In New Zealand, school leaders are allowed to accumulate unused sick days. I’ve got zillions as have plenty of school leaders who have been lucky enough to have avoided a major illness or need for extended leave. Back in the ‘good old days’, it was considered perfectly acceptable to be ‘sick’ for the same length of time as your accumulated leave at the end of your career. A sort of “thanks for showing up to work every day” type of reward.

Of course, in the more pressured world we live in, it would be very naughty indeed to do a similar thing. The reality is that those of us who have been lucky in the health stakes will simply have all that accumulated evidence of turning up to work evaporate on the day we clock out. Pooft – gone.

.   .   .

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. It’s not all about luck and health.

I’d suggest that many of us have unused leave because we are almost pathologically adverse to calling in sick. It’s not what we believe a principal should do and certainly not what we do.

But why?

The other day I watched a cool wee video from a fellow principal, Michael Fletcher, where he encouraged us to stay home if unwell. His bottom-line message of “stay home” also exposed reasons school leaders often don’t.

Things like:

“I’m snowed under already and taking a day off will just make it worse.”

“It’s the only time when we can all make the meeting – I have to go.”

“What will the staff think? It’s Friday and it’ll look like I’m making it a long weekend.”

“I was sick last week so I just can’t be sick again now.”

“They need me there in case . . . (add your own reason).”

An all too common default position is that we simply have to be onsite. There’s some sort of slightly vague but powerful ‘gut’ feeling that it’s not good if we are at home when school is open. It’s somehow mixed up with our beliefs about leadership and duty and  . . . the job.

From a principal who indeed took a sick day this week –

“I’ve been sick all Easter on and off to be honest … but today was the worst. Funnily I checked my calendar to see what sort of “havoc” this would wreak! Saw my calendar was pretty clear and so sent the messages out that I wouldn’t be coming in. The feeling that I had 5 days off already, and was still going to have a 6th one was undeniable. My partner suggested I go for a Covid test – but that would be another 48 hours off school, so I said no. That’s actually wrong.”

So, maybe you have lots of accumulated sick days partly because you’ve been amazingly healthy, but also partly because on the many days you have felt unwell over time, you have “soldiered on”.

And here’s the rub – I bet you can’t remember even one time when you were away sick, where your predicted worst-case scenario happened. Those little voices in your head told you lies.

There’s actually a term for this type of thinking –presenteeism.

Presenteeism is when a worker (e.g. you or me) show up to work unwell. We’re a warm body that people can see, but actually anything but effective. The reason this term has been invented is that being at work in a diminished capacity costs companies big bucks and they are starting to take the problem seriously. The research is new, but early indications are that it’s even more costly than the well studied problem of absenteeism. (Link to presenteeism research in nursing.)

.  .  .

The truth is that when you are feeling unwell, you are unwell – you are not the best version of the leader that you want to be and pretending otherwise is, to be frank, silly.

The science says:

  • that when people are sick they need to rest to recover,
  • that knowingly staying at work during this time makes others sick too,
  • that decision making, creativity, and general cognitive functioning are sub-par.

It’s called being sick.

Refusing to stay home can also be a subtle disrespect of your team, because being unwilling to take a sick day on the grounds that you are irreplaceable, implies that your team is not quite up to the mark. (U1 principals are an exception – you are very nearly irreplaceable!)

Of course, there are practicalities involved too. Another principal recently commented that with all the disruption of COVID – delayed work streams, cancelled meetings, rehashed schedules – it could seem even more important not to be absent. (This is a common theme of principalship, that personal sacrifice is a core part of doing the job.)

On the flip side, I’d actually been thinking the opposite, that the health messages around the pandemic were making it more acceptable for people to stay home if unwell – it’s what we demand of others in our schools so surely we need to model this behaviour too?

So what do you think? Is it OK to come to work even when you know you are sick?



(And to those of you who have, through no fault of your own, had to use every last sick day possible, that sucks. It means unpleasant things have happened and I fully acknowledge that you didn’t choose them. Life is complicated and humans are, well human. Stuff happens.)


Get new posts hand delivered to your email -

Photo by Christin Hume

So you’ve got a fitness device that tells you how many steps you’ve done today. Awesome.

