Tips for time-pressed SBMs

How can you talk about time management when you’re always in a rush? Helen Burge offers some useful tips for managing your time when you’re always in a hurry

There is an irony to me writing this piece – I had to be reminded that the deadline was looming! So although I might be offering lots of ‘top tips’, I foolishly don’t always follow my own advice. I think there is universal agreement that the first term of 2019/2020 was the busiest and most stressful term ever. I even had a day off ill, so please don’t think ‘it’s alright for her’. Like everyone else, I sit at my desk, feeling periodically overwhelmed by the ‘to do’ list.

I recently took stock of my inbox and the piles of paperwork on my desk, and thought about some wise words from the educator and public speaker known as the ‘Real David Cameron’. This David Cameron helps educators understand the ‘power they have to cut through the policies and practices that get in the way of simply doing the best possible job they can’. I’ve seen him present on leadership a few times, and have been encouraged by his unique style and delivery to consider:

  • What matters
  • What are the ‘breakable plates’
  • The ‘subtraction habit’ – if you take on X, you minus Y

Remember, some things are masquerading as a ‘breakable plate’, but are really as tough as old boots and it won’t matter if you drop them for a bit. The ‘subtraction habit’ is simply to ensure that any new workflows introduced are replacing old ones, not adding to them. I’ve made it sound really dull. Cameron gets letters to dance on the stage during his presentation, so if you’ve not seen him, prioritise booking yourself into a conference where he is speaking.

Below, I share the four essential rules that I try to follow in order to stay on top of everything...

1. Stop procrastinating

We all procrastinate – some of us quite blatantly and others blissfully unaware in their fuzz of busyness that they’re putting off more important tasks by clearing the little things they get a buzz from. Be honest with yourself; be blunt with yourself. Will this procrastination effectively reduce your hourly rate as you have to stay later to do the actual work? Would you recommend this approach to others? Probably not. This might take practise to stop. Maybe stick a Post-it note on your screen that says something like: ‘Are you procrastinating... again?!’

‘There’s no such thing as being “too busy”. If you really want something, you’ll make time for it.’ Nishan Panwar

2. Be aware of your weaknesses

On average, smartphone owners use their phone for three hours, 15 minutes a day. The top 20% of smartphone user have daily screen time in excess of four-and-a-half hours. Take a look at your screen time usage. How bad is it? You can give yourself limits in your settings, which you can, of course, ignore if you really want to. I’ve used the same concept to reduce the amount of time I spend on email. I’ve also been setting a timer during which time I don’t check emails at all, but focus on completing a particular task instead.

This means I’m not disturbed by the notifications or pings as my inbox fills up. It’s been a tricky thing to do as I hate having more than ten emails in my inbox – it makes me feel edgy, as though things are running away from me. I’m aware this is an issue of my own making, which has added pressure onto me, but I just don’t understand how people can have hundreds of emails in their inbox! So, when I’m doing email, I either respond, delegate the task or allow it to sit in my inbox. But jeepers, it can’t be there for longer than a week...

‘Every day is a bank account and time is our currency. No one is rich, no one is poor. We’ve got 24 hours each.’ Christopher Rice

3. Colour

If you are privileged enough to see the former SBM and school leadership consultant Nickii Messer present on how to improve your work management, she may suggest a simple but effective technique to organise your paperwork into four different coloured files. I’ve used:

  • PRIORITY ONE (red): Today
  • PRIORITY TWO (blue): This week
  • PRIORITY THREE (turquoise): This month
  • PRIORITY FOUR (green): ‘Term 7’, where I put all my items for quieter time during the holidays

This method has helped me clear my desk of clutter and prioritise my tasks. My Priority Two file tends to be a bit bigger than the rest, so I stick Post-it notes on different tasks, with dates I’m going to work on them. This helps me bring forward the work into the Priority One file. It also stops me sneaking ahead and doing a piece of work I like the look of, rather than the work I’m putting off. At the start of the day I review my files, and on a Friday afternoon I review them again, ready for the following week.

‘The bad news is time flies; the good news is you’re the pilot.’ Michael Altshuler

4. Blocking

My diary used to quickly fill up with meetings, but I was left with no time to do the work the meetings generated, so I ended up completing it in my own time. Crazy! Now, I block out my diary in order to complete pieces of work as per the Priority filing system.

‘Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.’ Harvey Mackay

This quote is so true. I have, on occasion, regretted spending time on a task, or watching a bad film, or being with negative people. That is time you cannot get back. Not that anyone can get time back, but what I mean is that it was a waste of time. Our time does have a value in terms of the hourly rate we’re paid to perform our roles. Have you even been at a meeting and worked out in your head the cost of all those people meeting for that hour? Did they convert the value of that meeting into achieving a goal or generating more income? It’s certainly a reflective exercise.

So spend a bit of time reviewing your work practices. How can you use your time better? Do you need to improve how you run meetings? Reflect on your approach to work. If a colleague presented the same issues to you, how would you go about advising them to make adjustments?

  • Helen Burge is deputy chief operations officer at The Priory Learning Trust. She is a fellow of the ISBL and school resource management adviser with Cotswold Beacon Academy Trust. @DeputyCOOatTPLT

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