This article was retrieved from the online version of the ASCD Educational Leadership June 2020 issue. This article, along with all other articles in this special month's free issue, can be accessed at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/jun20/vol77/num09/Think_Self-Management,_Not_Time_Management.aspx
Think Self-Management, Not Time Management
By changing your behavior and reframing your tasks, you can find time to do the important work you love.
There is no shortage of tips, tricks, techniques, and hacks to help people from all walks of life, including educators, manage their time. However, the massive amount of information on the topic seems to have little impact, as our lives continue to get busier and more connected. Moreover, the very tools (email, phones, etc.) that we once thought would help us become more efficient and manage our time are now part of the problem. What educator is not continually bombarded by emails and texts at all hours of the day and night?
But there is a path forward—if you're willing to be uncomfortable.
First, you have to embrace the fact that there is no such thing as time management. We all have the same 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 52 weeks in a year to get things done. Time is fixed. Time is not malleable. Time is not manageable.
But you are. So, you have to think of it not as time management, but as self-management. As humans, we control our behavior and choices when it comes to work completion, prioritization, and efficiency. This has nothing to do with attempting to control the uncontrollable construct that is time.
Shift Your Mindset
Time-management tips and techniques tend to treat the symptom and not the disease. They are essentially like "diets"—if you use them, they work, but they are often just temporary solutions to deeper problems.
Instead, you must fight a few mindset battles to increase your personal efficiency.
Your first mindset shift is to be honest with yourself. Are you working toward the life you imagined? If you are in a state of perpetual dread and not getting done the requisite work to be successful both in your classroom and at home, I encourage you to ask yourself if you are doing the work you really want to be doing. Is being a teacher, counselor, or principal your calling? I know this is a big question. But if you don't answer this question honestly, you might get stuck in a perpetual cycle of feeling overwhelmed and not being able to find enough time in the day.
When I am working as hard as I can at what I am most passionate about, it seems that everything that needs to get done finds its way to completion. This is not true for just me. Work of passion and purpose ignites us, and we seldom struggle completing this work. Passion and purpose allow self-management to occur naturally without the need of outside tips, tricks, and techniques.
Teaching is hard work. Being an educational leader is also extremely hard work. On top of that, the compensation associated with the job will almost never match the true value you bring. So, if you are committed to this job, there must be a deep, internal realization that this is a profession chosen out of passion and purpose. Anything less than that, and you will never find yourself maximizing your use of time.
Your next mindset shift is to be deeply honest with the ones you love, and expect honesty in return. Are you burdened by enormous and unnecessary guilt? Through radical candor, you can move forward and eliminate the monkey on your back. When my oldest boys were 10- and 11-years old, I asked them what it would take for me to be a good dad. I was shrouded in guilt over traveling the country to speak, consult, and follow my professional dreams, and I worried about what they might say.
They thought about it, and a few weeks later they came back to me with their wish list. They wanted me to coach their sports when possible, take them to breakfast once a week, and play more video games with them. I double checked. I asked about the times I was gone for multiple nights in a row. They indicated they were so busy and so loved by the other adults in their lives that it had no impact on their happiness or their thoughts on my parenting. This lifted a 1,000-pound weight from my shoulders. It was exponentially simpler than I was making it.
I then had a similar, but different, talk with my wife, articulating what it was that I cared about as her partner. To her surprise, what I wanted from her was considerably less than what she had assigned herself. The same unassigned guilt I had been burdened with was weighing down my wife. It was not until I had the mindset shift to embrace radical honesty that we were able to identify and address these issues.
I share these two personal stories to articulate the point that most likely you have assigned yourself tasks, responsibilities, and, most important, guilt in areas that nobody else has. This guilt pulls in multiple directions, kills our joy, and creates a logjam of priorities that need not exist.
When I was a principal, I assigned myself some of that unnecessary guilt. I did a lot of things that did not bring me joy or increase my effectiveness and robbed others of the opportunity to grow. I spent countless hours creating agendas, leading every meeting, and doing all of the following up. Did stuff get done? Yes. Did I feel like I was making a difference? I did. But this was shortsighted.
Two things ultimately became very clear to me over time. I was running myself into the ground with 70-hour work weeks, and I was not intentionally growing other leaders in my stead. When I took every possible leadership role, how could I expect others to flourish and grow? I thought I was doing them a favor by being a "work horse," but what I was doing was stealing their opportunities for growth.
The third mind shift I'd encourage you to try is to remember that everything is a choice. When I coach people, I fight vehemently to remove "I have to" from their vernacular and change it to "I get to." It makes an immediate difference.
You do not have to do those lesson plans. You get to.
You do not have to provide feedback on all 130 essays. You get to.
You do not have to complete one more observation. You get to.
When you begin to think of everything as a choice, you start to realize that the goals you aren't meeting, or the priorities you set that don't get completed, are not always getting sidetracked because of lack of time. They are often placed on the back burner because of choice.
Let me give you an example. I was working with someone who was on a fitness kick but swore one week that she did not have time to work out. I knew exercise was important to her, so I coached and prodded her to find time, but eventually let it be. That same week her dishwasher broke, causing a mess in her house and forcing her to spend time shopping for a dishwasher and taking a half-day off work to have the new one installed. At our coaching meeting the next week she told me the story. I replied by asking how many things on her to-do list did not get done because of this crisis. She admitted that they all got done. When I asked her how long the whole dishwasher catastrophe took for her to rectify, she estimated eight hours.
