“The best advice I can give you is simply don’t fall behind.” I can’t remember who said that to me, but I’ve always found it to be a great suggestion. Falling behind creates many issues, further reducing one’s ability to accomplish what they set out to do. Although I first heard this as a freshman in college, I found it to be true in all my endeavors, both professionally and personally. When I became a school administrator I found myself unable to stay ahead with my workload consuming my days and nights. I started combing through anything related to time management and increasing productivity. I would try any tip, trick, or idea to help me stay ahead. I desired to become more effective and more efficient to reduce the long days and even longer nights. I wanted and needed a better system. Fortunately, I realized three simple but effective techniques and strategies that helped me stay organized, and more importantly, freed me of mental clutter and noise.
Block Fill Your Calendar
Every job has recurring tasks. For example, as a building administrator, teacher observations are a mainstay and vital part of the position. I determined that if I completed two observations a week over six months I would complete forty-eight a year. This basic formula worked primarily for a couple of reasons. First, it prioritized my days and weeks. I knew each week I had two observations to complete, which was really six meetings and writing time—the pre-observation, the observation, the post-observation, and writing. By predetermining this I was able to add these “meetings” to my calendar each day and block out the necessary time. As a result, each week soon was filled with meetings and tasks that I needed to accomplish throughout the day. The trick was sticking to my schedule and allowing enough time for interruptions and emergencies. However, once I determined that one observation is the equivalent of approximately two and half hours of work, I was able to be more realistic and “stingy” with my time.
The second reason this worked was it provided me with a clear focus each day and a realistic sense of time. I continued to identify recurring aspects of the position, identified the approximate time for each, and then added them to my calendar. What evolved was my days and weeks quickly filled with tasks I had to do, which helped develop a sense of urgency around the things I wanted to do to achieve our school goals. Better yet, as the school leader, as my sense of urgency increased, so did that of others.
Have a Bucket
A bucket is designed to carry things. In Thinking for A Change, John Maxwell describes using a tool to help carry your thoughts and ideas. “Inundated” is one of the best words to describe the life of an administrator. As a principal, I was consumed with information and thoughts that flooded my mind. Many were fleeting and momentary but important, so I needed a strategy to remember everything. I used a “bucket.”
I didn’t bother organizing ideas or using a sophisticated system or app. I simply kept a 6″ X 4″ memo book (mead pad) in my back pocket as a “bucket ” to carry every thought that came to mind. Years later, I have several of these mead pads with countless thoughts, ideas, tasks, and reminders inscribed in them. Once the thought was on paper, my mind was clear and able to focus. It was the only way to keep my mind uncluttered.
I wrote everything from “need to get milk” to “email Chief custodian that trash can lid out front is cracked.” This may seem simple, but it requires a constant and consistent effort. Recently, I’ve upgraded to my iPhone notes feature, but nonetheless, I continue to use this incredible strategy and rarely miss the opportunity to capitalize on my own thinking.
Don’t Read Mail Twice
I received this advice from an industry executive turned teacher. After, twenty years in business, Stewart made a career change desiring to teach chemistry to 11th graders. One afternoon after a busy day in the classroom, I was complaining to Stewart about all the non-teaching tasks that accompanied the job. I felt overwhelmed by the paperwork. Stewart walked me through his simple and efficient process. Basically, Stewart was in control of his time. The big takeaway for me, though, was never go through mail twice. Stewart had set specific times he read his mail. He didn’t haphazardly approach the task, but rather understood more work could be within that envelope or email. So he needed time to process the information. What Steward didn’t do was keep a pile of “unsure what to do with mail.” On my desk I had collected a nice pile of mail that I wasn’t sure if I needed. I simply kept in on a part of my desk that stayed there essentially haunting me.
Stewart made me realize that I was being indecisive around a common aspect of our jobs. Emails can also wreak havoc on time and organization. I’ve discovered that the same rule applies. In David Allen’s Getting Things Done he writes about the 3 Ds—Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It. Email presents a slightly different challenge since the information being communicated can vary greatly. However, the key is to develop a system that helps organize the information that maximizes your time. Respond to email immediately, forward it to be responded to by a delegate, or defer to another source for the mailer to seek the right person to ask. Don’t keep a full inbox.
These basic strategies are simple and effective. And most importantly you can begin them today. Let us know what you think, or ask us to help provide clarity through training your leaders to embrace these strategies.