Time management, productivity and wellbeing part 1: To-Do lists

The work of a teacher can sometimes feel like an endless cycle of writing To-Do lists and trying your best to get as much done before you give in to the need for sleep/wine. It’s easy to see why time management and productivity are key concerns when it comes to wellbeing in education. Lots of training and advice is given on how to be more productive and how to ensure a satisfactory work/life balance. People buy special planners or use apps to keep on top of their tasks, they schedule their time into 25 min sections with 5 min breaks in the hope that they can one day achieve the impossible and complete their work. They have inbox filters which put all the emails into pre-organised subfolders to give an appearance of an empty inbox.

This blog is not about that. Well I suppose it will have a few tips, but I’d like to think its main message is about how you look at your role and the tasks that you are asked to do and those you choose to give yourself.

The inconvenient truth about teaching is that you will never complete it. Education is an infinite process that will constantly provide you with more to do. You can always do more for your students, be better planned, make contact with home more frequently or tweak more resources. As all teachers and tasks can be improved there is always work to be done. Like a gas, the work will expand to fill the container you give it. This can be very challenging for productivity nerds and perfectionists who get a thrill out of completing tasks in a timely manner. If you let it, working in education will consume your entire life. How do we stop that from happening?

You don’t have a To-Do list.

A To-Do list is by definition a list of things to be completed. There is an implication that eventually all tasks will be achieved. It is simply a technique that prevents you from forgetting to complete a task. As the list of tasks in education is infinite, think of your to-do list as a list of priorities. When something needs to get added you need to decide where it sits on the perpetual continuum of ‘must do today’ to ‘probably will never get done unless it’s a snow day’. Placing the new task in the right place is crucial, so how best to decide? I have a couple of suggestions:

  1. Prioritising via your priorities. When given a new task, reflect on your current aims and objectives for your teaching or leadership. How does this task help you achieve those aims? Some things will obviously be linked to your aim to support the students, these are the things that go on top of your list. They can be operational (like report writing) or more strategic (like designing lesson resources or improving an aspect of you own teaching). If it is not apparent to you then you might need to clarify why it needs to be done. Just try to be polite. 
  1. Eisenhower boxes. These are those grids you see on management training courses which prompt you into categorising tasks on an importance Vs urgency axis. James Clear of atomic habits fame talks about them here.  The one benefit of this is it allows to try to separate urgent from important. Some of the most important things you have to do are not urgent. A good example is CPD. Professional reading and internalising new ideas is vital to grow as a reflective practitioner. However it is never urgent, unlike replying to an email with one of those little red exclamation marks, which can often feel urgent.
  1. Categorising according to mood. Not sure if there is a proper name for this but one of the things I like to do is have a list of ‘braindead jobs’. These are things that I can do at the end of a long day or week, preferably whilst listening to music or watching Netflix. They require less brainpower, but are often large. For example, re-organising my department shared drive so students can access revision resources easily, bulk setting homework, or marking tests. This way I chip away at them over time and make progress by using time I would normally be procrastinating in. 
  2. Attaching emotions to tasks. The idea is that you identify how completing the task will make you feel. Not a favourite of mine but might help you. Read more herehttps://www.themuse.com/advice/a-mindblowing-new-way-to-think-about-your-todo-list

One of the most important things a teacher needs to learn is the ability to handle the range of tasks that come their way. Without an effective tool to ensure nothing is forgotten they can easily feel swamped and drop the ball on things. So organisation is important. This organisation can itself add stress so it is important they get comfortable with that feeling that the work is never over, learn to make the right decisions and accept the fact the sometimes won’t achieve everything they want to in 24hours. This is one of the reasons I think certain stoic beliefs can help teachers manage these feelings. Some of us are relatively comfortable at living in a little chaos, but others need to learn the skill to let go and focus on the things they can control. What are your tips?

The next blog in this series is on how best to handle the tasks that are delegated to you that you have little control of.

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