Stealing back time

Overwhelmed by competing demands on your time? Helen Burge shares her tips on how to speed through your to-do list without distraction

Stop, thief!

School business professionals want to be seen as approachable. We have a wide and varied impact across the school so people gravitate towards us to solve problems and provide reassurance and perspective. But we need to balance this role with our own productivity. We need to identify and manage the ‘time thieves’ – those individuals who consume a lot of our time and prevent us from adding value or achieving anything productive.

I know of a colleague who puts her own coat and bags on the spare chair in her office to prevent her ‘time thieves’ from getting comfy and sitting down for a long chat. She is setting a clear physical boundary, without sticking a ‘do not disturb’ note on her door!

Zero tolerance

Many people cite email as a constant area of concern: their inbox feels like information overload and a distraction from the work they want and need to do. Graham Allcott’s book How to be a Productivity Ninja has a great chapter on managing your email inbox. He encourages getting your inbox to zero, because keeping it there is then easier.

He proposes creating three areas: ‘processing folders’, where live work sits, a ‘reference library’, where old emails that are still required are archived, and a ‘main inbox space’, where new emails land.

Allcot believes this process can be completed in two ruthless hours, and suggests following this four-stage approach:

  • Set up – create processing and reference folders
  • Hacking – bulk filing and bulk deleting, based on the email sender, subject and date
  • Processing – dealing with the remaining emails one by one
  • Completion – empty inbox!

You’re my favourite waste of time

Reflect on your own working practice too. Have you become someone else’s time thief because you are always procrastinating? Have you developed habits you need to unpick? Try completing some of the activities in Julie Cordiner’s fantastic book Productivity for School Business Professionals. The jist of it is that if you invest in yourself and improve your own productivity, you will reap the rewards.

Eliminating waste

You’ve probably heard of the technique ‘just in time’, which aims to increase efficiency and decrease stocked inventory by moving materials into position just before they are needed. You may also have heard of ‘lean project management’. Japanese manufacturers – Toyota, in particular – embedded these methodologies after World War II, and they have become widely used today. Lean thinkers focus on how they can remove unnecessary effort and unused resources, identifying seven types of waste (see box, right).

Some types of lean methodology also refer to the waste of under-utilised skills or brainpower, where skilled employees are doing unskilled work. This feels like the saddest one of all.

Look at the working practices of your team. Are they using any resources, including time, that do not create value for your school? A quick internet search for a waste-spotting template could help you identify areas of waste that you can then eliminate. You could trial it on yourself first, so you can understand what you are looking for on your ‘waste walk’.

Some waste may be just waste that you can do little about. However, you may identify time wasted due to overburdening and unreasonable expectations. It is these areas you need to tackle – starting obviously with the quick wins! What is the root cause of the bottlenecks you’ve identified? How can you alleviate the points of congestion?

Solutions might include:

  • Reviewing processes: Do they meet your current needs? Have some aspects been superseded?
  • New ways of working: Try using Google Forms to populate spreadsheets (my team used this for teacher supply requests and sped up the whole process!)
  • Using prioritisation matrices: Search online for a prioritisation matrix template that you can adapt to share with your team.
  • Chunking time in the day: Hopefully, you have experienced that satisfying feeling of ‘being in the zone’, as well as the joy that comes with completing a particularly challenging piece of work, or speeding through a to-do list. You can create more of this positive energy simply by chunking up your day into sections where you work on particular activities, such as completing challenges or focusing only on your to-do list.

Scheduling tasks based on your attention levels is useful: if you know you work best in the afternoon on in-depth tasks, try to schedule your day accordingly.

Creating a more time-efficient workplace will increase everyone’s sense of worth. This isn’t just about getting more things done in a day. You may feel that you don’t have time to do a waste walk or read a book about productivity – but I would urge you to steal back some time for yourself!

Types of office waste

  • Transportation: Sending unnecessary emails to a wide group of recipients, or having to resend emails as a result of someone’s poor email management; inefficient paper trails.
  • Inventory: Keeping data longer than necessary, meaning it takes longer to sift through it.
  • Motion: Delays in utilising the required digital resources because of lost usernames/passwords, issues with broadband speed and switching applications within a task, logging in and out.
  • Waiting: Waiting for approvals further up the chain to start a process.
  • Over-production: Providing functions, features or services that the school doesn’t require.
  • Over-processing: Including extra features and unnecessary details, or levels of approval that are surplus to requirements.
  • Defects: Missed deadlines and using more resources then necessary.

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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