6 Time Management Tips Every K12 Leader Should Know

Everyone could use a few more minutes or hours in their day—and we know that’s especially true for school and district leaders. We’ve put together a list of our top tips to make the most of your time.
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Blog date
12/5/23
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Leaders, a quick question: what’s your initial reaction to the phrase “time management?” 

If it’s bemusement, or an audible chuckle, we understand. As district and school leaders, it seems like there’s never enough time in the day for everything that comes across your desk. Regardless of whether it’s “managed” or not. 

We can all agree: whether you’re running an entire district or a school building, it’s a tough job. There’s a never-ending list of tasks, both tactical and strategic, to cross off your list. And that doesn’t account for a particular day’s variables. On any given day, a challenge or situation might arise with a student, family, or a staff member that you never saw coming—one that makes your day very complicated, very quickly. 

On any given day, a challenge or situation might arise with a student, family, or a staff member that you never saw coming—one that makes your day very complicated, very quickly.

This former principal turned school leader, mentor and coach says it best: “Many of us say that we come to school with a plan for the day. But we know as soon as the buses roll in, the students become our agenda.” Of course, this makes sense: the safety, well-being, and education of your students is your number one priority. 

How can you ensure you spend your time on what matters, and still find time for a bit of your own self-reflection and self-care? It starts by learning a few time management skills.  The strategies below might not be new to you, and that’s by design. Think of this short, sweet, and efficient list as a reminder that there are consistent and creative ways to reclaim more of your precious hours and minutes. 

Establish clear priorities

To better understand how to manage your time, let’s first talk about how to assess your school priorities—the ones that are mission-critical to your work as a principal or district leader. Author and educator Stephen Covey refers to these as the “big rocks.” 

Prioritization is often easier said than done. In many cases, we’re so used to having a large handful of competing priorities that everything feels like a big rock that needs to be moved up the hill. 

If you feel this way, you’re not alone. In his best-selling book Essentialism, Greg McKeown explains that the word “priority” was actually never meant to be pluralized. “The word ‘priority’ came into the English language in the 1400s,” McKeown writes. “It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.” 

We mention this because it can feel like concentrating on one or two priorities might feel like you’re not doing enough. In reality, it’s the opposite. When you have a small number of clear goals—and can ruthlessly focus your time, energy, and resources to accomplish them—the more productive you’ll be. 

When you have a small number of clear goals—and can ruthlessly focus your time, energy, and resources to accomplish them—the more productive you’ll be. 

For example, moving the needle on instructional leadership—and student success when it comes to specific subjects like ELA or math—is most likely the highest priority you have as a principal or district leader. That means that you need to identify how you’re going to make that happen—and what you might do versus what you might delegate to others via an instructional leadership team or an outside resource. All of this takes time, which means narrowing in on that priority is essential.

There are no doubt other priorities—establishing a school culture, mission, and vision or building better relationships with parents and engaging families. However, consider how a single priority—such as strong instructional leadership—may actually improve or create a gateway for these other must-haves to thrive in the future. 

Begin with the hardest task first

When you have several minor tasks on your to-do list, it can be tempting to take care of those first to get them out of the way. They’ll only take a few minutes and you might even get the bonus hit of dopamine that typically accompanies getting things done. 

Here’s the challenge with that approach: while you might feel more productive in the short-term, your more difficult tasks aren’t going anywhere. And, when you put them off, it can get harder and harder to switch them to the front burner. 

Beginning with more complex projects requires a mindset shift. In the moments where we only have an hour, for example, we might opt for answering emails or prepping for a meeting—because the tougher task has considerably more time demands. 

To make sure you’re giving the more important task the time it deserves, consider breaking down complex projects into small milestones. Not only will doing so give you the “completion high” you get from finishing easier tasks, it can also supply you with the challenge, opportunity, and nudge you need to get the work done that matters for the long-term.

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Consider the opportunity cost

In finance, an opportunity cost is the amount of potential gain an investor misses out on when they commit to one investment choice over the other. It answers the question: “What am I giving up by taking this option?”

