“If you agree that some of your important leadership workis done outside of 9:00AM to 3:00PM, Monday to Friday, why can’t some of your important non-work activities happen inside of those times?”
That’s what I added to the bottom of a post a few weeks ago – it caused some comment.
. . .
As school leaders, common sense suggests a lot of our work time will occur when the students are on site. I agree.
But a lot of it also occurs when they are not, so how then do you make the distinction?
In a salaried job without fixed hours, how do you decide when it is “work time” and when it is “your time”?
I would like to suggest that you shouldn’t have to.
. . .
Given that we all have a set 24 hours in a day, and given that we all have a mixture of both work and personal needs to meet in that time, why would we decide to compartmentalise chunks of the day arbitrarily to one or the other? I’ll give an example to illustrate what I mean:
I was talking with a colleague recently and they commented how great it had been to be able to run each day during lockdown, how when they felt their focus slipping or needed to think clearly, they pulled on their shoes and went for a run, returning refreshed and ready to work again. They sighed and said, “I miss this.”
I sympathised but added, “why does this have to stop? Why don’t you go for a short run at lunchtime at least a couple of times each week?”
There was a long silence, but eventually they said, “perhaps I will.”
Now, I don’t know whether they have made that choice, but the interesting thing for me was that their first reaction was almost … shock – I was clearly suggesting they used “work” time for a “personal” time activity!
My point is that every day/week/Term is all just time. By arbitrarily assigning set blocks to one or the other, we remove choice, flexibility, and possibility.
How about a little reorganisation?
Rather than going to the gym or forcing yourself out for a walk at 5:30 AM on a bitter winter morning, you could still get up early (in your warm home), and complete an important work task before 7:00 AM, then head to school as usual. Later, at around 10:00AM when your energy levels need a boost, you could go to the gym or head out for a walk.
“You don’t need more time … you just need to decide.”
Postscript – if you make a change to the status quo, you are going to upset a few people. Don’t be scared of this, if nobody cared, you probably haven’t changed much!
A colleague shared a recent experience which illustrates this nicely –
“We were locked down in Level 3 (in NZ) and I was obviously working from home. Around 10am on this particular day I headed out for a run. It was good … until I got a message from my Board Chairperson saying he thought it would be a good look if I was seen at school! I’d been working on school stuff since 7am … was a bit fried, and so went for a run. Turned out his wife saw me.”
Clearly, neither the Board Chair nor his wife understood what they were seeing. They had a picture of what they thought a school leader should be doing. They were wrong.
This principal was making a smart, rational – professional– choice. I really hope they keep doing this – their school needs them to be effective and sustainable. They need to be well.
In the end, whether you personally will make a change like this probably comes down to a mixture of courage and trust, but that’s a topic for another post.
“I hadn’t been at my school for very long. It was a country school with a straight road of about 6 km separating it from the edge of town. Perfect running distance to unwind after a hectic day of principalship. I left my car in the carpark and took off down the road. The run went so well that I did it again the next day, and the next, leaving school each day about 4pm. Each evening I’d get a lift out to school to pick up my car. The pick-up times would vary from 5:30pm through until after 9:00pm.
Overtime, I began to get compliments about how hard I was working from the community. “Wow, you’re putting in some long hours at school at the moment” and, “awesome work, you’ve been busy”. I didn’t read too much into it. It was true I had put some hours in, but I began to wonder how members of the community who had nothing to do with the school, knew so much about how busy I was and the amount of time I was spending working.
The compliments kept coming, and so did my running home habit.
My fitness improved and at the same time so did my standing in the community.
One day it dawned on me why my community seemed to know so much about the hours that I worked. When they drove home in the afternoon, they always saw my car parked in the carpark. They had no reason to believe that I wasn’t at school, especially when the lights were always on in the school at the same time (thanks cleaners!).
I hadn’t done this to be deceitful, or to skive off early each day, but it did underlie to me some suspicions that I had about how people see the role of a principal, and what we see the characteristics of a great principal as being.”
