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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2

Manage the Time You’ve Got

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With only so many hours in the day, new leaders benefit from studying how they spend them.

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LeadershipProfessional Learning
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Credit: Roman Samborskyi / SHUTTERSTOCK
Being a new leader means that, at times, you will feel completely overwhelmed. When the overload hits, remember that the problem is not feeling overwhelmed—it's staying overwhelmed. Though no amount of time management will grant you a 25th hour in the day, the work of understanding yourself and your priorities is essential to surviving your first year.
After thousands of hours of research on time management, writing a book on the topic, and serving as a school leader for nearly two decades, I've uncovered three strategies—deployable with no cost or significant training—that can help new (and veteran) leaders manage overwhelm and work more efficiently.

Strategy 1: Move the Dumbbells

A few months back I awoke in the middle of the night and had to use the restroom. As I was shuffling through my bedroom, I slammed my foot into a set of 35-pound dumbbells and then woke up my wife with an expletive-laced outcry of pain. My wife, being worthy of sainthood, went downstairs and grabbed some ice.
Fast forward about three weeks later, the same scene played out. This time, instead of getting ice, my wife said, "Why don't you move the stupid dumbbells?"
She was right—but not only about a prevention measure for my bruised toes. In many cases, the obstacles that are causing us the most angst are the ones we have set in our own path.

The work of understanding yourself and your priorities is essential to surviving your first year.

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As leaders, our proverbial "dumbbells" vary widely. Some people refuse to leverage the strengths of their teams and take on all the work themselves; others perseverate over every detail of their day. There are limitless dumbbells in the leadership universe. Figure out what yours are and decide how to get out of your own way.
This is where self-awareness comes into play. Critical friends or a coach can help you figure out how you may be self-sabotaging your success and how to manage your time. For instance, when I was a principal, a coach helped me realize that my desire for control was both all-consuming and alienating to my team. Such alienation was never my intent, but it was the result, and a coach helped me move that dumbbell.

Strategy 2: Use the Pareto Principle

The Pareto principle, coined by economist Vilfredo Pareto, asserts that 20 percent of our efforts yield 80 percent of our results. When you first begin leading, it seems like every decision will make or break your career. However, what the best leaders discover early on is that while every decision may feel important (and many of them are), there are far fewer that will ultimately determine your impact.
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My own reflection on the Pareto principle has led me to identify the outputs—the positive actions—that produce 80 percent of my outcomes. These actions include:
  • Helping all school staff see themselves and the students they serve as greater than they currently are. A conversation with a 45-year-old, 20-year veteran about their potential is just as powerful as one with a new teacher.
  • Writing down priorities for the year and aligning them with what I believe most matters and with my schedule. New leaders often tell me their top priority is instructional leadership. Good! But, if after the first quarter you discover that you spent 10 percent of your time in classrooms, it was not actually a priority.
  • Celebrating success and holding people accountable (in real time). Most leaders I meet admit that there's an important conversation with someone they're putting off. Honor excellence, but never avoid a necessary chat.
In short, create a vision that imagines a better future. Support the educators around you, align your time with what you say matters, and celebrate the heck out of success. And remember, work fills the time allotted to it. If you know what outputs are going to drive advances, set guardrails to stay focused.

Strategy 3: Choose Your Mindset

Everything we do is a choice, so mindset matters. When we realize how little in life we actually have to do, we spend more time on what truly matters to our outcomes.
Once, I worked with a principal who knew she had to have some difficult conversations with her staff around a new ELA curriculum. Many teachers were deferring to a hodgepodge of resources instead of what they were trained on. She was passionate about the initiative, but swore she had no time for conversations the week she noticed the issue. That same week, this leader's dishwasher broke, forcing her to take a half day off to install a new one. Somehow, she found that extra time.

The difference between those who are radically successful and those who are not is seldom talent—it's focus.

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Isn't it amazing how when the unexpected happens, we can find eight hours to address the situation, but we cannot find 20 minutes to complete a task we've been avoiding? We often let the tyranny of the urgent direct our schedule instead of making time for our meaningful goals.
Emergencies and deadlines make it clear what deserves our precious time. The challenge is to live our life like that always, not just when there's outside pressure.

Time Management Managed

Two things will determine your success as a new leader: (1) how well you use your time and (2) how well you know yourself. Great leaders are constantly expanding their self-awareness. New leaders must ensure that this awareness includes how they spend their time. The difference between those who are radically successful and those who are not is seldom talent—it's focus. The difference is that some people relentlessly drive in the direction of their goals and dreams.

PJ Caposey is the Illinois Superintendent of the Year, a finalist for 2023 National Superintendent of the Year, and a best-selling author. His latest book, coauthored with Bryan Wills, is Cracking the Coaching Code: Using Personality Archetypes to Maximize Performance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

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