Photo by Markus Spiske 

When the road works signs went up along the local road I drive every day, I think everyone  noticed them. They were brightly coloured and eye-catching. Everyone slowed down, some even got right down to the new 30km/hr limit.

A fortnight later, the media were reporting that traffic was speeding by, and the local police had ticketed lots of drivers. A day after this media coverage I noticed that the cars were again crawling along close to the posted speed limit. But that was last week, and this morning, I see that the speed is edging up again . . . 

Our attention to what matters can fade very quickly.

Advertisers are all over this concept. Go to a big sports event and you’ll see rolling signs – they change all the time. TV ad agencies try to beat the fade by splitting the ad up into parts of a story – if it’s a good story we pay attention again when the next episode comes out. When you go to a website many of them sense the fade coming and try a last ditch attempt to keep you by throwing up an offer that locks your screen until you find that tiny wee cross. 

In our schools we have many things that are important, and we too have an audience – students, parents and colleagues. Our audience is just as fickle in their attention span as those speeding drivers. 

Some sort of rotation of focus is needed because fresh is exactly that, and anything else is either a habit or is not happening at all.

So, what’s your refresh plan for your key goals this year?


Photo by Ethan Robertson 


And so ends 2023 for the Forty Hour team. Thanks for following along and being part of our push to challenge the status quo of principalship in Aotearoa New Zealand.

You 100% should ‘clock out’ too when the time comes, but if you find yourself lying on a beach somewhere and wondering how to fill in the time, below are our most read posts – maybe there’s something in them that will interest you too.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays – let the resting commence!

Dave and Steve

Top 3 posts of all time

  1. Who’s Sitting in The Principal’s Chair 
  2. You Are Not A Machine 
  3. Flattening The Curve 

Top 3 posts 2023

  1. When was The Last Time? 
  2. Sprinting or Jogging? 
  3. What’s Your real Insurance Policy? 


Get new posts directly to your email -


People often comment on the financial difference between working in the public sector and working in a business. When contracts are being negotiated comparisons are made and we often end up bemoaning  the relative under pay.

But it’s not under payment that is causing me to age a little more quickly this week, it’s people. Specifically, some of the people we are mandated to serve – ‘difficult ’ parents.

.   .   .

There’s a fundamental difference between how you can deal with difficult people if you are running a business as opposed to running a school.

Imagine owning a bookshop where a particular customer is always rude to staff or publicly criticises the decisions you make – it wouldn’t be long before you asked them to leave. Or perhaps you run an irrigation supply business and one particular farmer is often awkward to deal with and abuses your sales rep – it’s likely that you would simply stop working with them.

Therein lies the problem for public servants, we can’t simply stop working with our most difficult people. And unlike a retail business where an unpleasant customer calls in once then goes away forever, difficult adults in our school communities stay with us – often for years.

So, both management and teachers have to continually work at maintaining relationships with people that for varying reasons do not reciprocate this responsibility. Its often an unequal dance with one party demanding/expecting something more akin to servitude than service!

So here’s a question – what standard of behaviour is acceptable for parents in your school? In effect, is there a ‘line’?

Many years ago, a principal of mine had a very clear personal view that there was a line, and that crossing it meant you either changed or left. In the top righthand drawer of his traditional old school desk was a stack of ‘transfer slips’. These small pieces of paper were for recording the basic details of a student’s enrolment and were used when a student was moving to another school.

When he felt all avenues had been exhausted, he would calmly open the drawer, pull out a slip and place it on the desk. He would then say something like, “I’m sorry that we can’t meet your needs, perhaps another school might”. An interesting effect was that often the parent would immediately start retracting some of their more unreasonable statements and demands. 

Putting the slip on the desk was effectively drawing a solid line in front of the behaviour.

As we sit here at the end of the Term, with pressure on everyone’s’ time and energy, perhaps we need to get more direct with some in our communities. Perhaps we need to rehearse a verbal version of the old transfer slip – “I’m sorry that you feel like that, but that’s all we can do.”

Fullstop, no more commentary.