. . .
Many people put value in the hours you work, especially if they don’t know exactly what you are doing. And let’s face it, as a principal, there are often things that we do in our role that go unseen. This perceptionof the “hours you work” reflecting your value, is often worth more than the actual work you do. Perception is king.
If you are working long hours, then by association, you must be working hard and achieving a lot! I’ve never heard someone say, “wow you’ve only worked 6 hours today, you must have been super-efficient and on the ball!”. I wonder why this is? Sooner or later you’ve got to consider; is it our role to be the busiest person at school, or is it actually to make the most impact?
This begs the question, what would our roles look like if we were forty hour principals? I asked several of my colleagues, all who work a variety of hours, (but always well over forty in any given week – sometimes double that), “imagine if you could work a forty hour week, I wonder what that would look like?”
They all said it couldn’t be done. They implied that a forty hour a week principal simply wouldn’t being doing their job, and (just gently) that maybe I was out of mind suggesting such a thing.
The maths didn’t quite stack up either. If you start at 7:30am in the morning then you’d have to be walking out the gate by 3:30pm, five days a week. Even if you began at 8:00am, you’d be in your car by 4:00pm. None of this accounted for Board meetings, staff meetings, PD sessions, evening PTA meetings, or school community events which were important that you attended.
However, I think most of these principals missed the point.
Forty is just a number. A number that we all grew up with, that we were promised – the mythical forty hour work week. I could have suggested thirty-five or fifty for the same reason. Here we are in a principal world where many of us are overworked, stressed to the max, and struggling to create a work/life balance that has some semblance of joy. We clock up some insanely big work hours. The New Zealand Primary School Leaders’ Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey (2018) indicates anywhere between 55 and 80 hours a week.
The most important number of course, is not the number of hours that you spend chained to your desk. No, the most important numbers are found on the flipside. How many hours do you spend with your loved ones? How many quality sleeping hours do you get each night? How many hours do you spend exercising? How do your blood pressure numbers look? How many hours of stress do you pass on to those around you; to your colleagues and to your loved ones? These numbers add up to your wellness and hence effectiveness both as a person and a principal.
The “Forty Hour Principal” is therefore aspirational. There are countless things that you as a principal might have to do, and let’s face it the day will only ever be 24 hours long. However, there are some things that we do each day that can happen tomorrow or at another time. The things that you do that make an impact, or a difference, are the only things that really have to happen today.
The “Forty Hour Principal” isn’t about adding work onto those around you either. You are responsible for a lot in your schools and that is never going to change. This is about you being directly accountable to your own well-being.
So, what steps can you take?
Throughout this book we make several suggestions, but a good place to start is to take a look at your current hours per week. You’ll notice that they fluctuate a lot week to week, depending on what’s happening in the school. Try to timetable in at least two forty hour principal weeks during those potentially quieter times per term. Remember, forty is just a number. It’s aspirational. The aim here is to dramatically decrease your hours when the rhythm of the term makes this possible.
During these weeks, don’t feel guilty when you walk out at 4:00pm. Some of the biggest thinkers in the world routinely take time to do exactly – nothing. Bill Gates, Tim Ferriss, Mark Zuckerberg to name a few, have taken on the habit of regularly stepping away from their usual routines. This isn’t a vacation, it’s a “nothing time” where they spend periods reflecting, reading, thinking and living outside the all-encapsulating world that is running a business. They do this without being contactable or connected to their businesses. And they do it because it works – it makes them healthier and more effective.
Look at the 4pm walk to your car as the beginning of your nothingness time. Nothingness brings to it the flexibility of doing whatever you want as long as it is not more work.
On those days, switch off your email notifications from the moment you leave school. (You should try this every day, not just during your Forty Hour Principal weeks!) Switch them on again when you come to school the next day. You’ll be amazed at how many hours you can save per week just by limiting when you can be contacted. Consider not checking emails during the weekends either. If you are going to check them, then make sure you do it on your own terms, when you are ready to engage. Surprises can wait. They will be equally surprising when you read them tomorrow or on Monday.
