheduling tools like ScheduleOnce so it’s easy to set meetings with other people

I wish I got $5 for everyone I convert to Google Calendar, but I don’t. I’ll be satisfied if you get a boost to your productivity by making this effortless and extremely beneficial switch.

Have you switched? How did it go for you? What’s your favorite tip in Google Calendar? Do you miss anything about Outlook or whatever you were using before? Leave a comment and let me know!

Planning Your Work: Beyond the Hard Landscape of the Day

A principal’s work is nothing if not unpredictable, so why schedule out every moment of every day to work on specific tasks? You’re just going to get interrupted.

On the other hand, isn’t it better to plan your work, then work your plan? Is it wise not to schedule out your work time, except for those times when you would truly refuse to be interrupted for anything short of a fire?

Hard landscape

I read David Allen’s bestselling book Getting Things Done years ago, and it sparked an interest in productivity and effectiveness that drives me to this day. His message about “stress-free productivity” anchors my approach to work and leadership.

Like Allen, I’m a rather intuitive worker—I prefer to decide in the moment what to focus on. So this advice resonated with me:

Don’t schedule something on your calendar unless it’s a real appointment or a task driven by a real deadline.

He calls this the “hard landscape,” which I think is a great concept: You want to be clear about what’s a real appointment (or something you must get done by a certain time), and what you’d merely like to spend time on.

If you make this distinction clearly, it’s easier to reprioritize when your plans are disrupted. Some quick triage can help you decide what’s going to still get done, and what will have to be set aside.

In a job as unpredictable as school leadership, Allen’s advice seems to make sense: Don’t schedule time unless it’s a real appointment that you refuse to miss, whether that appointment is with yourself or someone else.

But I took this too far. For years, I never planned how I would use my time at all except for those hard-landscape tasks and appointments.

I think this was a mistake, because today I know the value of having a rough idea of what I want to get done in a day—and even better, of taking advantage of the principle of ergopneumatics, or Parkinson’s Law, to set ambitious goals for what to get done in a narrow timeframe.

When we don’t plan our work beyond the hard landscape, I think we’re missing an opportunity to plan our days with greater intentionality.

With the tools at our disposal today, it’s easier than ever to plan our work and work our plan, while remaining clear about the hard landscape and being responsive to whatever emergencies we have to deal with.

In Google Calendar, for example, you can have as many calendars as you want, and they don’t all have to be “hard landscape” calendars. You can keep one calendar for firm appointments, and one for everything else, and you can move things around with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger. If you have to scratch your planned work for the day, you can just drag it to tomorrow’s calendar.

Nor do all of your appointments have to be “busy” appointments. I have several Twitter chats set as recurring events on my main calendar, but I have them set to “Available” so I’m not blocked from scheduling phone calls or meetings during them. I’ll participate in the Twitter chat if I’m free, but I’m not going to turn down all other options for using that time.

Similarly, if I know I generally want to spend tomorrow morning working on a particular project, I can put that on my calendar but not mark it as “busy,” or I can put it on my “to work on” calendar, which is separate from my main calendar that I use to track appointments.

In this way, I think we can get the best of both worlds—the benefit of planning our work, but the clarity of separating our firm appointments from our flexible plans.

How do you schedule your time for non-appointment work that you want to get done? Leave a comment and let me know.

A Tip for Google Calendar Users

If you want to select which of your Google calendars to show on your mobile device, visit this page.

How to Show Shared Calendars on your iPad

Smarter Multi-Tasking

Multi tasking

Multi-tasking has gotten a bad rap in recent years, mainly from studies showing how difficult it is to effectively work on several things at once.

But multi-tasking doesn’t have to mean talking to one person and emailing another at the same time, or otherwise trying to simultaneously accomplish two tasks. It can mean juggling the rapid succession of things we need to deal with throughout the day – doing one at a time, but in short enough bursts that we can deal with the inevitable interruptions.

When we multi-task smartly, it can actually help us deal with everything that comes our way and get our work done.

The key is to single-task for long enough that you can actually get something done, yet not for unmanageably long blocks of time.*

In other words, traditional multi-tasking is bad (checking email while participating in a meeting, for example), but the traditional technique of scheduling a big block of time to work on something doesn’t really work either. We need interruptions and variety just as much as we need intense periods of focus.*

Human/computer interaction researcher Victor Manuel Gonzalez y Gonzalez studied how IT professionals managed the multiple activities they had to deal with during the work day. Some of the professionals he studied were managers, and they seemed to have a lot in common with principals.

He found that most people worked on about 9-12 different “working spheres” per day, and spent a total of about 45 minutes total on each one. They tended to work for about 12 minutes on a sphere before either interrupting themselves or being interrupted, both of which were roughly equally likely.

Everyone gets interrupted, but why would people interrupt themselves? Why not shut the door and focus on something until it’s done? Gonzalez concludes:

The results of this investigation have shown that, in general, the informants had a favorable preference towards multi-tasking. People identified two main benefits of this behavior.

First, multi-tasking among different projects and activities brought a higher degree of variety to their work, and reduced their boredom, as compared to having just one major project to deal with.

Second, multi-tasking led individuals to be more focused and concentrated on the task at hand, as they knew they would have to optimize their efforts in order to be able to focus on the other things they had to attend.