While the almost universal implementation of ‘zoning’ has made shifting schools difficult for most, the well known saying that, “you’ll get what you are willing to accept”, is never truer than deep in Term 4 – service needed, not servitude.



Get new posts directly to your email -

Photo by Chris Abney 

Three weeks to go in Term 4 – welcome to the jungle!

This is the time when I start to have a nagging feeling that the human brain (mine) isn’t made to work at this pace. I was standing in the playground after school this week and simply could not remember the name of a parent. I value connection and knowing someone’s name is a critical part of that, but my mental resources were drawing a blank. I suspect some of you might relate to this.

I have a completely un-scientific theory that I can check what capacity (slack) my mental game has by doing the Stuff Quiz (a daily NZ news site quiz). My observation is that in the holiday periods my scores get better and at pressure times worse . . . so that day I checked. I can report a reasonable 10 out of 15 result so not disastrous thank goodness.

.   .   .

How about you? Are you picking up clues that your mind is running out of spare capacity as we race to the end of Term? Now might be exactly the wrong time to be doing too much high level strategic thinking and is also probably why those teachers still writing reports can struggle to string a coherent sentence together – system overload.

It’s at times like this that I deliberately slow down. I know projecting an aura of ‘busy’ negatively affects others in my kura – people ‘catch the vibe’ from their leaders and if I am clearly flat out, I subtlety turn the pressure dial up for all.

Personally, I have two simple strategies I use to try and manage any impact my busyness has on our team –

  1. Physically slowing down
  2. Making space/time

Slowing down – I’ve confessed before that back in the early days of this adventure, I used to almost run around the site when super busy. In hindsight, this crazy behaviour was akin to getting a super soaker full of stress and spraying it on those watching me.

These days, when the pressure really comes on, I physically walk slower. Simple as that. I pause, chat to kids and move more slowly around the site. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous, but try it and see for yourself. Walk slower and talk to at least a couple of children every time you are out and about.

Making space/time – I’ve built a wee habit in the mornings where I get up a bit earlier than I once did and get the day straightened out in my head. I look at my schedule, check my email and generally get the shape of what will happen clear. Once I’ve done that, I write a single Post-It note with the one or possibly two critical pieces of work I have to do that day. That note sits where I can see it all day and at the end, finished or not, is biffed. Tomorrow I will make a new one based on what that day brings.

This is a win/win/win strategy. It means I have both clarity and peace about what needs to happen that day, and it also means that when I arrive on site in the morning, I can focus on talking with people and making those critical ‘start of the day’ connections. I can’t overstate how useful this tactic is.

A 15 minute investment each morning is all it takes.



Get new posts directly to your email -

Photo by Rod Long 

How’s your urgent list going? Getting longer or starting to glow with an ominous neon highlight?

As the clock ticks down for the last few weeks of this year, it’s easy for the ‘urgent’ stuff to cloud what’s important. Urgent by itself is not necessarily a reason for something to be at the front of your queue.

A little sorting might be necessary and the first place to start is by filtering for ‘important’. All things being equal, I usually find that stuff to do with people is likely to be important – jobs, staffing schedules, family traumas, teacher performance management . . . These things matter and may also be urgent. If so, straight to the top of the list.

The next thing to consider is who labelled a particular thing urgent? If it wasn’t you, then potentially it doesn’t even need to be on your list. Later in Term 4, it’s fairly common for someone else who is feeling time pressure, to suggest something on their own list should be urgent for you too. This can be a slippery slope of responsibility shifting and is where the ability to politely, yet firmly say ‘no’, is a vital principal skill.

But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that what is ‘urgent’, by definition, will change quickly. An item that is genuinely urgent can’t stay on your to do list for long, otherwise it wasn’t.

In 2020, thinking about and planning for Covid was urgent. However, its position on all our lists changed a long time ago. Likewise, having a cohesive agenda and plan for the first staff setup day this year was urgent. But, if on the morning of that same day, one of your own whanau became very unwell, the order of urgency is rearranged.

Urgency is relative and time limited. So as the Term races by, and you find yourself feeling ever more pressure to get ‘urgent’ things done, just step back a fraction, pause, and give yourself permission to rearrange what gets your attention. A lot of what is creating mental workload is almost certainly neither important or urgent – it just feels like it is.


