Photo by Felix Berger 

Corner cutting is about taking the shortest or most direct route to where you want to go. You’d think that would be a good thing, but this little idiom also carries the unhappy thought that you might be leaving something important out or are going to hit a metaphorical curb.

Imagine standing up at your next Board meeting and saying, “great news – the whole team is cutting corners.” I’m thinking there would be a very awkward silence before someone asked you to explain.

.   .   .

In reality, that’s exactly what we have to do as school leaders. There are time limits to the work we need to get done, and ever more competing work waiting to be started. The Ministry has 31 current initiatives or reviews listed on their website today, so it’s fair to assume that new work will not be in short supply in the foreseeable future . . .

Even a rockstar principal (like yourself), will be unable to methodically work through the items. You are going to need to look for some speed and that’s where judicious corner cutting is a vital strategy.

Let me give you an example.

The auditor has just sent you the 14th email requesting yet more information. You could methodically work your way through each item, carefully considering whether a particular piece of information or evidence exists, then compose a detailed response with supporting commentary/evidence. This process could take several hours, which might be acceptable practice if you were an accountant, working in a controlled and quiet environment, with skilled secretarial help and no interruptions from the public. But you’re not.


You could reply directly to the emailed items with the briefest (and truthful) possible responses. For example –

“Does the Board have processes and controls, regularly reviewed, and understood by key management staff, to mitigate the possibility of individuals being the sole receiving and banking personal?”

Answer: No

“How have you enhanced the abilities of individual employees?”

Answer: With focused PLD linked to individual development needs.

Are these the best possible answers you could give? No. But are they answers that will allow the hard-working junior audit staff to tick an item off their own list? Possibly yes.

And while there’s definitely an experience related ease to identifying which corners to cut, anyone can do it with the right mindset. It’s about deliberately giving minimum time and effort to the things that don’t fit the description of ‘important work’, but that do need to be done.

In a busy day, it’s very easy to mix up whether you are looking at a potential shortcut or whether it is actually important work. When torn with what to do first, my personal sorting thought is; “is this directly to do with people?” Anytime I’ve ignored this rule, I’ve made more work and/or more future hassle. Here’s an example from an earlier post.

Next week will give you many opportunities to look out for cuttable corners, and if principalship was an online game, you would absolutely get bonus points everytime you found one and took it. No shame, just satisfaction in using your professional judgement like a boss.

Weekend well!



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Photo by Markus Winkler 

What is it about taking your own advice that is so difficult?

There’s some sort of paradox at play that makes it easy (relatively) to give solid, helpful advice to just about anyone, but makes it 10x harder to follow for yourself.

And that’s a nuisance because of all the people in the world, you are uniquely positioned to see what you actually need at any given time.

.   .   .

Over the last week I made a mistake. I let a situation stretch out for just a little too long and in that extra space, people inevitably filled in the gaps themselves. Rationally, I knew this might happen, but. . .

(Just for context, the situation involved a group of students where one or several had been less than ideal in how they had treated each other. Each of these students had a parent, and each of these parents had a social media account.)

If I’d been chatting this situation over with a colleague when it first emerged, I would have said something like, “get on the front foot and sort it out as quickly as possible. If you let it sit unresolved, someone is going to throw some petrol on the simmer and that won’t be good.”

But, here I find myself 10 days later and only now have I managed to work through to a resolution. The simmer did indeed burn a little brighter than it needed to.

.   .   .

So, what stopped me from acting more quickly?

My reflection is simply that I didn’t get my priority order straight, and that led to running out of time/energy. The last fortnight has seen a number of unexpected pieces of work crop up, mostly around people not behaving as well as they normally would (Steve talked about the current ‘niggly’ vibe last week), and that, combined with the most pedantic, time wasting audit process I have ever been subjected to, was that.

Each situation required time, energy, and wisdom, and despite knowing better, I dealt with some of the less complex ones first.  By the time I handled the ‘smaller’ issues each day, I’d run myself out of time and energy, and guilty confession here – I may have run myself slightly out of my work ban hours too . . .

You’d think I’d know better, and the really crazy thing is that I did!

.   .   .

For ages now, a common 40 Hour Project theme has been to get very clear about what matters most, and to stick to that work as a priority. But in this instance, I let the unexpected work trump the important work and I’ve been thinking about how to make this less likely to happen again as the adventure of Term 2 unfolds – how do I keep my priority list straight?

What I’ve decided to try, is to put a scheduled 5 minutes into my morning routine to write a brief ‘shopping list’ type visual reminder for myself. I’m going to do it on paper, and I’m going to use it as a touchstone throughout the day. I know this may sound like just another bog standard ‘list’, but the difference for me will be the 5-minute daily recreation and the habit I’m going to try and build around checking it.