But have you got a sitting widget that tells you how long you’ve spent on your principal butt? In fact, have you ever counted? Well maybe it’s time to start.

There’s a lot of scientific data that links your future personal misery to the amount of time that you spend enjoying the seductive embrace of the swivelly chair.

But just how long is too long?

In a large study of Australians, Kansas State University researcher, Richard Rosenkranz, (summarisedhereon has reviewed data from over 60 000 Australian men that shows those sitting for  more than 4 hours were significantly more likely to report having a chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.  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.

(There are multiple other studies (including ones that also study women!) and the conclusion is fairly simple – the longer you sit on average, the less healthy you become over time.)

.   .   .

4 hours . . . pause for a moment and add up your usual tally. Don’t forget to add; breakfast, driving to work, lunchtime, driving home, work at home, watching a bit of Shorters . . . 4 hours doesn’t actually seem that much to me.

Perhaps a more interesting question is; have your average sitting hours increased over time?

My subjective, gut feeling is that mine have. As time and career progresses, there seems to be more and more work that is linked to a computer and by default, a desk.

Even if your own reality is different, a slight increase will build up over time. We wrote a post about this before and used the compounding power of time to give a real look at what was happening to our future selves. Using time to gain clarity is part of a tactic that Tim Ferris calls  “fear setting” – you can read about it here.

So what to do?

My solution was to firstly become conscious of what was happening. Once I started to notice my usual default habits, that alone helped me make change.

Secondly, I made a couple of deliberate decisions:

  • whenever someone came into my office I stood up and if it was a short conversation, stayed standing.
  • I organised an easy standing desk option.

I confess that the standing desk idea didn’t really work the first time. I got one of those units that sit on your desk and which can be raised up or left down.

The problem was that whenever I came into the office it was usually down and so of course I just sat down in front of it. Net gain – zero.

The game changer for me was getting a second (actually third!) screen that was always up. That way when I walked into the office I just stopped at the standing screen. So easy I actually do it.

Here’s my current setup –


When working on docs I sit down and use the two screens because it’s usually much more efficient. When I am mainly reading, I stand.

These simple tactics are making a tangible difference to me. If you have some of your own tips to share, we’d love you to add them below or over on the 40HP Facebook page.




Get new posts hand delivered to your email -


Right now, there are a whole lot of people just beginning the adventure we call principalship.

Maybe you are one of them.

When most people start a new job, the thing ‘on top’ is often, “what do I need to do?” This is completely understandable, but ignores the real choices that can be made about how this work is done.

There is the what you do and the how you do it – they’re complementary, but completely different. (Apologies to Simon Sinek fans – we’re ignoring the ‘why’ to keep this discussion short and sweet.)

.   .   .

It is much easier to know what you have to do as a school leader. You have your job description, the Education Act, all the relevant legislation, and probably a growing list of work to do. People will add to your ‘what’ as much as you let them. In fact, today’s email inbox alone will contain enough ‘what’ to keep you occupied for all of next week. I can promise you that your first Board meeting will also add content as will nearly ever interaction with your team. Business as usual.

But at the exact same time, as you do the work, or think about doing it, you are shaping what I call your “how”. The ‘how’ reflects the time you commit to a task, the energy you give and the stress that you either accept or reject. It is the difference between Principal A spending all weekend working on their Strategic Plan, and Principal B achieving the same outcome with their team during the week. Both get the same ‘what’ done, but how they do this is completely different – this is where possibility lies.

.   .   .

Here’s a few questions to illustrate:

  • How many hours are reasonable to work daily/weekly?
  • Should your office door be open?
  • Is it OK to work off-site?
  • How quickly should you respond to a message from a teacher?
  • When should you arrive each morning?
  • Is it important to have a staff meeting every week?
  • Should you go on camp with your students?
  • How often should you be onsite during a holiday break?
  • And the list goes on . . .


These slightly nebulous (but still very real) decisions are all about the how.

And you have complete control over them – there are no official guidelines.

If you are an experienced leader, you already have established habits in how you do  your job, but are these habits good for you and the people you lead? Maybe other experienced leaders in schools around you mirror the same habits – but – that doesn’t mean they are healthy/efficient/desirable. Once upon a time nearly everyone smoked.