Photo by Liam Martens 

I once spent a week in Wellington as part of an initiative only the ‘senior’ members of principalship will remember. It was called the Principals’ Planning Development Centre. An experienced leader could apply after a minimum 5 years in the role and if selected, had access to an intensive, immersive course where 3 – 5 principals were put through their paces by an equal number of trainers/assessors.

The experience included simulations using actors to create scenarios, for example, a difficult conversation with a staff member or developing a strategic plan for a Board. Out of sight, a group of observers watched everything you did and wrote a report on your performance. At the end of each day, you were debriefed by one of the facilitators and given feedback. At the end of the week, you received a report that included a marking schedule across all of the activities and tasks.

I’ve still got my report. It grades me on every aspect assessed, as either a ‘strength’, proficient’, or ‘development opportunity’. (Anecdotally, post the course, a number of principals decided that the job wasn’t for them – it was an emotional and all-encompassing experience.)

Looking back now, it seems incredible that the Government was willing to invest this amount of resource in us. It was the first, and so far for me, only time that the system invested so much in an attempt to make me better in my complex role. It was a true unicorn event.

.   .   .

The reason I mention the PDPC in this post, is because of an accidental ‘by-product’ of the experience – it highlighted a job/role that I could never do, and in comparison, how great my current job often is. This thought has regularly helped me keep perspective when principalship has been challenging.

For the week I was in the capital, I stayed at a hotel close to the Centre, (just off Lambton Quay for those who know Wellington). The course started on the dot at 8am every day, and so I found myself walking through the central city in the early morning while it was half dark. As I walked, the office blocks around me slowly came to life. Those myriad individual windows towering up above me randomly blinked alive as the lights turned on, one by one.

I could see right into many of them, and what seemed to be the norm, was that there was some sort of cubicle setup with a desk, a filing cabinet, a partition of some sort and sometimes a plant sitting hopefully by the window. The person occupying them was effectively in a small box for the day. And of course, the vast majority of people working in those buildings didn’t have a window at all. Their boxes were deeper inside the building, where the fluorescent lights hummed and flickered with no natural light to assist. I wondered at the time whether they even had plants.

I’ve never forgotten this. In fact, the very thought of heading day after day, into a small, enclosed space to make phone calls, process paper and generally stay there for an 8 – 9 hour shift makes me feel slightly ill.

And the upside is that it reminds me that my days are the complete opposite. They are filled with noise, activity, unpredictable excitements and an ever-changing variety of tasks, places, and people. Yesterday, I finished my day checking a go-kart our kids are going to race this weekend. Today, I’m starting with a class trip to a local Eco Centre.

Yes, there will be paperwork today. Yes, there’s a very difficult conversation coming up with a parent, and yes, I will spend more time at my desk than I want to, but my days are never boring and for that I am ever grateful.


Get new posts directly to your email -

Photo by Georgia Vagim

What a double header we have this weekend!

On Sunday we have a classic sporting event between the All Blacks and Ireland with the experts picking our Irish friends as the probable winners. Despite the predictions, right up until the moment I’m proven wrong, I’m hoping deeply that our team wins.

On Saturday we have a classic general election where the outcome seems likely to be close, and the experts are desperately trying to arrive at the result before voting closes. Despite the predictions, right up until I’m proven wrong, I’m hoping deeply for inspiring educational outcomes.

I can’t influence the rugby result at all, and once my vote is cast, there’s nothing more I can do on the election front either.

In effect, I am powerless.

And this week I’m OK with that. It’s actually a peaceful position to be in.

.   .   .

What we do have some power over, is how this final Term will play out in regard to our professional impact and our personal hauora. I think I’m safe to assume that you have many key professional goals and events locked into your calendar, but how many of you also have key personal goals and events there as well?

If you’ve been following the 40 Hour Project for a while, perhaps you have already done this, but what about your neighbouring principal down the road? Before the Term gets too demanding of your time and energy, how about catching up with them and telling them about some of the practical actions you’ve taken to ensure you arrive at the end of December in great shape? Hearing what someone else is successfully doing, often helps people give themselves permission to do the same.