Let’s see how this goes.


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Photo by Roberto Sorin 

If you are a NZ principal operating under the “work ban”, how is that going for you? 8am – 5pm on week days equals 45 hours (unless you are managing a lunch break . . . ).

Most people that I’ve talked to are finding it impossible to do their usual job inside this set time.

The key word here is ‘usual’. In the context of your role, ‘usual’ could be transposed for ‘huge’ or ‘complicated’ or even ‘downright silly’. It could reasonably be described as dancing the line of what’s possible, and something that stretches most people on a good day.

Sure, we have disengaged with Ministry of Education initiatives and are solely focusing on our schools and community needs, but it is very clear that even these items by themselves don’t fit inside of 8 until 5. What does that say about the load of the complete job?

.   .   .

Which brings me to a phrase that I heard inside of some training I was doing recently –“it’s OK to do the best you can with the resources you have”.

The resources we each have is not a static situation. How much you can bring to any particular task or situation varies widely depending on a myriad of factors – health, support, competing work, others around you, a crisis, home life . . .

In effect, your “best” will be different, probably on a daily basis! Stephanie Thompson nicely described this in her guest post You Are Not A Machine.

So, the puzzle of how to work in a finite number of hours is only solvable by taking stock of the resources you have available, then adapting the plan based on that reality.

And therein lies a problem – many of us are used to ignoring our ‘current state’. I witnessed a very common illustration of this point recently at a curriculum PLD session.

The presenters had worked hard all morning, giving freely of their energy and expertise and now, 3 hours in, were visibly tired. Clearly, they needed a rest/food/fresh air before doing any more work, but . . . they had a second session due to start 30 minutes after ours and through a series of unplanned for events, we had gone 20 minutes over time.

I gently suggested to the leader that they could start the next session 10 minutes late, and at least have a bite to eat in the sunshine before starting again. I predicted that the attendees would understand, and it was better for them to have a brief wait (teachers can always chat!) than an exhausted presenter.

That’s not what happened though, they ‘soldiered on’.

.   .   .

So, what about you? How good are you at recognising when your ‘resources’ are low and then adapting your plan based on that reality?

When resources are low, your ‘usual’ needs to change accordingly, and that is most definitely OK.



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Photo by Louis Smit 

Just like the cliché about a day being a long time in politics, contract negotiations can change quickly and the post below was written before the PPCB members settled this week . . . regardless, and no matter whether the NZEI members do likewise, conditions around our jobs simply have to change. Recent history shows the offered ‘Accords’ came to a big fat zero since the previous negotiations, so lets do better with the ‘Working’ and ‘Advisory’ groups that are now promised. I want my growing cynicism to be proved wrong!


I need to start by saying that the 40 Hour Principal Project is completely apolitical. It is 100% aimed at challenging and helping school leaders to do their important jobs effectively and sustainably. We’re not left leaning or right leaning (although sometimes close to horizontal) and keep this blog simple by focusing solely on making principalship better.

That said, we’re about to head into the Term break at the exact time that we are all (in New Zealand) embroiled in a situation where tangible wins and losses in our job conditions are being debated. This is a critical time in our careers and to snooze will be to lose.

It matters not a jot who you have chosen to represent you around the table with our employer, what matters is that you make your voice heard.

The various statistics that we have shared around work hours, positions turning over quickly, high numbers of beginning leaders, health statistics, and lack of support, will be potentially improved or worsened by the deals being done right now.

Are you OK with your current pay relativity?

Do you get enough staffing to support you to do your job sustainably?

Is it possible for you to regularly rebuild energy (sabbaticals, mentoring, time)?

Do you know how you will arrive at the end of your career in good shape?

How do you feel when you hear staff saying some version of, “I don’t want your job”?

So, as you head into the Term break, please, please don’t lose sight of the contract battle that is in full swing. Together, we can’t be ignored. It’s time to stand up.

Kia kaha ngā tumuaki!!


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Photo by Nicole Baster

Resilience is not singular.

I wrote this last week after a chat with some awesome Wellington principals.

We were discussing tactics that school leaders could use to make the job better and more sustainable. As we discussed deliberately recovering after periods of intense work, I could see people nodding but with some reservation. Eventually someone voiced the “but” sitting accusingly in the air.

“But, what will my team think?”

A very valid question, and for context, we were discussing Board meetings – there’s always lots of prep to do in the lead up, then at the meeting, you the operational leader, are ‘it’. Questions, opinions, justifications, pleading cases – they’re all yours to handle, and then when it eventually  comes to an end, you will have a whole new ‘to do’ list to add to the next day’s existing load – in fact, you’re likely to be the one left to turn the lights out after everyone else has gone home!  