These benefits of multi-tasking are two sides of the same coin: When we’re engaged more intensely for shorter periods of time, we can get more done and be less subject to boredom and distraction.

What does this mean for our approach to getting big projects done? One practical strategy that a Washington principal shared with me in a study I did last year is to schedule multiple, shorter blocks of time to work on a big project.

If you block off three hours for “write report for school board,” you’re probably going to get bored, tired, interrupted, and frustrated. And if an emergency comes up and you miss the entire three hour work time, you’ll have no time left on your schedule to finish it later.

If instead you block off eight or ten slots of 10-15 minutes each to work on your big project in bursts, you’ll have:

  • A lower chance of getting interrupted during each short burst
  • A smaller backlog of issues that came up while you were working
  • Multiple chances to finish the project, even if something takes you away from one of your bursts
  • A more focused goal for each burst, so you’re less tempted to waste time on “settling in” activities like checking email
  • Less time to get bored or run out of steam while working

Give it a try and let me know what you find.

A challenge Gonzalez notes: It’s often hard to remember what you were doing – and why – when you come back to a task. How do you deal with this?

* These two paragraphs were added shortly after publication, in response to some great feedback from @JustinChristen via Twitter.

The Pareto Principle and Instructional Leadership

80 20 pareto principle

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts – and conversely, that only 20% of our results come from the other 80% of our efforts. It’s more a rule of thumb than a mathematical or sociological law, but the Pareto Principle is useful for thinking about how we spend our time with staff.

It’s tempting to think that visiting every classroom for an equal amount of time and perfectly balancing our time conversing with each staff member is the right way to go. But in the real world, where time is so limited, we will actually accomplish less when we try too hard to be “fair” with our time and attention.

The Pareto Principle tells us we should identify the 80% of our efforts that have a low payoff, so we can shift more of our energies into high-impact work. Let’s walk through a few classrooms and see how we can have the greatest impact.

Three Classrooms
Steph is a master teacher who just finished teaching a workshop on the district’s curriculum to other teachers. I stop in, and she is leading students in a discussion of what they learned yesterday. Directions for the next activity are already on the board. Do I stop and watch the whole lesson, which I know will be great, or hit another classroom and come back mid-lesson to engage with students?

Karen is a veteran teacher who has been struggling lately, but she knows how to put on a good show. I stop in, and she calls on several students who answer articulately. The discussion continues in this way for several minutes without an apparent direction, and students seem anxious. I have other classrooms to visit, but I get the sense that I need to see what’s behind the dog-and-pony show.

Steve is a 3rd-year teacher who is making good progress but still has plenty of room to grow. Our conversations seem to help Steve reflect on his practice and strive to improve. I stop in to observe part of a lesson, then catch up with him later in the day to talk about how it went.

In these three scenarios, time invested with each teacher has a different payoff, as predicted by the Pareto Principle. Time I spend with Steve has an average payoff, so I try to give him a fair share of my time.

On the other hand, time I spend giving feedback to Steph is going to have a marginal (if any) impact on her practice. She’s going to need access to advanced training and leadership opportunities, and I’d be better off learning from her than pretending to give her feedback. My visits to her classroom are quick, and when we talk, I try to pick her brain rather than find some tiny thing she can improve on.

Time I spend in Karen’s classroom is going to have a disproportionately high impact, because it will allow me to address the potentially major problems that lie just beneath the surface.

The Harsh Truth: We Don’t Do This
Unfortunately, it’s tempting to do the exact opposite of what the Pareto Principle suggests. At best, we visit each classroom equally, but it’s more likely that we spend 80% of our time with teachers who are doing great, and only 20% in classrooms that desperately need our attention.

Kim Marshall reflects on this tendency in his must-read book Rethinking Teacher Supervision & Evaluation. As he made his way around the building on walkthroughs, he kept track of which classrooms he visited, and noted that

even though I wasn’t planning the sequence of visits, the same four or five teachers always wound up being at the end of the line. These were classrooms, I realized, in which I felt unwelcome and awkward or dreaded the negative feedback I knew I would have to give, and had been subconsciously avoiding them. My checklist made me aware of which classrooms I was putting off visiting and made me think about why. If it hadn’t been for the self-discipline imposed by my rotation, I would have gone for months without visiting them. (Rethinking Teacher Supervision & Evaluation, ch. 3)

An Alternative
How can we avoid this tendency to see only the sunny side of instruction in our schools? The first step is, as Marshall notes, to actually keep track of our classroom visits, so we can tell if we’re avoiding someone.

But what if we want to take it a step further and try to differentiate our time? Here’s one idea – let me know if you take a shot at it.

  1. Make a list of all of your classrooms or staff, divided into three groups – high, middle, and low performers
  2. For each cycle of walkthroughs, visit teachers in the top tier once
  3. Visit teachers in the middle tier twice
  4. Visit teachers in the bottom tier three times
  5. Revise your list as needed and repeat

Obvious stuff, right? But I challenge you to actually try it, and actually visit your struggling classrooms three times as much as your best classrooms.

You’ll probably open a few cans of worms, but hey – that’s the job.

I’d love to hear from you if you give this a try – you can tell me here or leave a comment below.

The Fence

How high is your fence, and what gets over it?

photo by Flickr user OakleyOriginals

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.

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.

Download:
Word version
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