.   .   .

So, puff up the cushions on the couch and pass the popcorn – there’s a lot at stake this weekend and as spectators, it’s going to be exciting!


Photo by Pedro Lastra

You have probably heard the story about someone walking along a beach covered with starfish washed up by the tide. The starfish won’t last long out of the water and there are millions of them. Further along the sand is another person bending down and throwing the unfortunate creatures back into the water. The first person catches up to them and says, “why are you bothering to do that? It won’t make any difference – there’s millions of them!” Without pause the person bends down and flicks another one out into the sea and says, “made a difference to that one”.

This clichéd example has become my answer to a conundrum I found myself in this week.

.   .   .

I woke up on Wednesday feeling rubbish. Luckily, the little voice in my head saying, “don’t be a hypocrite, you write about this stuff, stay home”, overcame the other little voice which was saying, “you have to be at work – there’s so much to do.”

So, home I stayed. And because I wasn’t sick enough to be on intravenous fluids, or admitted to the local ICU department, I tried to get some work done.

Unsurprisingly, my productivity was abysmal. I did manage to contribute to the weekly newsletter, and I did deal with email, but the truth is, it was hard and slow going. Which led me to giving up and doing what I always tell my team to do when unwell – rest.

The rest helped, and with a bit of paracetamol onboard I felt better after lunch – a solid 3 out of 10 at least.

And then I made a mistake. I casually flicked through to the MOE’s list of current reviews and initiatives. (Somewhat ironically, a link to that page is in my ‘favourites’ folder.) I was intending to just have a quick look at the planning and reporting info but in my weakened state, scrolled down the list. Here it is –

Education Work Programme reviews and initiatives:

  • Education Conversation – Kōrero Mātauranga
  • Flood Risk Management Project
  • Curriculum, Progress and Achievement
  • Early Learning Strategic Plan
  • Fees Free tertiary education and training
  • International Education Strategy
  • Learning Support Action Plan
  • National Education and Learning Priorities
  • NCEA Review
  • Pacific Education
  • Review of Home-based Early Childhood Education
  • Tomorrow’s Schools Review
  • Reform of vocational education
  • Wānanga on the future of education
  • Tertiary Education Strategy
  • Ministerial Advisory Group Reviewing School Staffing
  • Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in our national curriculum
  • National School Redevelopment Programme
  • Improving Classrooms in Small or Remote Schools
  • Free and healthy lunches in schools
  • Healthy active learning
  • Charter schools
  • Digital technologies and Hangarau Matihiko learning
  • Education Resourcing System
  • Holidays Act Compliance – schools’ payroll
  • Data for Wellbeing programme (was Integrated Education Data – iEd)
  • A new way to deliver learning support
  • Rebuilding Christchurch schools 2013-2022
  • Growing our teacher workforce
  • Ministry Engaged 10-Year Property Plan (10YPP) Consultants
  • Te Haratau – lifting the quality of NZ’s physical learning environments
  • Te Mahere Taiao – The Environmental Action Plan for School Property

To be fair, not every item requires my involvement or understanding, but many do and some of them are huge! And if we tease out the topics that directly affect me, it feels a bit like looking at a beach full of starfish. Impossible.

As I’ve never been a fan of giving up, I’ve decided to follow the wisdom of the starfish thrower – focus on the children in my little corner of the beach – one at a time.



Get new posts directly to your email -

Photo by Ignacio Amenábar

Principalship is sometimes described as hard, complex, or challenging, which can all be true at times, but what if it wasn’t? What if it was easy?

And interestingly, ‘easy’ is very subjective.

I’m guessing we all have aspects of the job that we find easy, but that others may well find difficult. For example, the yearly prizegiving speech. You may love giving that annual inspirational address to a packed auditorium. You look forward to it and get a real buzz from the delivery – it’s easy. But just down the road, another principal lies awake worrying about it as the fateful day gets closer. If public speaking was the primary task of the first principal, their job would be easy. If it were the primary job of the second principal . . .