So we were discussing the possibility of coming onsite slightly later the next morning. As a principal, you could choose to do a bit of deliberate recovery by fitting in a some exercise, sleeping in a little, or doing a home-based chore that was left undone the night before.

But where’s the fairness?

What about the staff trustee who was also at that evening meeting but who couldn’t come in any later because they had a class to teach? What would they think if you chose to take the opportunity available to you, but they couldn’t? Is this fair?

.  .   .

I believe there are two things to consider here. The first is that what is good for you (as the principal) is also good for other staff members, and secondly, that within a school people have very different jobs.

Starting with the assumption that what is good for you is also probably good for others, I believe we have an obligation to share the possibilities for working sustainably as widely as possible. Teachers, admin staff, and everyone else who works in a school, have pressure points where they sprint for a while and work in overload. Report writing would be a classic example for teachers as would audit time for the admin team.

This is where you, as the leader, can absolutely create opportunities for others to recharge and build resilience. Possible examples include letting your senior teachers know they are trusted to work remotely if they wish on release days, that hearing they had run their meeting in a coffee shop would make you happy, that you encourage them to go for a lunchtime walk if possible. For class teachers you could allocate a ‘no strings attached’ release day which they could use as they wished, there could be meeting free weeks where all were expected to leave site early – the possibilities are actually very wide.

However, this type of resilience enhancing thinking can be derailed if you worry that different people have different possibilities. It’s natural to want to be as fair as possible, but we also have to be clear that the shape of roles in our schools are very different – both the pressure and possibility of being a principal is quite different than the pressure and possibility of being a class teacher.

Which brings us back to where this post started – your own resilience is easier to build when firstly, the people around you understand what you are trying to do, and secondly, that you want it for them as well.

The best way to ensure those around you understand what you are trying to achieve is to tell them. Meet with your senior leaders and admin team and discuss what you are doing and why. Being upfront about what you are doing is the best, and I would argue only, way forward. The opposite is to half-heartedly try some changes – using the meeting tactic above, going for a lunchtime walk, etc without any context for those who see you doing it. This means they will create their own narrative about what you are doing, and you will possibly feel guilty as well – don’t do this!

The second part of the puzzle is to help the others understand that you want them to work sustainably too. This can be both through concrete actions (e.g. here is a no-strings attached release day), or through consistent messaging to staff (e.g. whanau first).

If you get these two puzzle pieces in place, the likelihood of being supported to work in a resilient and sustainable way is exponentially higher.


PS: You should never apologise for doing your job in a sustainable way – in a logical and fair world you would be celebrated for doing this. Be brave.

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“At this altitude, I can run flat out for a half-mile before my hands start shaking.” – Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity.

I’ve always loved this line from the movie, even though my personal experience of running ‘flat out’ never left me with shaking hands . . . legs, heart, lungs, etc all shaking, but not the hands (this may well be the key reason why I’ve never starred in any movies).

.   .   .

To sprint:           flat out for a short time

To jog:                a steady pace, easy to maintain

.   .   .

I don’t know how you’re going this week, but I’ve found myself operating in ‘sprint’ mode. There have been a lot of ‘big’ items to work on – Board meeting, end of year data review, strategic planning and a decent smattering of people related issues that required my full attention, energy, and time.

(And even as I write this I am a little embarrassed that any of it seems difficult, because in the back of my mind are our colleagues in The Hawke’s Bay . . . for blog readers outside NZ, a quick Google will show you why.)

Experience has taught me two things about sprinting – I’ll need to do it sometimes, and after I have, I need to recover.

Looking ahead into my calendar, I can see a solid fortnight of ‘sprint’ time in front of me and that’s only the known stuff, so some care is going to be needed if I want to avoid shaky hands.

I know right now that I need to look after the basics – food, water, exercise, sleep, family – which is a challenge because they are exactly the things that are easy to neglect with the pressure on. What helps me stay mindful of these needs are memories of the times when I haven’t been  . . . neglect them and the wobbling starts.

And after the sprint is over, I need to recover.

It’s actually urgent and important work this recovery period, as if not done, my ability to do my job is greatly lessoned, and my ability to be a functional and happy human likewise.

Recovery periods are more than the basic list detailed above, they’re not about survival, they’re about building up and filling the tank. And they absolutely can’t wait to the next Term break as that is too far away. Whatever your ‘tank filling’ actions are, there is really only one person standing in the way if they are not done. Doing this better is about taking ownership and giving permission. (Of course, creating a culture that encourages and supports you in these vital actions is the responsibility of our whole system, from the Minister of Education to your Board. It’s just that some of them don’t know this yet.)