When was the last time you paused, off site in a peaceful place, with a piece of blank paper and considered the how?

If you are new to this role, you have the perfect opportunity to draw some lines in the sand from the very beginning.

If you are a seasoned pro, you can use some of your hard won skills to review where you’re at.

Either way, for the benefit of your future self, this is well worth considering.



Get new posts directly to your email -


Add your thoughts on our Facebook page –

The Forty Hour Principal

Photo by Nathália Rosa

I like Post-it notes. I like the way they let me capture a task then park it until I’m ready to take action.

Way back at the beginning, I had a principal who carried a small notebook in their top jacket pocket. Anytime you started talking to them they took it out, ready to make a note if needed.

This principal prided themselves on following up, not forgetting, doing what they promised, and in their pocket was a system to make all these things happen.

Post-it notes are my version.

Sadly, while they are an awesome fluro coloured tool, the reason they are in my thinking right now is that they’re multiplying – very quickly! And lots of notes means lots of things to remember and do.

Welcome to the end of Term 4!

This is the time each year where a myriad of tasks and looming deadlines make it very possible that your waking hours are consumed entirely by knocking off task after task. Those of you who have followed the 40 Hour Project for a while, know that this is the time when the ‘busy’ can obscure the ‘important’.

Even the students seem to unwittingly contribute. There are more plasters given out and more social interactions to manage than at any other time through the year – people are getting a bit frazzed.

I spent precious time this morning helping 3 great young boys resolve an issue that started with someone holding a door handle and ended in tears. None of them planned the debacle, and all regretted it, but it does sum up the vibe of late Term 4 – stuff  happens.

In amongst this end of year race is your opportunity to be a leader. To focus on people first, spread the calm, and to deliberately aim to finish the year with energy left over and feeling well. We have talked about this before – Madvember Doesn’t Have To Be – but this time I want to focus on the power of calm.

To impact your team positively a key is to manage perception. I like the duck analogy where they are paddling like hell under the water but up on top all looks serene. It’s the bit on top that your people will notice.

A personal strategy I use to try and spread a sense of calm, is to deliberately move slower the busier I feel. This may sound simplistic but it absolutely helps – body language is the language that people notice most and if you are moving around your site in a rush, it sends a message. So slow down and breathe. Stop to talk with kids and adults, volunteer to cover someone’s duty,  and at all times move slowly. And it’s not all acting – research shows slowing down and breathing properly changes your mental state. A win/win for you and your school.

.   .   .

Which brings me to where I started with the Post-it notes.

I realized that when they’re plastered all over my desk/laptop/office, they tell a story to all who see them. They visually create a similar effect to walking quickly everywhere with no time to pause. They create the impression that I am busy.



So here is my cunning plan –  I’m not going to stop using them, I’m going to hide them.

At the very least I get great pleasure from screwing them up and chucking them in the bin when actioned. I’m not willing to forgo that goodness. All I am going to do is stick them inside a plain manila folder. The folder will sit on my desk closed. The notes live on but the story my desk tells will be different. A small, but deliberate action in the face of the run to the finish. Dare you to try it.


Get new posts directly to your email -

I did an extraordinary thing last weekend. I rode a 36km mountain bike event.

Being in the race wasn’t extraordinary. Several hundred other people did the same. And it wasn’t my time nor the place I came, because it was by far my slowest ever for completing the event. It was by no means my longest or toughest race, and I hadn’t had to overcome any debilitating injury.

What was extraordinary is that I did it without any training and got to the end in pretty good shape!

No training, zero, nada, zip.

While sitting on the grass at the finish line, half a beer in hand, I realised that things have changed. I have changed, and it happened without me realising.

.  .  .

To give context, I have to briefly go back 7 years to the time when I was first talked into riding a bike at a local event. It started with a classic piece of misinformation – “come on Dave, anyone can do it, you’ll be fine.”  Naively, I turned up and had a go.

It was exhausting, confusing, and at times terrifying. I’m not sure what your definition of “fine” is but mine does not include bruised, sweating profusely and gasping for oxygen like a fish on a riverbank.

I was not fine.