I know a school leader who is amazing at creating timetables. Give them the parameters and intended outcome, and in less than 5 minutes they’ll have a functional masterpiece nailed. Give me the same challenge and I’ll struggle for ages and have to write drafts, redrafts and probably more drafts before I get it right. If timetabling was a big part of this gifted individual’s daily work, they would be cruising.

If something has a degree of challenge, and you are good at it, it also usually becomes enjoyable, fun even. (Having fun while working could be close to the holy grail!)

.   .   .

So, one way to make the job easier is to spend as much time as possible doing the things that energise you, and the least amount of time doing the things that you find difficult or energy sapping. Some experts even call this ‘job design’ – where you deliberately craft your role in a way that maximises your strengths (and minimises the time you spend on things that drain you).

On the flip side, this strategy means change – someone else will be doing the things that you struggle with, or those things are deleted, or they are done differently. If you have a scheduling guru in your team, doesn’t it make sense for you to release them to sort that pesky learning support timetable? You could even teach their class while they do.

.   .   .

Before any of this can happen, some thinking will be required.

Which regular aspects of your role could be: done better by someone else, done differently by you, not done at all? And which would you like to do yourself, or do more of?

You need some time on your own personal ‘lillypad’, with a blank piece of paper in hand, to think about this. And folks, this needs to be done off-site.

I suggest you start with the negatives – the things you hate doing. Even giving yourself permission to consider what they are, will have them rushing out onto the paper. That’s because they are usually closely linked to an emotion or two.

Then make a second list – the things you enjoy doing. The parts of the job that energise you. I’m guessing pretty much all of us will have something about hanging out with the kids in this list, but after that it will diverge uniquely. (If you genuinely struggle to think of things here, that is a tangible sign that change is needed, things are not OK, and you may need to talk to someone you trust.)

Once the lists are started, it’s time to picture yourself doing less (of the difficult) and more (of the energising). It may sound ‘cheesy’ but literally visualising what your job could be like with a better balance of responsibilities helps make change.

“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”  W. A. Ward

Picturing something is that vital first step in making an abstract idea real. There’s more to do after making that first leap, but without it, what you decide is ‘impossible’, stays that way.

Why not?



Get new posts directly to your email -

Photo by Waldemar 

It’s February 2024 and the newly elected coalition Government has just launched its revolutionary education policy. All principals have been called to Wellington to learn about the fresh new AI derived curriculum and how it will transform their schools. Their excitement is palpable. This huge new project will dominate the next 6 months, so they will have no more than 2 hours per week to think about, or work in their schools.

“If you could only work 2 hours per week, what would you focus on?” ¹

I know this is a ridiculous question, but indulge me for just a moment and consider it – 2 hours, that’s all you have to lead your school . . . what will you do? And what will you not do?

.   .   .

There are several ways of trying to answer this, for example you could start by considering what are the very most critical things you do each week. You could make a short list of 5 things you absolutely must do and then whittle away the amount of time you spend on each.

You could choose just one.

Or, you could start at the other end and begin deleting stuff that is either unimportant or you already know is a sticky mess of procrastination and inefficiency . . .

.   .   .

I’m going to suggest applying a filter – is the piece of work leadership, or is it management?

In the spirit of Friday provocation, how about:

Management = Heck no!

  • The newsletter
  • Any fixing/unblocking/shifting stuff
  • Admin meetings
  • Minor student discipline issues
  • Tidying other people’s messes (figurative and literal)
  • Anything to do with finances
  • Attendance intervention plans
  • Board reports
  • PTA reports
  • Rosters (of any sort)

Leadership = Heck yes!

  • Connecting with staff (being visible, positive, interested)
  • Connecting with students/whanau (being visible, positive, interested)
  • Strategic thinking (which requires space and pause)

I know which list looks more fun and energising to me!

(I would also add ‘staffing’ to the critical work pile. It sits both in management and in leadership but is often the single biggest driver of both possible stress and possible happiness for all involved – you, students, other staff, whanau. We all know what happens if it goes wrong, from not having a teacher for a class, to working with unhappy team members – and the flip side is that when it is going well, everything is better.)

What do you think? Where would you put your 2 hours?

