As the often-shared memes say, being busy is, unfortunately, a bit of a “curse” in education and beyond. From my work in schools, I see some people feel swamped by their workload, others are just managing. Not many, though, seem to feel that the amount they have to do at work is realistic or sustainable.
One of the challenges we all face, then, is where to focus our attention. Where should you put your professional efforts to make sure that you have the biggest possible impacts and influence? In this post I am going to pose six questions for you to reflect on, based on my own experience.
As you prioritise your attention and time, consider:
1. Do you know exactly where the pain points actually are?
One of the big traps is what has been described as the ‘Tyranny of the Urgent’. There are many things that simply have to be done and sometimes the urgent things keep taking the time from the important ones. This means we don’t get the time to make sure we are really clear what the specific issue with a particular child, process, person, or system actually is.
As a general rule, the better we understand an issue or problem, the more cohesively and coherently we can plan and implement a response to it. If we know a child has a problem with a specific part of a process in maths, for example, we can provide strategies and support much more effectively than if we don’t have the detailed analysis. If we have consulted the significantly-impacted people about a decision we have made and why a new programme is not working out as well as expected, we can respond more appropriately than simply going from our own observations.
Often, the surface ‘symptoms’ may actually be the result of importantly different underlying causes than we initially thought, if we take the time to dig a bit further. In my experience as a school leader, time spent consulting and ‘digging deeper’ has never been time wasted.
2. Have you considered all possible options?
It is very seductive to grab on to the obvious and popular solutions to an issue. It is worth remembering that any ‘programme’ will never work for all students/contexts. Also, that applying a solution that has been successful in one setting does not necessarily mean that results will be similar in another.
The challenge is to consider a range of possibilities and then whittle them down to a shortlist of things to work on with others to determine which will have the biggest impact. Also, which will have the biggest impact for the least input of resources — time, attention, money, staffing etc. Once again, consultation and the input of multiple perspectives is invaluable at this stage. Strategies like Design Thinking are a useful way of getting a variety of perspectives and possible solutions to any issue.
It is also important to ask yourself (and others!) if you can ‘break’ the idea well before the implementation begins? Find the flaws in the logic of your thinking, and plan for what could go wrong. Giving someone the role of actively trying to find the flaws and assumptions and providing feedback is a great strategy here, which I have covered in an earlier blog post.
3. Do you have a PLAN?
Failing to plan = planning to fail.
This is very much a truism. You can only ‘wing’ significant change efforts for so long.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do all the people involved, particularly those the change relies on, know what the purpose of the change is and what their role/s are?
- Are they clear about expected outcomes?
- Are expectations, actions, and accountabilities clear?
- Are there clear timelines?
- Are initiatives sufficiently resourced to ensure they do have a reasonable chance of success?
- Are enough people involved that, if one or more people do leave the organisation, the initiative doesn’t simply fall over?
- How will you ensure prototypes are generalised across the setting?
4. How will you know if you have been successful?
This aspect is often overlooked during initial planning stages. How will you know if you have achieved enough success to make the initiative worth continuing? Sometimes things can end up simply different, rather than better, and if you don’t have clear criteria for judging the outcomes, then some people may see things as a failure and others as successful. Clearly articulated and documented desired outcomes (success criteria) make judgements as to what is success easy and clearly understood.
5. Are YOU managing your time well?
This seems a little obvious and, in some ways, is assumed in the points covered above. Nonetheless, this is a key part of ensuring you are not simply busy because you are not very organised and are doing things in inefficient ways.
In my nearly 20 years as a school leader these are some of the key things I have learned:
- Leveraging Digital: Use the digital systems in collaborative documents, shared calendars, email, etc to keep yourself organised and to be able to find things easily. I always found going completely paperless impossible but use digital systems wherever possible. A key component of this is having a robust backup system.
- Keep lists: I find this system has been a fantastic way to keep myself organised. I always have a paper spiral bound notebook to keep notes, cards, etc all stuck in.
- Look after yourself: As a leader, teacher, or anyone in the education system, you give a tremendous amount of yourself to your position and role. As the saying goes, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’. To be the best you can be for others, you need to be on your A-Game. This means basic things like getting enough sleep. Also, you have other people in your world who deserve to get you at your best, not just when you are exhausted and wrung-out.
- Be systematic: Follow a system and deal with things once if you can. There is a heap of places you can get good advice on email systems etc. The key thing I feel is keeping it simple and doable. Don’t have layers of systems that make things complicated.
- Delegate and build leadership: Building leadership skills and capability in those around you is never a wasted effort. Delegate clearly and with accountability.
6. Does it have to be (only) you?
If you are good, you often get more to do! One of the quotes I like, which has been attributed to both Lee Iococca and Steve Jobs, is about employing smart people and getting out of their way.
- If you are a leader at any level, then one of the most effective things you can do is delegate in smart and effective ways.
- Can you learn from the input and thinking of others? Ask yourself the question: “Is collaboration a smarter way to do this than by myself?”
- Do you have to design a system (or whatever) from the ground up or can you modify something from others or another context?
- Should I say no to this because I don’t actually have the time, or someone else may actually be better at it than me?
Busy is OK if it is a choice — remember you applied for this job. Too busy is OK, but only if it is for the short term and is ultimately manageable. Ask yourself the questions above and see if the strategies suggested apply to you and your context.
In the work that my colleagues and I do in Centrally Funded PLD, uChoose mentoring, and New Pedagogies, in particular, we are often working with leaders at different levels on their workflow and workload management. If this is something you would like support within your context, please do contact us.
I’d also be really interested to hear what things others do to manage their workloads and ensure you are not ‘simply too busy’. Please add in the comments!