Luckily for me I have persistent friends. They let time obscure the pain and then found another event to do. An “easier” event, much easier I was told. So, I did it. And this time it was not quite so new or frenetic and while I finished exhausted, I actually enjoyed most of it.

We started riding in more events and after the first year I was really enjoying the experience. My bike got upgraded, my biking fitness increased and I found that my times were improving. My competitive nature enjoyed the contests and to go faster I trained when possible. Life/work kept this to less than I would have liked but still, every event involved some focused training.

But not last weekend.

Last weekend I had to literally dust off my bike, pump the tyres up and move the junk that had accumulated around it in the garage. (Biking has been sacrificed to some other things I am doing at the moment.)

The thought of riding a race without any preparation worried me. After several years of turning up to events I understand how much energy goes into riding fast off road for an hour and a half. What say I “tanked” (ran out of energy) or made a bad (think hospital time) mistake because I was exhausted?

But none of that negative stuff happened. I just rode the thing with a friend. Simple.

A few years ago, this just would not have been possible.

.  .  .

If you’re incredibly patient and still reading, here’s my point –

The impossible can become possible given time and tiny incremental improvements.

An example in my professional life is batching (i.e. making regular time to work on one thing at a time). A year ago, a “normal” day involved bouncing from task to task from the moment I arrived onsite to the moment I left. I jumped on the figurative hamster wheel and spun it hard. I was super accessible all the time and responded to others’ needs/wants straight away. I would often end up at the end of a day/week having done a thousand things but not the one important task I had planned. Things needed to change.

Just then, along came a sabbatical with the opportunity to reflect and the possibility to learn from others and I heard about “batching” (read more here). It seemed impossible that I could create a space in each day where I wasn’t interrupted. But I was determined to make change so I started small – half an hour, three times per week. Door shut, phone/email on “shut up mode”.

It was awesome so I incrementally added to it. Now, a year later, it is no big deal to be focused for an hour, even two. The team around me accept it and actively help me achieve it. It is a game changer that frankly, seemed impossible a year ago.  

.  .  .

Maybe you couldn’t imagine anything worse than a bike race, fair enough. But maybe you would like to work less hours, or to run better meetings, or lose some kilos, or turn 40/50/60 in great shape,  . . .  we all have things we wish were different/better.

It’s the little actions that make the difference. One less meeting a week, one more glass of water, 30 extra minutes of batching, . . . if you make them habits, they will add up to you being measurably different over time. All you have to do is choose something positive, start very small and keep doing it.


Get new posts directly to your email -

Two weeks ago I challenged you to find a couple of habits to either change or create.

How’s that going?

Because now is the perfect time to set yourself up for a better year – a more effective year or a happier year or a healthier year . . . maybe even all three. Imagine that.

And the best way to start is to go for the low hanging fruit. The things that you either do, or do not do daily, that shape your days – habits.

Habits are the human auto pilot system and auto pilot is a great way to handle most  things without conscious effort so you can concentrate on the new and more interesting.

I mentioned James Clear in a previous post as being a well-known guru in changing habits. We briefly discussed the four factors that have to be present for a behaviour to be habitual – a cue, a craving/need, a response, and a reward. A top piece of professional reading would be one of James’ books on the topic as he gives practical and actionable advice based on research – and he’s easy to read!

However, to create, or change a habit you have to do things differently and good intentions often go hand in hand with our own versions of procrastination – so I’d like to suggest a way to start.

.  .  .

In this post I want to introduce an idea that runs right alongside changing habits – the concept of “one percent better”.

1 % better.

Several of the current crop of thought leaders have run with this concept – James Clear, Tim Ferris, Joe Ferraro, to name a few. The reason? Because it works.

The theory is super simple; if you do something one percent better over a period of time, you end up a lot better. Those of you into numbers will be able to work out that a daily improvement of just one percent equals being 37 times better at the thing you are measuring after a year. 37 times better!

The flip side of course is that if you get one percent worse at something, even weekly, you will be in a much tougher position at the end of a year. Think an extra cigarette each week, or 10 minutes extra sitting.

The power of one percent is that it is a tiny amount. A really achievable amount – for good and for bad.