.   .   .

There’s also an interesting side effect of narrowing down your work to the absolute essentials, it raises the possibility of creating time to do other essential non-work things.

Perhaps 2 hours is too extreme. But what say we doubled it? Would 4 hours allow you to get more essentials completed?

And if 4 was still too little, how about 8? At what point would there be ‘enough’?

Is it possible that at some point, well below the mythical 40, that you cross over into spending your time and energy on things that really aren’t important (or even necessary)? I suggest the answer might be closer to ‘yes’ than many believe.


.   .   .


I said I’d share the data from responses to my last post about email – Master or Slave. Thanks to everyone (109 people) who took a moment to share. The numbers are below for your interest, and I’ve put a couple of useful tips that were shared as well.

  1. How many emails did you receive yesterday?

Most                   175

Least                   9

Average              49

  1. How many emails are sitting in your inbox?

Unread                              Most 838            Least 0                Average 36

Read (but not filed)        Most 21299        Least 0                Average 347

  1. Helpful tips:
  • “I attended a Google Certified Educator Course about 5 years ago and the guy talked about ‘zero’ inbox. I thought he was absolutely mad and this was impossible to achieve, but I now live and breath it AND encourage my staff (and anyone who will listen) to do the same. So the easy secret to share here is the ‘Snooze’ function on Gmail. Absolutely my best digital friend and I encourage all to use it as a ‘101’ for organising emails. Zero inbox is now my reality and it REALLY helps me function.”
  • “My inbox is my to-do list. I get rid of an email once actioned. Works for me.”
  • “I am a teaching principal and I have an automatic reply saying that I am only in my office on Tuesday and Friday, emails will be checked before 9am and after 3pm – this does not seem to deter anyone!!”


I’m grateful that so many of you shared and now have my own aspirational goal to get to “zero inbox”. Dave

¹ Borrowed from Tim Ferris, someone who excels in asking thought provoking questions.

Photo by Brett Jordan

Some tech experts are predicting that the AI revolution will effectively end email as we know it. Not because it will bring newer, better alternatives, but because AI written spam will overwhelm the system. Maybe.

While we wait to see if this dire prophecy becomes true, the good old email reigns supreme in most principals’ daily communication systems. Used well, it saves time, shares information easily and keeps 90% of scheduling up to date. Used badly, it takes time, frustrates everyone, and turns you into a distracted wreck. Here’s a few thoughts to consider –

. . .

Going full Genghis Khan on your inbox

I don’t know how many messages you get daily, but I’m guessing it’s similar to me. I counted last week’s total and my @principal account received 172. The spam filter got plenty more as well but however you cut the numbers, it’s a lot. Some thoughts on how to manage this:

  1. Archive – use the archive function to tidily store any emails older than 6 months. Set up the auto function so it keeps doing that. (You can still find them in you have to!)
  2. Set up folders for the various topics you regularly get mail on. E.g., ‘Iona’, ‘Payroll’, ‘Compliments’. Now either shift mail into the appropriate folder manually as they arrive or set up an automatic rule to do this for you.
  3. Unread emails – open and action them or delete them. No excuses, no procrastination.
  4. Unsubscribe – click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of every regular email that is not mission critical. Do this and watch your volume of mail decrease by 50%.
  5. Be ruthless.

A tidy inbox is a peaceful inbox and you deserve both.

Reply All – sometimes essential / sometimes so annoying

Used to share group responses and thoughts, it makes sense. In a group discussion, ‘reply all’ keeps the process upfront and transparent, and if you want to thank someone it’s more powerful if everyone sees the acknowledgement. In all other cases, don’t do it – we each have people in our address books that reply all to every single message– don’t be that person.

Delay send

I love this option! By using it, I can neatly overcome the dilemma of not wanting to send emails at unreasonable times, and yet still getting that message sent so I don’t have to remember to do it later. My email programme even pops up the option to delay send automatically if I compose a message outside of ‘work’ hours. (I wonder if anyone has noticed I send a lot of messages at 7:30am? 😊 ) 

When is unreasonable?