Recovery is about sustainability – yours. And this is where ‘jogging’ is periodically necessary. By deliberately jogging after periods of high pressure, you are building up reserves for the inevitable times when the pace and pressure pick up. Jogging by design is not being lazy, it is an intentional action that makes you better at what you do and who you are over the longer term.

A practical example for me – last night I had a Board meeting and it finished late. I went home with my head full of stuff and the usual post meeting ‘to do’ list casually added to my workload. I didn’t really get to eat dinner and I certainly didn’t get to exercise or spend time with those I care about.

But this morning I have an off-site meeting at 8:30am and there lies possibility. So, I’m not calling into the Office first, and I’m not going to start on that new to do list before the meeting. Nope, what I’m going to do is go for a walk, make a leisurely coffee afterwards, and sit and chat with my kids as they head away to school. That’s what I call jogging.


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Photo by Eric Rothermel 

Two weeks in . . . how did that happen?!

There’s no denying that launching a school year has one very consistent and familiar pattern for me – it starts fast and then gets faster!

And I’ve been lucky. I had a great holiday break. When the checkout operators asked me, “have you had a busy day?”, many times I’d been able to pause and say, “no, very cruisy indeed today”. When those first few emails of the year came in, they often started with a polite, “I hope you had a refreshing break” sort of opening line. Happily, I’ve been able to reply with complete honesty, “yes I have thanks”.

So, I’ve started from a place of goodness, but we all know the saying about good things . . .

At a certain point, I did what you’ve done too; I got back into work, and supported by a ‘full tank’ of energy, started to get ready for launch.

As the final few days counted down, the pace of work picked up. More people thinking meant more thinking for me, and more decisions, tasks, stuff . . . which was fine as I was fresh and ready to go.

And then the year started properly. Kids onsite, classes in action and the hum of humanity that is a school running again. Two weeks in, systems are in place, people are finding their patterns and we are bedding into the shape of an operating school. Business as usual.

.   .   .

Which brings me to now.

Now, the urgent and unpredictable things are just starting to pop up here and there. Now, the complexity of leading in a clear and effective way is being tested. Now, many things are competing for my time and energy. Which still feels manageable as I’m within touching distance of a more relaxed time.

But I’ve done this before and I just know that soon the familiar feeling of not being on top of everything, of getting important stuff done by stopping doing other important stuff, and of being stretched on the daily is about to start.

Forewarned is forearmed and I’m determined to maintain my balance as the load builds. The trick is in finding that sweet spot and working in a sustainable middle ground where I can be a good/great/superb (depending on the day!) leader and keep myself healthy and whole at the same time.

Part 1 of my strategy this Term is around priorities. I am going to put my overall wellness near the very front of the list for what to achieve each day. And I’m starting with the key things that I sometimes ‘drop out’ when squeezed for time/energy.

Part 2 is adding these things to my calendar/diary exactly as I add all the important work stuff. If it’s in the diary/on the calendar it’s real and has instantly tripled my chances of doing it.

My challenge for you this week is to do the same in your own diaries. Even just adding a single healthy thing is a very doable first step. It’s called having a plan folks, and we all know that good intentions without a plan remain exactly that!


(You can read another earlier post that teases out this idea a little more and here’s one that takes a nostalgic look back into ‘bubble’ living.)


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Photo by Thomas Bormans 

How’s your list going? You know the one – the one with all the stuff you have to get done before the end of Term.

I’m currently finding mine is tricky to control. Even if I beat it with a metaphorical stick, it still seems to fight my need for order. No amount of crossing out (or in my case scrunching up the Post-it notes) diminishes its size, satisfying as that can be.

And it’s not just the sheer volume of items on it, it’s just as difficult to maintain in the right order – the important is getting slowed down by the urgent and some of the urgent is unpredictable.

Welcome to the sprint to the finish.

If you are feeling somewhat similar, I have no perfect solution, but what I can offer based on having run this race before is:

    • It’s going to be over soon (in my case, December 14 – woohoo!)
    • You will not complete your list
    • It matters which things don’t get done
    • Self-care is essential over this time

Over soon

Regardless of how late you started the year, or how many TODs you scheduled, you can’t keep your  school working past the 20th December. That’s worse case scenario and it’s 18 days away.

List Incomplete

It is impossible to do everything. Relax into that reality.


If it’s to do with staffing it is both important and urgent. It trumps all other list items and stays right at the top until done. When you are dealing with organising your most precious and important school resource, it beats everything.