Last week, Steve wrote about his team’s reaction when they thought for a fleeting moment that he was going to suggest they all ran a half marathon (the mental picture made me smile). You can understand how they might have felt. A half marathon (21 kilometres) is a huge distance for a non-runner to contemplate. So huge that a reasonable person would probably refuse.

But what if that non-runner was simply asked to go as far as they could comfortably? They might only handle 200 metres on their first day. Then each day from there on, they ran 1% more (only an extra 2 steps on Day 2).  At the end of a year they would be running (at their own pace) over 7 kilometres  – that is the power of one percent; little achievable gains add up.

Another, probably more “real life” example is sitting. We all know we sit too much and it’s bad for us. There are stats out of America that show the average adult sits for over 12 hours per day. If we pretend the New Zealand situation is similar for a moment, you can quickly see the power of a one percent improvement. A mere 6 minutes less sitting each day is trivial – anyone can do it without much effort. But 6 minutes less is a one percent gain, and over time will make a drastic difference to total time sitting.

So before you surrender to the myriad of daily habits that defined 2019 for you, I’d like to encourage you to choose a couple of habits to change or create, and to make your first step towards doing so, to be a tiny, little, insignificant 1% improvement.

You can most definitely do this.



Get new posts directly to your email -

It’s the end of Week 1 (possibly Week 1.5 if you were very keen). You’re still running nicely on the energy built up over the holidays. Waitangi Day helped too. There are a zillion things on the go already at school but you’re handling them. Your team has launched with the nervous energy teachers always bring to the start of a new year. There’s excitement for the new and optimism to spare. It’s all systems go.

Now cast your mind back to Week 9, Term 4 last year.

What was your energy like then?

.        .        .

Some variation of “different” is a likely reply.

And that’s why I want to lay down a challenge.

I challenge you to change the way you roll in 2020

– to identify the things that make you an energised leader, and to do more of them.

– to identify the things that make you a less energised leader, and to do less of them.

The real trick of course is to act on these good intentions and that is where the critical word “habit” comes in.

Habit“a thing that you do often and almost without thinking, especially something that is hard to stop doing”

Last year I had two words on my office wall – “Be Intentional”. This year I am adding two more below – “Change Habits”.  And that’s it so far in my 2020 master plan. I want to intentionally change some habits.

Every day for each of us, is based largely on habits. From what you do when you wake up until you finally go to sleep that day (and even that sleep time will be shaped by the habits of the day).

The power of a habit is that it runs on autopilot. You just do it, and the evidence around long-term gains in personal wellness and professional effectiveness point to developing positive habits as being key. It’s just too hard to keep adding more deliberate actions – we need a lot (most?) of our days to run sub-consciously.

Those of you who have been following the Forty Hour conversation, may remember a post from last year about resisting the status quo. What we’re saying here is similar but with a crucial difference.

The status quo of what you do is all about what is expected by others. For example your team may think, “a good leader is always on site, fully available”, or, “it is wrong to show emotion when challenged”.

Whereas a habit is entirely personal. For example, you regularly skip lunch and then eat 3 Moro bars mid-afternoon because you’re starving (not pointing any fingers here!).

You can modify negative habits and introduce better ones. You have the power – BUT – the reason they are habits is also the reason they are hard to either change or introduce, there is a barrier to change; the way human brains are wired.

One well-known writer on this subject is James Clear. If you want to get deeper into the topic, his book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones is a great place to start.

He discusses how habits are just ingrained behaviour based on a cycle which he labels –

CUE            –       CRAVING        –          RESPONSE       –          REWARD

Because a habit relies on each stage being present, we can change old habits (or create new ones) by messing with any one of the stages.

An example James uses is around waking up in the morning.

Cue:                     You wake up

Craving:              You want to feel alert

Response:          You drink a coffee

Reward:              You satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up. Having a coffee in the morning becomes a habit.

In this example you can’t change the cue (waking up) but you can do something about the other stages. You could substitute the coffee for going for a quick 10 minute walk instead. The reward will be the same (feeling alert) but the habit different.


Which brings me back to where I started this post. I challenge you to find a habit to create or identify one to change.

My motivation to do this is I want as many good/productive/healthy behaviours as possible to be automatic – that is, I want to make them habits because I don’t have to think about habits, they just happen.

More coming on this topic!


Get new posts directly to your email -