In the 40 Hour Project we are all about balance in life and ‘switching off’ work regularly, but when is it Ok to send or receive a message? After 5pm? Before 8am? If I receive an email at 2am I’m pretty clear that’s outside what’s reasonable, but what about 6pm? This links into the topics below .   .   .

Checking their inbox – your team

This is a delicate but essential thing to get right amongst your team. What is the clear expectation around the frequency they will check their inbox? Given the majority are actually teaching a class, when/how often is it reasonable that they will have had a look?

Checking your inbox – you

Here is an A grade, super important self-management topic – when/how often do you check your inbox? There are literally hundreds of studies over years on this topic and the bottom-line is that you will lose productivity (and possibly your mind), if you check too often.

What’s too often? Let’s start with the extreme – running ‘live’. With a dual screen set-up, or sound notifications on, you can easily see/hear each new message as it arrives.

A live inbox means that every time someone sends you a message, you see it. Every. Single. Time.

Assuming checking mail is not your only task, from a productivity point of view, each time you are interrupted in what you are doing, it can take up to 20 minutes to get fully back to that task. Badly managed, you could potentially spend hours floating through the sea of stuff lobbed casually into your day. Don’t do it.

Turn all alerts off  

Alerts kill productivity surer than a cold gin kills motivation to mow your lawn. Related to this are smart watches. These are possibly the very worst inventions ever for increasing anxiety and decreasing productivity. If you’ve connected yours to your phone, which is connected to your email, you are now effectively a walking alert. Find the online instructions and turn the message/email alerts off. You’ll thank me later.

Receiving messages

Regarding your community, we all know some of them don’t sleep, and surprisingly, they might not consider the work/life balance of you or your team as important . . . some clear, friendly communication about this topic is essential.

Choosing times to check

With alerts turned firmly off, schedule no more than 3 times in the day when you will deal with your mail. What works for me is around 9:30am (people send lots of mail early so I catch these messages after I’ve got the day launched and connected with people onsite), straight after lunch time (lunch is always busy with people related work), and around 5pm (in an attempt to minimise stuff rolling into the evening). I do often check mail quickly in the evening but following this plan, the volume is usually small.

The bottom line

Either you manage your email or it manages you – a small investment in time sorting this out will continue to pay back forever.

And just for fun, if you have a moment, answer this two question survey and I’ll share the results next time I post –



Get new posts directly to your email -

Photo by Federico Beccari

It’s Friday, and in New Zealand, the end of the first week back in a shiny new school Term. For some of you this is the first time you’ve made this milestone as a principal, for others you’ve been here literally a hundred times before.

If you pause for a moment, what do you notice? And specifically, what do you notice about your energy? Is the level in your personal fuel tank the same as it was 7 days ago?

.   .   .

We all operate in a finite resource game. In essence, being sustainable is an energy in/energy out balancing act.

And the reason I ask now, at the very beginning of Term, is that you have the opportunity to consciously create this balance so that ‘future you’ arrives at Term’s end in great shape.

.   .   .

Energy in energy out – it sounds a bit “Karate Kid”ish written like that. But there’s nothing Hollywood about the reality that if you don’t actively manage your energy across this Term (and the dozens more to come), that you’re very likely to fall into deficit – probably quicker than you’d like.

I’ve noticed a pattern in my own ‘balancing act’ over time. I usually arrive at the new Term feeling pretty good – the glide time of the Term break has meant more opportunity to do the things that make me healthier; exercise, food, family, friends, fun.

I hit the new Term and the work piles in – planned and unplanned. The usual battle to identify what matters most and to avoid the myriad of distractions starts again. But it’s fine, I just pick up the pace and get stuff done.

When I was newer, I used to attempt to keep this pace up, and try and ‘out energy’ the workload. It’s such a temptation to ignore what is happening (to you) and to push on, but experience has taught me that doing that is akin to trying to sprint a marathon – it doesn’t work . . . and it hurts.

.   .   .

So here we are, at the end of this first week and many of us will have pushed that fuel/battery level well below full, which is absolutely fine, if 1) you recognise this growing deficit, and 2) you ensure you recharge.

