Part one of this blog discussed various issues about To-Do lists and the way we manage our own time. This one deals with the main issues middle leaders face: Line management and prioritising.
What about when others give you jobs?
This is the real crux of the issue. The fact is you are in a hierarchy and jobs get delegated down to you. This can create a bottleneck in even the most perfect productivity system. So how best to control the flow of jobs and manage the workflow. Enter Chris Voss, hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference. This is a great book and a fun read, full of anecdotes of his time in the FBI. While many things are valuable in the book the one tactic I want to share is calibrated questions, specifically How questions. Using ‘how’ questions after a request is a polite way of pushing back without saying no outright. It’s also a way of keeping the person making the request partly responsible for finding a solution. They can’t just drop it on you and run, ticking off their own to-do list as they go.
So when your line manager comes to you with a task, say building a new after school intervention programme, you can ask “How important is this compared to my current priorities of X + Y?” or “How can I make this deadline and also complete Z on time for you?” Tone is everything in these conversations. Voss calls it his ‘late night radio DJ voice’; calm, smooth and steady. It avoids the question becoming an accusation.
I really like the idea that any time someone with seniority gives you a job you also try to make them part of the logistics of getting that job done. To be fair to a lot of the best managers I’ve worked for, they often consider this in advance and come to you with a prepared solution to create the time needed or move other tasks away from you.
The elephant in the room: Do you know what is important?
Writing this blog has made me realise there is a big part of time management that never gets talked about. The idea that there is an objective agreement on what is the most important thing to do in a given moment. Education being a values-driven exercise means it is prone to a lot of disagreement in the best way for things to be achieved. Educators and bloggers can readily disagree and have strong opinions about all different aspects of teaching practice and educational policy. I’ve heard this also happens on twitter sometimes ;). This can make deciding the best course of action to be difficult. On top of this we have our own cognitive biases which make discerning the truth that much harder. Confirmation bias blinds us all to an extent.
The best lens I have found for trying to decide if something is important or not is to regularly ask myself the question “If I do this what does it change for my teachers or students?” If you can instantly identify that this will make a significant difference then it’s probably worth the effort. A lot of things we think are important are essentially proxies for a teacher or student performance. We see a great teacher do them and assume all great teachers need to do this. Try to avoid this trap and recognise that learning is relatively invisible. Focus on what the students will have to do or think about and if it makes them think harder or longer about your subject then its probably going to have a positive impact on learning. When leaders make decisions we need to be conscious of the opportunity cost and critical of its tangible benefit to the team. We need to avoid our teachers spending time on fulfilling proxies and focus them on the things we know actually make a huge difference in the classroom. This is why it is best to double down on CPD, co-planning, coaching and high quality resources. I have gone into more detail on this issue previously here.
Middle leaders can’t easily control what tasks they get assigned. However, with a bit of skill, courage and confidence, they can find themselves able to manage their time so that they can focus on the most important things. Making a difference to the students is always time well spent.