By taking on the aspiration of being a Forty Hour Principal, you actively and positively show that being busy isn’t what you value in your school. Impact is the goal, not the number of hours you log up. We’re not talking about Facebook likes here after all!
By looking after yourself you can do your job more effectively. Don’t give in to the perceptions of others who may see this in a negative light. Instead you’re showing some powerful traits; flexibility, a non-judgemental mindset, positive coping strategies, appreciation of self, and the ability to look after yourself and your school.
Throughout the Forty Hour Principal book and in our weekly blog posts, we look at other provocations that will get you thinking about your role. As a whole, they signpost ways that you can use to make being a principal or school leader more manageable, more sustainable, and more fun.
A couple of weeks ago I suggested that unless something was on your calendar it wasn’t very important, and crucially, probably wouldn’t happen.
So . . . what is on your calendar? I know you have your next Board meeting, the Monday catch-up with your office team, staff meetings, assemblies, teaching commitments . . . is there anything else?
I will start by confessing that mine used to be all work (with maybe the occasional birthday reminder tagged on). When I needed to check, to see whether I was available, I was essentially checking whether the new thing clashed with work already scheduled.
A gap was an opportunity to say “yes” and add more work. The problem was that way of thinking left days, weeks, terms, full of . . . work.
Yet work is only one part of life. Sure, it is important. Work provides income, contributes to the lives of others and gives purpose. It is super important. But there’s a lot more to being human than that. There’s family, health, hobbies, pets, homes, friends . . . a whole plethora of stuff that matters at least as much as work.
So what to do?
I suggest you can start by having another look at your calendar (or diary).
Just for a moment, let’s pretend it’s completely blank. No meetings, appointments, webinars, class visits – just blank. It’s pretty obvious looking at that blankness that you can fill it up, what might not be so obvious is that you can choose with what.
This is where many of us stumble. We arbitrarily pick a “start” time each day then fill the space from that point forward with work. Periodically, someone else suggests another meeting or appointment and we juggle things around to fit it in. Most school leaders are good at this – we prioritise pieces of our work and fit the slightly less important work streams around them. The problem is, that very quickly, all the time is used up.
I believe there is an alternative.
. . .
There’s a well know analogy involving a bucket, some rocks, some smaller stones and some sand. The rocks represent important things, the smaller stones less important stuff, and the grains of sand a huge number of not very important things. The bucket represents your life.
If you fill the bucket with sand, none of the stones or rocks will fit. You’ve used up your finite time with a whole heap of not very important things.
But what say you reversed the order and put the rocks in first? This ensures the most important things are fitted in. Only after they are in do you add the smaller, less important stuff, and finally, you can fill up the remaining gaps with the smallest things because they can filter into little spaces and if they don’t fit, who cares.
Now lets apply this analogy to your calendar – it’s time to make choices.
Because you are a person first and a school leader second, some of the big rocks will have nothing to do with school.
I’m neither a doctor nor a psychologist but I’m pretty sure we should all have “rocks” for exercise, family, friends, passion hobbies, etc. These are at least as important as team meetings, teaching, strategic plans and review team visits! If they’re not on your calendar, why not?
. . .
Let’s go back to your newly blank calendar and place your personal rocks on it (this includes both work and non-work things). Because they go on first, they will all fit. (Read the postscript below for a suggestion how.) Once they are placed, and only then, you can put in the second tier stuff. Most of that will fit too. Finally, you could trickle a few of the small “sand” things in, but I’m guessing you won’t bother because they are often not even important enough to warrant a mark on your calendar. If you forget them, it doesn’t matter.
But here is the tough reality – most of us are used to ignoring some (many?) of the big, non-work rocks. Sadly, it often takes a crisis for people to realise this.
I’ll end this post with a thought that I’ve used before – if you are capable of organising scheduled meetings that are not interrupted by other people or competing work, you already have the skills needed to fit in your important “rocks”.