You can use opportunity cost when making decisions concerning your own time management as well. While it might not be money you’d be missing out on, think about your opportunity cost in terms of time or resources. What are you giving up now in order to do this task? And, what are you giving up in the future?

You can use opportunity cost when making decisions concerning your own time management as well. While it might not be money you’d be missing out on, think about your opportunity cost in terms of time or resources. 

For example, let’s say you decide to spend an hour checking your email versus. moving the ball forward on one of the harder or larger projects we talked about above. It might mean that you now have to spend time on your weekend thinking through more strategic work, when you’d really like to relax and spend time with friends or family. Thinking through the opportunity cost is a great way to understand what you’re getting with a particular decision—and also what you’re missing out on. 

Create a “no rubric”

Even more uncomfortable than narrowing your priorities is having to say “no” to everything else. As the leaders of your schools and districts, you’re wired for help and service. If some of the tasks won’t take that much time, what’s the harm in just doing them?

It might indeed only take you a few minutes to do something, but consider how quickly those small tasks add up. One moment, it’s 9 a.m., and the next minute, it’s almost school dismissal. Where did the day go, and why is nothing crossed off your list?

Here’s where it might make sense to have your own “no rubric”— a short list of questions that you use to make it easier to say no to some requests, especially the ones that are really more of a distraction. For example:

  • Am I qualified and capable to do what’s been asked?
  • Is there someone better suited to this work or task?
  • Do I truly have time for this activity?
  • Is this activity connected to my “big rocks?”
  • What are the potential negative outcomes of saying “no?”
  • Conversely, what are the positives?

Taking a step back and evaluating before you give an answer can help you truly determine whether you’re doing work that’s aligned to your priorities. The practical implications of saying “no” surely outweigh the initial discomfort.

Block out your time

In a profession where simply checking your email can result in hours of unexpected work, a considerable part of being able to adhere to the priorities you’ve set means being intentional about scheduling and planning work from week to week. Here are a few ideas for how to organize your calendar effectively:

  • Consider setting aside an hour or two at the end of each week to plan for the one ahead. Physically plot out meetings and time for deep work on your calendar to ensure you’re keeping your most necessary to-dos in clear focus.
  • Email is a blessing and a curse for school leaders. Think about building in time to check and respond to email in your calendar—perhaps you check and respond to email twice a day for 45 minutes at a time, and shut down your email inbox and notification throughout the duration of the day.
  • Be proactive about putting larger school events on your calendar—when you need to submit your budget, dates for state or national testing, parent-teacher conferences, and holidays. It also might be helpful to set reminders in your calendar to keep these pieces top of mind. 

Find your flow

It’s not enough to simply do your work. The goal is to find the joy in it. According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is an act of “finding your flow”—those moments in our lives where we’re “in the zone,” so focused on a task that all distractions fall away. In his research and writings, Csikszentmihalyi identified eight characteristics of flow. 

While not specifically a time management strategy, being in a flow state can not only help with getting you to an optimal state of performance, it also can help you feel more creative in your work. 

While not specifically a time management strategy, being in a flow state can not only help with getting you to an optimal state of performance, it also can help you feel more creative in your work. 

To get started with understanding your own flow state, begin by noticing—and recording—when your flow states occur. The next time you feel focused and energized in your work, jot down a few notes. What type of work were you doing? What did you notice? What were the conditions of the space or place where your flow state occurred?

Getting curious with where and when you do your most intentional, focused work will reap benefits for your productivity.

Time: your most valuable possession

It’s a cliche because it’s true: time is your most precious resource. We’ve talked before about the myth of an educational leader as a superhero—and trying to do everything for everyone will result in a big dose of burnout. With that said, remember to use your time wisely—and hold it in reverence

If you find yourself taking on too much, or not getting as much as you’d like completed, remember that practice makes perfect when it comes to effective time management. Boundaries will always get set and reset. Work will always ebb and flow. Being intentional with your time ensures more consistency in your days, no matter what the tasks are. 

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