When some crazy stuff happens (and it will in the next fortnight) of course you must help if needed. These things might even cause you to pause in your work around staffing (employment, appraisals, support, etc). The trick is to go straight back to the staffing as soon as you can.


Despite any temptation to ignore your own wellness, don’t do it. Now is exactly the time when you have to deliberately ensure your health and happiness is in the mix of important work. Two weeks of poor sleep, no exercise, junk food and too much coffee, at the very time you are at your busiest, is not going to help. Here’s a simple idea – pick one item to improve and put it on the list with a highlighter underline. You’re welcome.


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Photo by Casey Horner 

A fortnight ago I wrote about the privilege of going on a school camp and the fact that even though it left me well behind with other important work, I didn’t care – it was worth it.

Sitting here 14 days later, I’m reflecting that I may have tempted fate with a such a cavalier statement. Because a few hours after the post, I started feeling a little ‘average’ and things deteriorated from there. Yes, I finally brushed shoulders with the virus we all wish would go away, and got sick. As the ‘last man standing’ amongst our staff, I didn’t exactly feel invulnerable, but had given up worrying about the possibility months ago. Yet there I was.

I’ve been back at work this week but my ability to get things done is way down. Those of you who’ve been where I am will understand, those who have had a very light dose will hopefully be grateful, and those who are sitting where I was previously (untouched!), might want to ignore this.The bottom line is that I just can’t get through the stuff I need to.

Those around me are helpful and understanding which makes me very happy, but the truth is people still want to know what their job will look like next year, budgets need to be written, new families need attention, other people get sick too, strategic plans need to be reviewed, . . .

.   .   .

Two themes have bounced back into my mind as I scramble to get through this difficult period – I need to be clear about “what matters most” and I need to accept “good enough”.

We’ve written about both these topics before, and I encourage you to take the 5 minutes to read them if you haven’t (link to What Matters Most, link to Good Enough), but in a nutshell –

What matters most?


Simple, emphatic, and true. I can’t get through everything that has piled up around me so I need to swallow hard and choose the tasks that directly relate to people. In my fuzzy state that is something to hang onto.

Good enough

Never has this concept been more important to me. Like many leaders I like to set the bar high, it gives me personal satisfaction to do things as well as I can. But that luxury is not possible right now, I need to accept that ‘good enough’ is exactly that.

Footnote: Life right now is reminding me how critical having energy is. Obviously being sick is an energy vampire but what about poor sleep, lack of exercise, continual stress . . . I miss my energy and on the other side of this current debacle I’m going looking for even more.



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I’m just  back from camp. Four days with our Year 8s in the beautiful but wild Arthur’s Pass deep in the Southern Alps.

It rained day and night for the entire time we were there. Not wimpy east coast rain either, but real hose like, soaking, proper rain.

And it didn’t matter, because the energy and life bubbling in these young people couldn’t be dampened.

I know I’ve got 4 days of important stuff to catch up on now. Staffing decisions, budgets, strategic reviews, end of year planning . . . an inbox littered with messages . . . but I don’t care. 

Since 5.30am Monday I’ve been reminded what matters most. And I’ve had a chaotic, humour filled lesson on being fully present in the moment. 

Thanks Kids!



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If you would like a guaranteed way to feel mentally ‘lighter’ in less than an hour, try scheduling 60 minutes of work-based decluttering next week.

All you have to do is block out 1 hour in your diary and devote it to;

  1. Deleting any openly displayed piles of paper in and around your office
  2. Deleting any hidden piles of paper in cupboards/cabinets in and around your office
  3. Tidying your computer desktop

Trust me, I’m not judging. My workspace has seen plenty of piles that have sat there mocking my efficiency for silly amounts of time. In my (and possibly your) defence, there’s probably a fine line between administrative perfection and the time spent achieving it. A perfectly clear desk/office might just suggest you have used more than a reasonable amount of your time on achieving that perfection.

Personality comes into it too – we all have different tolerance levels for ‘stuff’ lying around, but the universal truth is that clutter is exactly that, and plenty of research shows that working in a cluttered space adds mental load to the people doing it. And the last thing a school leader needs is more mental load.

When I started the teaching game, I well remember a wise, older teacher telling me that if I hadn’t used a particular resource in the previous 3 years, I should biff it. The reality back then was that almost all resources were paper based, and they took a lot of space to store – in your classroom, in your car, in your lounge at home . . . These days most of my clutter is electronic, but the bit that mocks me on a daily basis is sitting on the corner of my desk. Unresolved.

The old way of dealing with ‘the pile’ was to wait until the Christmas break then finally drop it all in an Otto. That symbolic action meant you had finally come to terms with the reality that the possibilities and opportunities buried in that pile would not be realised. And with this sub-conscious understanding, some mental load was also thrown away.