No one operates at 100% full all the time, that’s a fantasy and simply not attainable in our very real world, but as the energy flows out, we absolutely need to put it back in.

And just like a shiny new EV, the lower you let your level drop, the longer it will take to recharge. The strategy we recommend in the Forty Hour Project is to ‘trickle charge’ – little and often is the way to do it, and that means on the daily unless faced with an emergency.

How many of these essentials can you tick off your list?


Food (healthy)?

Friends/family (time and connection)?

Fun (what you love doing)?

Sleep (quality and quantity)?

If any were ‘missing in action’ this week, they become important and urgent by default. And as your sustainability is essential to the children and adults you lead, no excuses – add them to next week’s work plan just like you do with all the other critical stuff.


Get new posts directly to your email -

Photo by Afra Ramió 

I was speaking to a newly minted principal the other day who was experiencing a strange phenomenon – they were finding their new job fairly easy!

.   .   .

I can still remember my first principalship, a week in and sitting at my new principal desk, with the door shut and no distractions. I sat there looking around and thought something like, “this isn’t as hard as I thought”.

Sure, there were things to do (including quite a bit of teaching back then), but it seemed manageable. There was time to think about what next and a sense of freedom after being in a classroom up until that point. It was a happy feeling. My recollection (to be fair it was a while ago) is that this satisfying, warm feeling lasted about a fortnight.

.   .   .

Somewhere between those initial two weeks and the end of that first year, I found myself working at a pace that made me wonder if stepping out of the classroom had been a serious mistake. Decision making about what to do next had changed from peaceful consideration to being all about priorities and letting things go – even important things at times.

So, what changed?

I think it was moving from a combination of ‘not knowing what I didn’t know’, and the general positivity surrounding me as the ‘new’ leader, to being responsible for everything. It was probably about then that I realised that no one wants an apprentice principal – they want the real deal right from the start.

This common experience is an example of the cumulative ‘weight’ that our role brings over time. The longer you do it, the more stuff you are responsible for. If you stay in a school for longer than 5 years, you are responsible for a whole mountain worth of things, both done and undone.

When you shift schools, the slate is temporarily wiped clean. But the more you know about the job, the quicker you get back to carrying that weight in the new setting. Ignorance can indeed be bliss at times!

What got me thinking this week were the compelling statistics just released by the NZEI (a New Zealand teacher union). Their latest survey of the principal workforce found that 20% overall wanted to leave the profession in the next two years and for new principals, nearly half (47%) wanted out inside of 5 years. But the stat that really stopped me in my tracks was that none, as in zero, nada, zilch felt the job was manageable, and none felt well supported in the role. (The data represents approximately a quarter of all principals in NZ.)

.   .   .

Is it possible to get back to a sense of manageable load like when you first started?

I argue it should be, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it will take collective, system level changes to achieve this. As individuals, many of us are making intentional ‘job design’ decisions but until the system comes on board and starts supporting us, it’s always going to be a compromise.

A while ago, when the 40 Hour Project began, I thought that when enough leaders made sustainable choices in the role we’d reach a sort of ‘critical mass’ and the momentum would force change. I still believe that individuals making smart choices (and being visible about them), is valuable for everyone, but without direct support from our system, individuals are vulnerable.

You could transpose the label ‘system’ for ‘Government’ but it’s more than just that – it’s your Board, local MOE, Senior Advisor . . . all the way to the Minister.

.   .   .

In the meantime, while we wait for the figurative ‘penny to drop’ somewhere, and to celebrate the successes you led over the last 8 weeks, how about investing one hour putting important non-work items on next Term’s calendar. I’m pretty certain you had no trouble adding ‘set in concrete’ items like Board meetings, PLG sessions and your commitment to the duty roster. I suggest you spend your hour, door shut, adding at least two important non-work items into every week – inside of 9am – 3pm (or between 3pm and 5pm if you are at teaching leader). Coffee, friend, walk, gym, read, whanau, hobby, could be possible labels and if you’re feeling a little vulnerable in a shared calendar, use code. This could be the most valuable hour you spend all Term.



Get new posts directly to your email -

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!



Get new posts directly to your email -

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.


Get new posts directly to your email -