Balance is a popular word among life coaches and leadership authors. As important as it is to remember to invest in the meaningful areas of your life, too many people place unrealistic expectations upon themselves.
Living a life of meaning does not mean being perfect. This is misperception is not only unrealistic, it is also unhealthy. Life is messy. Sometimes you face unexpected challenges in your health, relationships, or finances. When you look at your own condition, not matter how exhilarating or depressing, the first response is to give yourself the kind of grace you would want to extend to someone you love. We all face ups and downs.
But sometimes we need reminders to refocus on what matters. It’s a delicate but important tension to be aware of both truths:
1. You need to invest in what matter to keep growing.
2. You need to be patient with yourself (and others) along the journey.
As I continue this series on Reflections for Education Leaders, I’d like to add some thoughts for school leaders on how to better manage your time, but I want to offer these as suggestions, not prescriptions. You do not need any more guilt than you already have about the difficulty of balancing your responsibilities. But you may gain some valuable ideas in the following discussion about time:
What Are Your Goals For Your Time?
Several years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who was twenty years younger than I am. He and his wife were establishing life after college, they had just become parents, and his small business was beginning to grow. I was reflecting with him about my own memories at his age: how my wife and I had lived on one income to pay off college debts with our second income, and how we had saved up to buy our first home before our first baby was born.
As I celebrated his journey and reminisced about my own, he asked an honest but provoking question. “So, what goals have you set for yourself now?” I paused for a moment and then answered as honestly as I could. “Well,” I said, “I think my biggest goal right now is to simply survive!”
With a growing family and the demands of being an assistant principal at the time, I couldn’t think of a better answer. It was honest, but over the next several days, those words haunted me. When was the last time I had really thought about the next goals I wanted to reach for myself or my family?
During that same time, I came across a podcast interview with Robert Smith, author of 20,000 Days and Counting: The Crash Course for Mastering Your Life Right Now. Robert related how at age fifty-five, he realized he had now lived 20,000 days. When you look at life from that perspective, you realize that if you are blessed with a life of 75 years, you have approximately 27,375 days to live. On my next birthday, I will be fifty years old, which means I will have reached 18,250 days. If I make it to 75 years old, that means I have approximately 9,000 days to go.
You may be doing the math in your own head now. No matter where you are on the scale, you realize that we all have a limited number of days, hours and minutes. We can either make the most of them, or we can look back with regret on the moments lost. Without overwhelming you with the guilt that comes from trying to achieve perfect balance, I want to encourage you to think about how to make the most of your time so you still take calculated risks and have fewer regrets. None of us ever does this perfectly. But when we begin to take perspective on our time, we can begin to set sensible goals.
School leaders have an especially difficult time managing time. Researchers from the Center for Education Policy Analysis share findings in a helpful report, Principal Time Management Skills: Explaining Patterns in Principals’ Time Use and Effectiveness. In the report, Jason A. Grissom (Vanderbilt University), Susanna Loeb (Stanford University), and Hajime Mitani (Stanford University), they share that time management among principals is a strategy for “increasing their focus on instructional leadership and pursuing school improvement.”
So how can you approach your need for time-management and goal setting so that you are making the most of the days you have before you?
6 Tips for Making the Most of Your Time
1. Stop wasting your time.
One of the biggest ways you find your time mismanaged is by allowing others or circumstances to dictate its use. At the risk of sounding like your grandfather, let me caution you on some time wasters to avoid.
Social Media: It is a time-sucker. If you check it during the day, set a time-limit; otherwise, you can find precious minutes wasted randomly scrolling through photos, feeds and chatter. Limit time in front of screens.
Screen Time: Whether it is TV, your computer or your smart phone, if you are spending more time in front of a screens than interacting with people, you are most likely not building relationships. You’ll never hear someone on their death bed say they wished they had spent more time online.
Emails: Set a timer for 20-30 minutes and read as many as you can. Respond to the ones that only require a few seconds. For those that require more thoughtful follow-up later, tag them accordingly or delegate them to an appropriate team member for follow-up. Keep your calendar handy as so many emails require meetings and dates. If possible, call or see someone face-to-face if an email reveals heightened emotions. Move on to other to-do’s after your time is up.
Driving or Commuting: Take advantage of this time to learn either by catching up on news, sports, or listening to podcasts or audio books. If you love to sing, use this time to let it rip. By all means, don’t take out frustrations by distracted or angry driving.
School Events or Activities: Don’t feel pressured to stay till the end of every event – especially if you have another trustworthy and authorized adult present to manage a game or activity. Also, take advantage of these “down times” for other tasks or to-do’s. People ask me a lot how I found time to write so much and be an assistant principal and principal. The answer is that I learned to combine tasks. For years, I carried my laptop to away games. Especially during tournaments, I would advantage of times between games to do some writing – a hobby I both enjoyed and an activity that allowed me to write my first two books.
2. Set sensible boundaries.
I’m going to keep this point short. You can say no to requests. I know it’s hard, but if you have taken time to schedule what matters in advance (I’ll talk about that next), then you should already know where your time is committed long in advance. It’s also important to train others to help you set boundaries.
Let me share an example. In my school office area, I trained my secretary how to protect our time. If a parent called, she knew what questions to ask to see whether or not the call should be forwarded to a teacher, counselor, or to me. Most often the person they needed to talk to was someone on my team more directly involved in the outcomes of their student. By setting boundaries on who I needed to speak to or call back, this saved me hours of time each week. This same rule applies throughout each day and week. Learn to politely say “no” when you’re plate is already to full to add more.