Why wait until Christmas when you can do it before lunchtime next Tuesday?


*You can read another post we wrote on this topic earlier here.

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Photo by Önder Örtel

In a complex, often demanding job like ours, everyone has times when things get a little ‘wobbly’. This is true for newbies and 20 year veterans alike. The trick is to recognise it happening as early as possible and then lean hard into the stuff that creates your own wellness.

What do I mean by ‘wobbly’? Simply that you are operating outside of your comfort zone for too long. Tasks start to build up and no matter how much you try to prioritise, you have a feeling of pressure that doesn’t go away. It’s there when you get up and there when you should have finished with the day.

This is a dangerous place to operate in for too long as you don’t have the capacity to absorb unexpected or intense new events. You are stretched.

We’ve often talked about trying to be slacker better which is obviously a provocation based around the concept of slack. When things start to feel wobbly, this is the time ‘slackness’ matters.

Long time followers will know that by slack, we don’t mean lazy. Lazy just doesn’t cut it in school leadership – it is the opposite of what school leaders should be.

Slack on the other hand is something to aspire to. I like to use a rope analogy to explain this – a rope that is stretched tightly has no ‘give’ in it. There is no more possible movement and regardless of the strength of that particular rope, if it is pulled ever tighter, eventually it will break. And even if there’s not a catastrophic failure, a rope operating at its limit will wear out quickly and have to be replaced.

On the other hand, a rope with some slack has the capacity to temporarily handle more load. It can cope with unexpected tugs and pulls without breaking and lasts a long time because it is not at its maximum very often. This is good for the rope and good for the things that depend on that rope to do its job.

That’s why slack matters.

.   .   .

So how do we know our own ‘rope’ is too tight? I suggest that it will be easy to tell if you are self-aware. Simple stuff like feeling tired most days, struggling to get to sleep or struggling to stay asleep, having difficulty focusing and finding it hard to remember stuff, not having time or energy for important people in your life or important hobbies, lack of patience . . . all of these are markers.

It is also very likely that people who care about you have noticed and they may even have tried to tell you. Did you listen?

At the times when we find ourselves in this stretched state, with no end in sight, the solution is to lean into our own wellness knowledge. Simply put, we need to deliberately do more of the stuff that we know makes us feel healthier, happier and slacker. For me this means playing games, healthy food, getting outside, and doing practical things. Music is good too and anything that makes me laugh is gold. I also know that shutting the laptop and leaving it shut for a while helps too. Your own kete of goodness may vary, but you know what it is.

As we finally reach the end of this Term, now is the perfect time to ensure you have a healthy amount of slack in reserve.


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Photo by Milad Fakurian

It’s 7am and we’re in a van convoy (well 2 vans going the same way) of local principals heading to the NZPF Annual Conference. We’ve got a two hour drive ahead of us and people are beginning to settle into the early rhythm of this adventure. There are multiple conversations starting. 

The talk is all about work; staffing, property, PLD, challenging student behaviours – the usual ‘what’s on top’ type stuff. It stays like that all the way until we arrive at our venue, the beautiful new Te Pae Christchurch Convention Centre.

Once inside, we join the other school leaders from around the country and the conference starts for real. We are treated to a variety of speakers who share their experiences and thinking on a host of education related topics. Some of the speakers have many years of experience and some are still at primary school. Individually they wero (challenge) us to think/do things differently. The topics covered are wide and we the delegates are taking notes, affirming statements and engaged in the thinking. We are working, and there is concentration and effort evident. Some have their laptops out, others use paper and many take photos. All are intent on capturing, processing and sharing the things that might matter in their schools and teams. You can feel the mental cogs grinding.

.   .   .

Later, our local group is together again but this time it’s at dinner. As soon as we are settled at the restaurant there are multiple conversations starting.

The talk is not about work. It’s about whanau, fun, dreams and hobbies. There is energy and good humour in abundance. The feeling is one of connectedness and people comment about the fact that’s it’s been too long since we’ve been together like this. Experiences are shared and  information swopped naturally and easily. Nothing is forced, it just happens. No one is taking notes yet plenty is remembered.

.   .   .

The next day a new crop of speakers share with us and one in particular left me with a quote that resonated. Kaila Cobin, Founder and CEO of Boma NZ, said:

We are feeling machines that think, not thinking machines that feel”

I believe that this powerful observation neatly explains the contrast between the two parts of the previous day I described. In any given situation, we approach it first from an emotional perspective. The emotions are often not consciously recognised, but they are always there by default.

In the first part of the day, we worked harder, felt the mental burden of engaging more and had to put concentrated effort into the thinking part of being actively present.