Isn't it amazing how when something unexpected happens, like a dishwasher breaking, we can find eight hours to address the situation, but we feel like we cannot find 20 minutes to do what we believe is most important to us, such as working out? To me, this clearly articulates that we too often let the day do us instead of us attacking the day. We let the tyranny of the urgent direct our schedule, instead of the meaningful goals we set.
While I believe the path forward to more efficient and effective use of your time happens mainly at the cognitive level, there is also something to be said for tips and techniques that can help. That said, simply adopting these tips without deep mental strategy and work is the same as adopting a fad diet without any other changes. The diet may work in the short term (same as the tip or technique), but long-term mental work is necessary to enjoy lasting success.
Eat the big frog first. The concept is simple. If you are forced to eat two frogs, a huge frog and a tiny frog, always eat the big frog first. If you eat the big frog, and it is the worst experience of your life, you can power through the little frog. If you eat the little frog and it is horrific, there is no way you can get through the big frog.
Attack life by eating the big frog first. That is, tackle the most difficult, stressful, mentally demanding task at the start of your day. You will be more productive and efficient the rest of the day. Each morning, I check our district's complaint-management platform and address any new issues that have arisen. That is my big frog. On Fridays, I have my weekly report due to the board of education. I take care of that as soon as I walk into my office every Friday.
As educators, you have limited discretionary time. So, when that one email or one phone call is looming out there—face it head on. Learn to love eating those big frogs.
Find time for work of significance. Almost everything we do at work can fall into one of these three categories: responsive work, productive work, or real work of significance. Unfortunately, most educators spend their time being responsive to other people's needs instead of getting their work done. Their work takes a backseat until it eats into their personal time, and that is when they are productive. This leaves little time for true work of significance.
For teachers, this often looks like responding to emails at the end of the day (responsiveness), followed by grading papers (productivity), and then never getting to long-term planning or alignment of curriculum to more rigorous standards (work of significance). Principals often spend all day solving other people's problems and work on their tasks from 4 to 6 p.m. They go home exhausted and without the opportunity to think, create, and lead (work of significance) because they have been in the cycle of responsiveness and productivity all day.
There are two core issues here. Without doing work of significance, it is hard to grow as a professional and it's difficult to further the work of our schools. Second, when we deprive ourselves of doing real work of significance, we find ourselves stressed and without reward. Work of significance is usually difficult, mentally complex work. However, this is not the work that creates stress and burnout for educators. Stress and burnout tend to arise when we are stuck responding to the needs and demands of others.
We must give ourselves permission to do work of significance. We must give ourselves space and autonomy to prioritize our lives and work toward our true goals. We must give ourselves permission to not be all things to all people and, as author and speaker Greg McKeown says, to "do less, better."
Toss it, tell it, teach it, today or tomorrow. I have saved the most important technique for last. This is a process that you can invoke for everything that comes across your desk, arrives through your email, or is added to your to-do list.
The first thing you should ask yourself is: Do I absolutely have to do this? Is it possible to do less, better? For instance, is it necessary to read the 13th listserv email of the day discussing differentiation?
If you don't toss it away (and most people starting out with this process do not throw many things away—old habits are hard to break), ask yourself if you can tell somebody else or something else to do it for you without additional guidance. This isn't delegation, it is efficiency. An example of this would be asking your office assistant to scan something and send it to whomever requested it or having a parent make copies or organize supplies for you.
If you cannot toss it or tell it, then figure out if you can teach it. I like to use the term teach instead of delegate because it reminds us that delegation, at first, may well take more time than just doing it ourselves. Part of being an efficient and effective person is figuring out what we can spend time on today so we will not have to spend time tomorrow.
Now, before you start with the excuses on why you can't delegate (I know how you think), let me counter the two arguments people most commonly give.
1. I was delegated to my entire career, and I am not going to do that to other people.
Stop thinking of delegation as giving work away and start thinking of it as capacity building. I encourage you to look at each item you are thinking about in the "teach it" phase with a very particular lens. I think about who in my organization could most grow from this opportunity, and that is how I choose who to delegate to and when. In our organization, for example, grant applications used to be something only completed at the district office level, but we have now found ways to both build the capacity of teachers who complete them and also supplement their income.
2. I do not delegate because it will turn out worse than if I just did it myself.
Fair. You are amazing. But if you are looking for strategies to better utilize your time and prioritize your work, then something has to give. If you can help someone else grow while simultaneously increasing the amount of time you are able to spend on work of significance, then what is usually a temporary decrease in performance is well worth it.
If you cannot toss it, tell it, or teach it, you must decide if you need to do it today or tomorrow. If you need to do the work today, get after it. If it can wait until tomorrow, the cycle must start over again with you asking yourself if you can toss it, tell it, or teach it. What happens is that many of the things we keep putting in the tomorrow pile eventually get tossed, as the person employing this framework realizes they were planning to complete unnecessary work.
Take Back Control
As you can see, time management is not about managing time. It is just a matter of us managing ourselves. We must come to the realization that if we want to become the best version of ourselves and be more efficient and effective, we need to change both the way we think and the way we behave. We have choice in all we do, and we control our own lives. If we want better self-management, we must lean into this. If we do, we have a tremendous opportunity to learn, grow, and become the best possible version of ourselves.