So get them on your calendar, because then they’re real and are going to happen.
And as a postscript in the spirit of new thinking; if you agree that some of your important leadership workis done outside of 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, why can’t some of your important non-work activities happen inside of those times?
Hands up if the run into Level 3 left you feeling like you’d accidentally spent 3 rounds in the octagon with Israel Adesanya.
The general consensus is that it was exhausting!
The world wants things to go back to how they used to be, and predictably, our education system is doing its part by trying to control everything – no surprises then that there’s huge pressure on school leaders.
Let’s pause and consider what has just happened.
Schools are re-opening so that parents can go back to work. That’s the bottom line and certainly not worth getting upset about. It’s our turn to step up and pretty much everyone agrees that we need to. However, this need comes with the awkward little problem that someone might get sick. No one wants that on their hands.
So the Ministry of Education kicks into gear and starts writing guidelines. They need to share responsibility so they consult with the Ministry of Health. We now have two agencies involving dozens of people working on creating rules – “guidelines” – to cover every conceivable risk.
These ‘work streams’ need to be checked and validated by experts and then, eventually, they are passed on to the people on the front line (that’s you!) to action.
And here lies the reasons you’ve possibly felt like a train wreck:
The buck now stops with you – you have magically become accountable for following each new rule.
The rules are made to cover every possible scenario so are blunt instruments that do not easily allow for local needs.
These instructions drop into your pile of responsibility when the system is ready – not when you need them.
. . .
I’ll give you an example – the Ministry of Education is told that schools need to reopen. Someone in a “planning team” suggests that small groups of kids, operating separately, might be the way to go (the birth of a bubble). This idea now has to be run by the Ministry of Health as a concept. Then a group is tasked with formulating some rules which obviously need to be debated and checked for problems. Eventually a draft instruction to schools is prepared which has to be very carefully worded and requires multiple levels of checking. At some point is rises to the Secretary of Education’s office and gets approval to launch – at 8:00pm that night!
The next day, some questions arise about the previous day’s information. This has to go back into the system to be considered, checked, and eventually a new “guideline” emerges – and on goes the cycle.
Meanwhile, a little closer to the actual reality, you’re operating at a different level – a human level.
You have multiple groups in your community who want to know what is happening, and crucially for each individual, they want to know ,“what does it mean for me”? Support staff, teachers, Board of Trustees, all want clear factual information – now!
So you start creating plans and emails and lists of people to ring, but, your hands are tied until the nightly missive from the MOE hits your inbox.
There’s a massive tension between the need to act quickly and your ability to take that action. It feels like the gap between rocks and hard places.
(As an aside – with critical information being sent daily, in the evening, the “system” has guaranteed that it’s front line leaders are working under pressure for long hours every day. This is not smart.)
. . .
In an ideal world, a world where trust and commonsense are the default expectations, you would not have experienced this maelstrom of activity.
The skilled team player absolutely needs to know the direction of travel – what the goals are, but then they get to work and design a response that makes sense in their context.
I’ve watched skilled, sensible school leaders, doing exactly that, but having to double guess and retract plans when a general “rule” is magically dropped into the mix.
Using an example that is very familiar to all of us; people have had to waste time, conversation, and thinking energy on how they organise staff for “bubbles” of 10 students.
Rationally, 10 is just a number that is not too large, with no more or less science behind it than say 9 or 11 – but by making it a “rule”, suddenly your ability to make a sensible, local decision is squashed.
Likewise, we have waited with bated breath to hear whether two staff members can be assigned to each group. Wait, what?! We needed permission? That’s a low trust scenario right there and again negates a timely, local response.
Now the rebels among us will be very tempted just to do what is sensible and practical knowing what the goal is. They will look at that next email sitting there in their inbox at 7:59pm and their finger will hover, poised over the delete key.