At dinner, the engagement was natural and unforced. We let the ‘feeling’ part of ourselves go first and even though the topics discussed were extremely important to individuals, the group left energised rather than tired. 

.   .   .

Another example that reinforces the truth of Kaila’s statement, happened on the journey to conference. A traffic cop pulled in behind the van I was driving. Objectively, he had zero interest in our plain old rental van. We were keeping to the speed limit (I checked at least fourteen times!) and following all the road rules. But . . . from the moment he pulled in behind us to the moment he finally passed us and disappeared, I operated as a ‘feeling machine’. My very human brain was under pressure that rationally shouldn’t have existed. 

On Monday, when I head back to school, I’m going to add Kaila’s quote to the wall in my office where I put these things. It’s going to remind me of this truth and will hopefully start some rich conversations. A conference gift!



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“The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.”

Paulo Coelho author


There’s truth and power in those words. As an aspirational 40 Hour Principal how you do your job has an impact on others. And from the 40 Hour Project perspective, the others I’m talking about are your colleagues.

When you are brand new in your role, your internal picture of how it should be done will largely be based on what you’re seen other leaders do. You probably haven’t taken any actual notes, but you will most definitely have made sub-conscious observations. It’s what humans do.

So, the impact of other leaders is very real and yet it is random chance as to who you have had the pleasure of working with leading up to your new position – you may have seen genius in action or . . . not. But regardless, the time you arrive onsite, the clothes you wear, the number of meetings you organise, call back days, expectations for emailing – pretty much all the how of doing your new job is made up by you.

.   .   .

Easier to challenge the status quo if others are doing it

A real-life example of this happened recently. I’d hurt something playing sport a couple of weekends earlier and despite my best efforts to ignore it, the situation wasn’t getting any better. Reluctantly I accepted that a physio appointment needed to happen and rang to organise one. The helpful receptionist asked what times suited and I said something before 8am or after 4pm would be great. There was a pause at the other end of the phone as she checked and then informed me that nothing was available at those times for nearly a month. She then volunteered that there was a gap at 11am on Thursday. After a quick look at the diary, I accepted.

The appointment took about 15 minutes and as I came back through their reception area I saw another local principal waiting. We were both a bit surprised to see each other. I met the same principal a week later and they commented how it was great to see me there as they had been feeling just a tiny bit uneasy making the appointment inside the school day (whatever and whenever that is!). Their choice was the same as mine though – wait for weeks or get the issue sorted.

If people see someone doing something it is instantly possible

I remember my grandmother telling me that when she was little, they had a bath once per week. She said it was amazing when friends who had travelled to another country came home and said the people there had a bath every day! What!?

.   .   .

How many of you would do your job better/more effectively/more sustainably if you worked off-site one day every week? Imagine the benefits – distraction free, focused, no wasted travel time, different environment = fresh thinking, etc. Many leaders in other fields do this regularly.

But, does the mere thought sound slightly crazy? I bet you can quickly come up with a long list of “what ifs”. I certainly did when I first heard about this. Just thinking about it stretched my mental model of school leadership.

Yet the fact is, some principals already successfully do this. They have the full support of their Boards and are convinced it makes them more effective (and more sustainable). It becomes possible (mentally) because others are doing it.

Critical Mass – starts a cycle

The more people that do something, the easier it is for others to do the same thing. It’s basic human behaviour to do what others do most of the time. This is a great mindset if what they are doing is healthy/good/useful. But what say it’s 1950 and you haven’t smoked a cigarette yet?

When most principals prioritise a particular action, all principals will find it easier to do the same thing – for good or for bad. It’s about building a ‘critical mass’.

A current example is that post pandemic (is it post yet?), it is universally ‘ok’ for leaders to talk about wellness, to organise PLD for their teams on this topic, to add helpful snippets to school newsletters. Even the Ministry mentions it in their sector comms.

If we roll back even 5 years, PLD was almost never about wellness. With the push of a pandemic, what was considered a fringe, slightly strange choice of focus is now almost a norm. The point of critical mass has passed and what was once very rare is now mainstream.

I haven’t seen a cigarette smoked in a staffroom for a long time but I have met people who do an exercise class every Wednesday at 7.30am.

.   .   .

Many (most?) schools have limited applications for the principal’s role when it comes up. Many advertise several times hoping to find that perfect candidate, and yet, in those very schools are people who have the potential to be amazing in the role but who choose not to put their hand up.

Some of this is our responsibility.

Potential leaders in our schools observe what we do, how we talk, how we look after a tough week. They weigh up the evidence sub-consciously and make choices about whether to take on the challenge or not. They base their understanding of the job based on how we do it – role modelling. This is both a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity for better.

