Time management – juggling tasks, coffee cups, and late nights

Let’s begin with a short quiz for school principals and senior leaders.

Listed below are 12 statements or questions.  Give yourself a point for every statement you have thought or said to yourself over the past month (paraphrases are acceptable):

  • I can’t believe how many e-mails arrived today.
  • Is there a ‘Delegate’ button hidden somewhere in my office that I haven’t found yet?
  • Is it possible to survive solely on a diet of coffee and appreciation?
  • I never even managed to pee once the day had started.
  • I’ve been in back-to-back meetings all day.
  • Do they make a ‘Principal Clone’ kit?  Just asking for a friend... who is me.
  • Is it acceptable to add ‘Professional Juggler’ to my C.V. for handling all these tasks?
  • Lunch? Who has time for lunch?
  • Yes, I know I said I’d be home by 8pm, but I thought you understood that was a joke.
  • An entire month went by and I never managed to connect with my board chair.
  • There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
  • I'm so busy that I considered joining a time management support group, but I just don’t have the time.

If you gave yourself 12 points, then you probably don’t have time to read this article (although you really need to!).  I suspect many school principals and leaders would be able to score around 8 out 12 with little difficulty.  However, that is NOT a badge of honour like the one shown in the photo above – it is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Quickly!  Before burnout solves the problem for you.

Having a daily schedule with no blank space IS worn like a badge of honour by far too many school leaders.  It is not good for the leader, and it is not good for the school.  Not having time to attend to bodily functions, to respond to e-mails, and most importantly of all, to relate meaningfully to staff, students, and even your own family, is almost certainly not the plan you had in mind when you applied for a principalship.

Having been the Principal of five schools myself, I look back and completely understand the pressures upon every school leader.  They are insidious and unrelenting.

School Principals have a huge number of often competing constituencies that all demand time and attention – the board, parents, teachers, non-teaching staff, alumni, the wider community, government authorities, contractors, the press and media, volunteers, donors, potential donors – and of course their own family.  I have never met a School Principal anywhere in the world who has been able to put hand on heart and declare that their own family never had to make any sacrifices to support their work – which doesn’t make it acceptable, of course.

Astute boards understand the vast range and ongoing stress of these pressures and do whatever they can to protect the Principal from excessive demands, providing ‘space’ for renewal and support in any possible way.  Nonetheless, there are limits to the extent that a Board can (or is likely to) say “go home and do less work”.  

A complicating factor is that most good Principals have a strong disposition to give, and give, and to keep on giving, because they see their vocation as one of servant leadership.  Therein lies the tension.

It has been said by many people – Principals are often their own worst enemy when it comes to looking after their personal welfare.  No less true but said less frequently is the claim that most constituents in a school have no idea how hard and sacrificially their Principal is working because so much of the Principal’s work is done away from their direct vision or the public eye.

The good news is that School Principals have considerable power to improve their time management.  Although not every strategy will work for every Principal, some possibilities include the following:

  • Delegate effectively. This involves handing over some authority to make decisions to others, accompanied by the expectation and the requirement for explicit accountability for the effectiveness of those decisions.  Delegation involves placing trust in others, and I fully appreciate the difficulty some Principals face in doing so, especially considering that the Principal is ultimately accountable to the Board for every aspect of the school’s operations.  If the Principal can’t find any competent staff to perform delegated tasks, then the Principal is the one who has the duty and the responsibility to find and recruit some, and the Board should encourage and financially support such recruitment.  It should be noted that as well as relieving the Principal’s workload, delegation develops the skills of more junior staff members and prepares them for leadership in due course, and this benefits not only the school but the entire education sector. 
  • Prioritise tasks. Lists are a great help here; note everything that needs to be done, number the points in order of priority (which may not be the same as order of importance), and then enjoy the satisfaction of crossing items off the list as they are completed.
  • Set aside blocks of time.  Everyone needs some flexibility in their day to draw breath, to think and reflect (and pray), to go to the washroom, to return an unexpected phone call, or even to renew oneself professionally by reading a free online article about best practice in school leadership.
  • Schedule daily ‘open door’ times.  Being accessible to staff enables issues to be handled when they are just a spark that might lead to a grass fire rather than waiting for it to flare up and become a forest fire.  When I was Principal, every staff member knew they could come to my office for an unscheduled chat of up to five minutes about anything at all during the hour after morning tea every day.  If they needed more than five minutes, they could schedule an appointment in the usual way.  These ‘open door’ times were additional to the accessibility I provided by being present in the staff common room at morning tea every day, and during my twice-daily walks around the entire campus of the school.  If no-one came to see me during some or all of the daily ‘open door’ times, I had the bonus of some extra time to catch up on other matters.
  • Learn to say ‘no’.  Many Principals find this even harder than delegating because most Principals are by nature people pleasers.  Hopefully saying ‘no’ becomes easier for Principals once they focus on the reality that overcommitment to their work leads to burnout, stress, decreased work effectiveness, short-tempered relationships, poorer family life, and often a shorter life span.
  • Invest in the Principal’s own professional development. Although professional development takes time away from everyday duties, it should be seen as an investment rather than a cost.  This is because professional development refreshes the mind, spurs creativity, and (at its best) enhances leadership and time management skills.

Let me finish with a challenge to every school leader who has read through to the end of this article.  Consciously try to improve your time management using the six points above, plus anything else that might work for you.  Work through those strategies for six months.  Then re-take the 12-point quiz at the start of the article and compare the difference.  I would love to receive your feedback on the changes you experience.

- Dr Stephen Codrington

We offer support for school leaders and board members (including Board Chairs) through mentoring and critical friendships.  We also support boards and school Principals through our senior management reviews, middle management appraisals and board performance reviews.

Further information on these and many other facets of best practice in school leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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