But they’ll hesitate, because many of the rules in our current scenario are about shifting responsibility. If the worst happens and a fragment of that sneaky wee virus crosses your gate, the inquisition that follows will start from the question – “did the school follow the guidelines?” And by “school”, they mean you.
We are accountable.
. . .
With the move to Level 2 about to peek over the horizon, we can learn from the previous couple of weeks.
– Are we going to get “guidance” from our system? Yes.
– Is it at times going to be frustratingly late or unclear? Probably.
– Will it take away some of your ability to make smart, local decisions? Yes.
However, forewarned is forearmed, so I suggest you look to what gave you some balance back at the end of the Level 3 rush.
A couple of themes that have come through strongly:
Deliberately switch off at a point each day – stop thinking, stop working. The bane of principals everywhere is the “monkey mind” bouncing us from one thought to another. Pick an end time for your working day and stick to it. Absolutely stop waiting for the next email from Iona, as many have said, it will be there in the morning.
And secondly, to make the first tactic work, get away from your computer/phone for an extended period regularly. There’s research that shows that people who take regular, extended breaks from screens, have better mental health. I bet you can fill those hours in very productively and creatively!
Level 2, bring it on!
(And just a wee stab at fairness in a time that is difficult for us all – I know the MOE has been tasked with a huge, unprecedented job and they have absolutely stepped up and done their very best at both a system and individual level. Thankyou.)
There’s something about being in lockdown that has resonated very positively with me. The other day I found myself walking through my neighbourhood during a very pleasant autumnal like, but sunny day. There were people everywhere, walking about, smiling, waving, being genuinely cheerful. All adhering strictly to the 2 metre social distancing requirements, but also obviously enjoying the moment. There was an uncanny sense of optimism in the air.
No one was moving anywhere fast. The speed of life was just a click above sedate. It was bliss.
It occurred to me that during lockdown we’ve all experienced a sense of what life used to be like. A time when there was time and people took time and gave their time. People seemed very happy, and hence the optimism hung thick in the air.
It reminded me of why sports shows use slow motion to such great effect. It gives people time to look at someone else do something amazing (or stupid) at a speed that captures the shear magic of what is going on.
It’s also why athletes talk about being in the moment and literally slowing down time in their minds during their events. They are focused on one thing, and one thing only. The rest of the world slows almost to a stop, so that they can concentrate on just that one movement that will beat their opponent.
Musicians do a similar thing when they’re learning new pieces. If they’re struggling with a riff of notes they’ll slow down the action and speed of playing, only speeding up when they’ve got it under control.
There is something to be learnt here.
In contrast, I found myself at school the other day packing up IT devices to send home to families. Computer cables, ipads, packaging and cellotape strewn everywhere. I’d told the Ministry of Ed that I’d be in and out of my school in one and half hours. Time was of the essence! Speed was king.
For the first hour and fifteen minutes I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of, well, rushing. I hadn’t felt like this in a couple of weeks and I got a kick out of it. When I knew that there was no way I was going to finish in time and that I had to press on regardless, the adrenaline turned to stress and the enjoyment flowed away. It was replaced with angst, agitation, frustration and annoyance. I felt like a washing machine that couldn’t finish it’s last cycle!
I feel the same now as I type this piece. I’ve spent all day planning for Level 3, organising Bubbles, dealing with personnel issues and losing a couple of hours of work due to an IT issue. The washing machine cycle is back! I realised that my usual way of working was often at this speed and intensity. No wonder I am often shattered!
And it made me think. Yes there are times when speed is crucial, but that doesn’t need to be the norm or my usual modus operandi. What if I was to look at the way I work, like that autumnal afternoon in the sun, where I can take my time, enjoy my time, give my time and appreciate the time that I have with others.
We all need to look at what the lockdown has given us – time. We need to understand that constant speed is going to mean constant tiredness, and that the best thing we can learn to do is not speed everything up, but to slow everything down.
I’m keen to hear how you plan to do this when you get back to work? How do you think you could change the culture of your school to embrace “having time to take your time?”