Updated: Aug 25
Spinning plates, firefighting, being snowed under, drowning in paperwork, headless chickens . . .
These are some of the metaphors I commonly hear leaders using about their workload. I’ve used them myself. I remember clearly times when I felt completely overwhelmed by my workload as a headteacher in a challenging school where I needed to drive quick improvements. People would ask me if I was enjoying my job, and I wouldn’t know what to say. I did enjoy it in some ways, but in others, I absolutely hated it. I hated the sense that I never completed anything to the level I wanted to, as there was just too much to do. I got so used to multi-tasking, that when I ever did sit down to focus on one task, I found myself looking at emails or writing lists to speed myself up. It didn't feel natural to work in a careful, focused way on one thing. It took me a long time to figure out how to change things, but I’m pleased I did, because it transformed the way I did the job and also how I felt about it.
I became more systematic in how I approached ‘headteachering’, making a plan for how I organised myself and my workload. I recognised that there were only so many hours in the week, so I needed to get realistic about what was possible, and be ruthless about my priorities. I changed the format of my ‘to do list’ so that it linked up the things I needed to do to the best times to get them done. I spoke to my staff about times when I was available, and times when I needed not to be disturbed unless it was a safeguarding issue or a dire emergency. In short, I built up my organisational superpowers to the level that this massive job required and I changed my mindset, recognising that my job was to lead through other people and not to be a hero, trying to do it all myself.
Now, I’m a coach, and I see lots of leaders struggling with workload, and I know that if they can build their organisational capacity they’ll be able to get on top of things. I’ve set up an online workload management tool, to help people create a system for themselves that will work, so that workload worries become a thing of the past.
Why does this need an online tool? Well, there’s loads of brilliant books on productivity. My favourite is Graham Allcott’s ‘Productivity Ninja’, which really helped me get my own system up and running. But I know that the issues facing headteachers are very specific and often quite overwhelming. After coaching lots of headteachers to improve their workload management, I realised that what's needed is a bridge between what the books on productivity say and what you can actually do as a school leader. That's why my online tool covers things such as setting boundaries around your working week, mastering your emails and building your delegation skills.
To help you build your organisational superpower, there are a few small things that can make a big difference:
· Bring things together and reflect. Have a time in the week (maybe an hour on a Friday afternoon or Monday morning) where you review your priorities, take stock, look at what’s coming up and plan for the week ahead.
· Protect your most productive times. Identify the times in the week when you do your best thinking and get disturbed the least. Then really protect those times, and prioritise the tasks that you most need to get done in those slots.
· Stop multi-tasking. Close down your emails while you’re working on something. Have a set time or times in the day when you open emails and process them (either respond if that’s quick, or decide what else to do with them).
It's my fervent wish that leaders are able to continue in their jobs for as long as they want to, and not end up in burnout/stress related illness situations. In order to achieve this, it’s crucial to flex your productivity muscles and build your organisational superpower.