3. Schedule what matters.
You probably already keep a detailed calendar. I suggest that principals set their calendars at least a year in advance. Sometimes two-year calendars are helpful for major meeting dates like graduation ceremonies, for instance.
During the summer, I would divide my teachers into groups and decide whose classrooms I would spend time in each week for formal observations. I still conducted daily or weekly walkthroughs throughout the entire campus, but each week, two or three teachers knew in advance that I would be spending an entire classroom period with them.
By setting these teachers on my calendar in advance for the targeted week, I could reach out to them the week before to coordinate the best day and period for a visit. Because I had already prioritized whose classrooms I would be observing throughout the entire school year, I fit all my other meetings around those classroom visits.
The same strategy works for emergency drills, team meetings, student assemblies, and district administrator meetings. Yes, emergency situations often derail the best-made plans, but you can often keep those moments in perspective when you commit yourself ahead of time to the tasks you know are best for overall school outcomes.
4. Use tools to save time.
A tool can be either digital or physical. I have found both helpful in saving time. First, I suggest you have a physical location for the letters, paperwork, and mail you need to see, sign, or trash. Normally, I would begin my day going through the mail placed in my box the afternoon before. With each article, I would either trash the unnecessary, respond to inquiries to return by mail, keep what needs filing, or forward on letters or publications to others on my team.
When it comes to digital tools, I love Google Docs and Google Forms. For instance, my office team and I would keep our duty rosters, master schedule, emergency drills, observation schedules, or team meetings on Google Docs. This way we could share among team members and update or edit as needed. These documents are easily updated from year-to-year. Google Forms are also great ways to collect data or surveys from multiple sources and place in easy to read spreadsheet documents later.
I also suggest sharing a digital calendar with your teammates. They can see what is on your calendar in advance and know when you may or may not be available for upcoming meetings. We used Google calendar invites to schedule parent meetings or meetings with students on Individual Education Plans. At the end of each school year, I would ask my senior students who were speaking at graduation to submit their speeches to me via Google Docs. Then we would coordinate together on edits and compare speeches in advance to avoid repetition or limit wording if speeches ran too long.
5. Prioritize and tackle accordingly.
I often hear new administrators who step from the classroom to the office say they never expected not being to accomplish everything on their to-do list. This is a common reality for school leaders. You will always have more on your to-do list than can be accomplished by one person. So, the goal is to prioritize.
That is one reason to set meetings and classroom visits on your calendar in advance. You cannot be an instructional leader if you’re not involved in interacting the students and teachers in classrooms. At the same time, you may be the only person responsible for managing a school-wide crisis or emergency. Keep these competing demands in perspective.
Often you can “chunk” your tasks. For instance, you may know on a given day that you want to complete two formal observations, work on a report requested by your state department, and manage scheduled meetings with teachers or parents. Just like your teachers and students work with scheduled periods, chunk your time as well.
If you need to see students from discipline referrals, try to schedule these back-to-back within the first hour of school by having passing written out before school begins and seeing students early in the day so you can resolve issues as soon as possible with parent and teacher follow-up.
Be in hallways during passing periods so you see as many students as possible throughout the day. Walk the building and stop by rooms to say hello or check progress on your way to formal observations. Schedule a block of time or one class period that day for a meeting with yourself to finish your report.
Hold non-emergency phone calls or email follow-ups for the end of the day when students or teachers have left the building. Throughout the entire day, take time to take photos of student or teacher achievement and include shout-outs on social media of great happenings throughout your school.
No matter how hard you work, you will still find many tasks undone, but the goal is to prioritize the ones that most directly impact the learning, culture, and climate of your school. When you do, you will keep your school moving in a positive direction.
6. Schedule time for what inspires you.
Recently, I was reading an article in Inc.com by Bryan Adams titled, How Google’s 20 Percent Rule Can Make You More Productive and Energetic. Google’s commitment as a company to allowing their employees to use 20% of their time on creative Google-related passion project has increased their company’s outcomes and improved employee engagement.
I find this mindset can be especially empowering for school leaders too. This may look different for each person, but ask yourself what is one area of your school or team where you want to see improvement? And what is a way you enjoy working on that outcome that matches your passion or skill-set? For instance, I love to write and create.
Throughout the week, think of creative ways to display student or teacher success with creative social media shares, video-promotional, or blog posts. Pick a topic of importance and write about it in your next school newsletter.
At the end of an especially hard day, pause and ask the question: “What is one step I can take today to move the needle one degree in a more positive direction?” Then send an encouraging email to a co-worker or post a kudos to a group of teachers or student organizations. Or I maybe take 20-minutes and just write a reflectively on the day to try to keep the day in perspective.
I don’t know what this looks like for you, but think about what re-energizes you and give yourself time at the beginning or end of each school day for inspiration. Take take time to connect with others, to tell stories, and to laugh. Whatever it means for you, schedule some time into your day for inspiration. When you do, you will find yourself better able to handle the stress and pace required in serving others.
Let’s Wrap This Up
Where are you on the 20,000 day scale? What goals are you setting for yourself today and for the coming year? Yours may look completely different from mine. Maybe you are committed to reaching a new milestone in your physical health. Or maybe you have new goals for growing in relationships with your family. Today is only one day in this life you’ve been given. But it is an important day. Although you may not accomplish all the goals you set for yourself, you can accomplish many of them.
Now It’s Your Turn
What small steps can you take to guiding your days toward more productivity? Commit to not wasting time on time-sucking activities. Set realistic boundaries. Schedule time for what matter. Use smart tools for scheduling. Prioritize and chunk your time. And allow time for inspiration. When you do, you can give yourself a head start on making each day count.
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