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Time management tips for school leaders

Keeping control of your workload is a skill that has to be learned, practised and refined. Here’s where to start, says Steph Caswell...

  • Time management tips for school leaders

Let me guess – a wry smile has just passed your lips. Maybe even a soft chuckle escaped.

For many senior leaders, time management is a little like a new year’s resolution; you start off with the best intentions, vowing that this year things will be different.

You won’t be distracted from that data analysis or governors’ report.

You visualise ‘inbox zero’ like a weightlifter would visualise 24in biceps.

But then a behaviour incident occurs at lunchtime. A parent requests to talk to you about their child. A teacher calls in sick and suddenly you have to cover. Your dreams of inbox-zero glory fly out the window.

Managing your time effectively, therefore, sounds like the stuff dreams are made of.

So, is it possible? Can you, as a leader in a primary school, actually find ways to complete your work each day without constant interruption? Are the days of poring over your work at home well and truly over?

Developing time-management skills

Much like any skill worth having, we’re not born with a talent for time management.

It’s a skill that has to be learned, practised and constantly refined until we come up with a system that works for us.

It was through desperation that I decided to learn about it during my time as a deputy headteacher.

I was tired of starting things and never finishing them, of constantly adding to my list of jobs but rarely crossing things off and of desperately attempting to get some work done without any interruption.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a leader, part of your job is to be interrupted. To be ‘on call’ when people need you. Nothing is going to change that.

But you can develop skills that enable you to work with that knowledge and still be successful at completing other tasks that are essential to your role.

Here are some ideas you might like to consider. They come from things I’ve tried or from ideas developed with the leaders I coach.

Give each of them a try. Some might work for you; others might not. Time management isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ system.

Take the strategies that work for you, add them to your toolkit and ditch the rest. It’s your toolkit after all!

Do the worst first of all

Time management guru Brian Tracy suggests you imagine that part of your job is to swallow a live frog every single day. Would you want to get it over with or leave it until the very last moment?

In his book Eat that Frog, Tracy suggests looking at your to-do list the night before and deciding which task is the most important, yet most unappealing on there – one that you’ve been putting off or dreading. This task becomes your frog.

Make it the first thing you do when you come in and you’ll begin the day with a sense of achievement and success.

Block out the diary

Most schools now have access to a shared, online diary. When you know you have an important task to do, block out your diary for all to see. That way, you won’t be interrupted.

You don’t have to write what you’re doing; you just need to make yourself unavailable. It might only be for an hour, but an hour of uninterrupted time is worth its weight in gold.

Find a new space to work

An assistant headteacher I recently coached wanted to use the diary idea above, but was hesitant. If people saw that he was in his office, the temptation would be there to knock on the door and just ask for a ‘quick word’.

So he tried combining the diary blocking with occupying an unused classroom/meeting room and found it worked well, enabling him to complete important jobs without interruption.

If all else fails, introduce a system of a green/red card on your door. Green means they’re welcome to knock; red means they must come back later.

Consider working from home

Yes, you read that right. A system that worked well with my former senior leadership team was the option, once a half term, to work from home for the day.

When you’ve got the school’s data to analyse or an important end-of-term governor’s report to write, a day at home can provide the space and environment you need to get it done.

Why not try it? If you plan it well enough in advance, cover arrangements can be made and tasks or duties can be delegated.

Get organised

So, you’ve got the time and you’ve got the space to do a task, but you’re procrastinating.

As a writer, I feel your pain. But there is a method that works: the pomodoro technique.

Using a timer, set it for 25 minutes. As soon as you press ‘start’, work solidly on your task for that block of time.

As soon as it’s up, take a five-minute break. Walk around the room, grab a drink of water, stretch. When the break is over, another 25 minutes goes on the clock and you start again.

It really is a great technique.

Have all you need for the task at your fingertips too, to avoid interrupting your flow, and your productivity will soar.

Just stop multitasking

If you think multitasking is a tool for your toolkit, you’re sadly mistaken. Research has shown that you are actually less productive if you try and multitask.

Focus all your attention, all your energy on one task and do it to the best of your ability. Not only will the work you produce be better, but you’ll feel less stressed too.

To do one thing well is far better than to do a few things that are merely mediocre. Why not try a ‘power hour’ each week and use it to do all those small tasks that are always on your list, but not of high importance?

Again, set that timer. It can be a really productive end to a week, so give it a try.

Keep practising

Remember learning to ride a bike? You fell off a few times before you were able to ride from your house to the end of the road.

Time management is similar to learning any new skill. You’ll wobble a bit, you’ll probably fall off a few times, and that’s OK. Keep practising, keep trying new strategies and ideas.

Sooner or later, you’ll find the ways that work for you and you’ll have the time management equivalent of 24in biceps in no time.

Steph Caswell is an educational coach and author. Find her at strivecoachinganddevelopment.co.uk and follow her on Twitter at @stephcaswell_.

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