Do you often get to the end of a day with a “to do” list at least as big as you had 10 hours before? Have you started a week with something important that needs to be completed but when you get to Friday afternoon it’s still sitting there – and now it has time pressure as well?
The good news is that you’re far from alone. We all have weeks like this. The better news is that you absolutely can do something about it – it’s time you learnt how to “batch”.
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Batching, Pomodoro Technique, Focus Blocks . . . call it what you like, all work around the principle of having focused blocks of time where you remove distractions and stick with one important task for a set period of time.
Sounds simple? Not for a school leader we suggest. The very nature of leading a complex organisation centred around people, means that our jobs are littered with opportunities to do the exact opposite.
I believe many of us have been seduced by the mantra that we have to be highly accessible. We take pride in keeping our office doors open and will drop anything to talk to a student or staff member. We answer emails as they come in (personally guilty!) and admin staff put phone calls straight through as a default action. Our days are full of constant, unpredictable shifts from task to task.
The unintended, but inevitable outcomes of this way of working, are that we’re spending way too much time on the busy work, too little time on the important work, and a constant feeling of not quite being able to keep up. For some of us, these consequences will be very obvious, for others they will just form part of the mental load that we carry home each night.
It’s time for change.
The very first thing to acknowledge is that you will have to take deliberate action if you want to change your current habits. You are also going to have to change the habits of the people around you – particularly the “gate keepers”, the people who either send you distractions or block them.
Both Steve and I are currently experimenting with setting up more robust versions of “batching”. We intend recording some of the challenges and successes that we find along the way. Sharing our real-life experiences with you is a win-win – it keeps us accountable and potentially helps others make changes that are both personally and professionally helpful.
Step 1 – Identify a block of time (ideally daily) that you will aim to use for batching.
I did this by writing myself a new schedule for the entire day. I tried to make the plan workable by scheduling my availability to match the ebb and flow of a “normal” day. For example, I like to catch-up with parents and students before school as they come in for the day so that’s not a good time to pick.
From looking at my usual schedule, I have chosen 9:30am to 11.00am as my batching block. Before the first bell, I like to be “out and about” in the school. Once classes start, teachers and students are busy so I head back to the Office. At this point, there will almost always be the need to catch-up with the admin team or parents for approximately half an hour. At the other end of my batching, morning interval starts, and I will be on duty or simply just talking with staff and students.
Step 2 – make the space
There are two parts to this step.
- Students, teachers, admin staff; they all have the potential to stop you batching. It doesn’t have to be this way. Even when the “wheels fall off” with a child, there are usually opportunities to slow down the necessity of an immediate principal response. In fact, a slow response can often be the best (a whole new topic). It is true that in a larger school there are more people available who can help with urgent work. If you are sole charge, it is much harder! However, we all have the option of when we schedule our batching and if your school doesn’t have two walking DPs just waiting to help, perhaps you can choose a time where it is more likely that someone else can run interference for you.
And really, that is the key; you need to get your people onboard with what you are doing. In my case, I met with the admin team and explained what I was trying and why. They readily agreed to help create the space. We have an understanding about when it is OK to interrupt and at this point, very little is getting through! Trust is key here.
- Email, Stuff News, social media; they are constant distractors for most of us. They demand attention, and wreck productivity.
If you are batching, turn them off. Yes, off. Don’t just not look, actually shut the tabs, close your email, and turn the alerts off on your phone. You can do this, and it feels really empowering! If in a moment of madness, you got a smart watch that connects to any form of media, take it off and turn it off. If your cat gets run over while you’re batching, someone will tell you later.
These two steps are enough to get started. In my next post on the topic I’ll share my schedule and some links to general thinking about batching. If you want to listen to an expert on the subject, check out Tim Ferriss’ 5-minute explanation below. If you have questions or want to share your batching story, please comment (bottom of this page) or message us, we’d love to hear from you.