I once met a principal who quite openly said they had the best job in their school. Not only did they make a positive difference to many people every day, but they had the freedom to do the job without hovering near exhaustion on the daily. They saw no reason to be considered the hardest working person onsite every day just because someone else thought they should be.

It’s 15 years since I worked with that person and they are still successfully leading a large school in a complex setting. I’ll bet they have inspired many future and current leaders – how we do the job matters.



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There’s a great kids movie called Wall-E that came out a few years ago. It’s one of those early Pixar animated films that actually has a story line. It’s 2085 and the world is a mess. Humanity has abandoned the (broken) earth and for generations has been travelling through space looking for a new planet to inhabit.

Ultimately, it’s a fun movie about hope, but the reason I’m mentioning it is that it has a hilarious section where the impacts of humanity’s sedentary lifestyle are laid bare. A sort of reverse evolution where people change from being strong and mobile to the complete opposite.

The leaders who planned the escape trip to the stars wanted people to travel in comfort and luxury which meant everything was done automatically with no human effort needed. Over time, even the need for bones was gone and people basically turned into blobs. In the movie it’s funny.


Except . . .

The job we do is somewhere on that slippery slope. It’s sedentary.

Ten years ago, Kansas State University researcher, Richard Rosenkranz, reviewed data from over 60 000 Australian men that showed those sitting for more than 4 hours daily were significantly more likely to report having a chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.  (I don’t why he only studied men, but I’d be very surprised if the other 50% of the population were much different). The risk periods were categorized as less than four hours, four to six hours, six to eight hours, or more than eight hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a direct link between the length of time spent sitting and ill health.

The link between time spent in a chair and pain when sitting, is also being clearly mapped. Researchers suggest that the lack of movement involved in sitting for extended periods induces conditions in our body that inevitably lead to back pain and dysfunction. Some current thinking is that most of the total damage is due to this inactivity too.

How many of you have ended up with a sore neck/back/arm/hip after a couple of big admin weeks? Or what about the days you spend at a course or PLD session? I bet I’m not the only one who feels the effects of this.

So, how much time do you spend attached to the swivelly chair – today? This week? This year?

And of course, your desk chair is only one part of the equation. We need to add in the daily commute and what happens at home in the evening . . . the numbers can be confronting if you are brave enough to actually add them up. And if you compare your number to the Australian study mentioned above, even 8 hours will look conservative to many of us.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our American friends are the most studied group in regard to this issue. Various research shows that the average American office worker now spends up to 15 hours per day sitting . . . eek!

 . . .

Personally, I’m conscious of this problem and deliberately try to minimise it, but the reality of the job means it’s difficult. Some strategies I do use though include:

  • Getting a cup of water as needed rather than using a drink bottle
  • Standing up whenever someone comes into the space I’m working in (also keeps the conversation shorter)
  • Stretching when I remember to do it (this is good for a laugh occasionally when someone walks in on an awkward looking stretch)
  • Alternating between sitting and standing (a permanent high and low screen setup helps)
  • Deliberately going for a walk (I even try to do this when at a course)

And I don’t know how you are finding the job right now, but my observation is that the amount of admin that needs to be done is increasing slowly but surely every year. To be fair, there have been some recent wins, things like the new ERO model and the changes around teacher appraisal have been welcome from a ‘reducing unnecessary admin’ perspective, but the overall trend makes time in a chair increase.

Reading some of the research shows that there are two key problems in play when we sit a lot. The first is that too much time is spent in one particular posture, and the second is that, overall, it makes us sedentary.

There are actually lots of options for varying posture – high screen/low screen, rotating across the day between different chairs/kneeling stools/swiss balls, standing meetings, regular stretching.

Why don’t we already do these things? Habit.

We can all choose to be more active around the site by visiting classrooms, running messages for the admin team, volunteering for duties, walking the long way whenever possible . . . essentially being more active in the hours we are at work.

Why don’t we do this? Habit.

We’ve talked about habits lots in previous posts, including how to form new ones, but one simple tactic that I’m going to leave you with exponentially increases the likelihood of change happening – it’s removing barriers.

In regard to varying posture – put (at least) two sitting options near your desk. Two different chairs, a swiss ball, whatever you like, just different.

In regard to being more active during the working day – deliberately go the longest way possible to a classroom you are visiting. Out the gate, around the block if possible. Or past the bins where some ‘close enough’ shots have generously left a bit of stretching practice. It’ll take 3 minutes extra but those minutes are very good for you.

When Monday rolls around next week, you can do what you’ve always done, or . . .


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