Posts tagged time management
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.”
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?
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.
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:
- 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!
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?
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
- Make a list of all of your classrooms or staff, divided into three groups – high, middle, and low performers
- For each cycle of walkthroughs, visit teachers in the top tier once
- Visit teachers in the middle tier twice
- Visit teachers in the bottom tier three times
- 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.
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.
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.
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.