This morning, I watched a really interesting TED talk by Rory Vaden, entitled ‘How to Multiply Your Time.’ There’s a wealth of information on the internet relating to work-life balance and I’m keen to try any new ideas or strategies that may help me find more peace both inside and outside of the classroom. Click here to watch the video. I’ve broken this down and suggested how this might apply to teaching professionals below, though it could be applied to any professional or indeed any human being who has stuff to do. I’ve already used the questioning to eliminate a few summer housework jobs!

Vaden discusses prioritising in the modern age and what he calls it ‘3D thinking.’ Before you start any task, he suggests that you consider these three questions:

  1. How much does it matter?

  2. How soon does it matter?

  3. How long will it matter for?

This is so simple but very effective. Often teachers find themselves so busy with day to day teaching, planning, marking, emails and admin, that they forget to actually ask anything before they sit down to work on an evening. I know that this isn’t part of my own working routine.

The ethos of a ‘time multiplier’, according to Vaden, is ‘Give yourself the emotional permission to spend time on things TODAY that will give you more time TOMORROW’ – Prioritise tasks that will result in less tasks or at least more efficiency down the line; do what is most significant first rather than what’s most urgent.

In order to decide what needs to be done and when, he applies the following thought processes before beginning tasks. He asks:

  1. Why am I doing this? Is it worth doing? Vaden talks about giving yourself permission to say no to certain things if they are not worthy of your time; he says that by saying yes to things that are unworthy, you’re inadvertently saying no to other things that would have been more useful and fulfilling.

For teaching staff, whatever your role in school, you will obviously have tasks that come first, even if you don’t think it’s worthy of your time. If your class assessment is due on Friday, you have to get this done and maintain your professionalism. There will be plenty of other times though, when you’re plodding along through your ‘to do list’: this is when you need to consider the why and the worth of what you’re about to do. Have you had something on your list for months (something that once completed might result in less work) that you’ve ignored, because you’ve been too busy marking day-to-day? Maybe you need to give yourself permission to get a little behind on your marking and use the time instead to create some peer and self-assessment resources so that you can reduce your marking workload in future.

  1. Can I eliminate/automate this process altogether?

When I look at my ‘to do list,’ I have things on there that I’ve had there for over a year. A year! If I bought a top that I didn’t wear for a year, I’d put it down to a bad impulse buy and give it to charity. Actually, I’d probably take it back for a refund after a fortnight. Clearly, if a task is on your list for a year and it’s not even touched, it needs to go. Otherwise it will only haunt you and reinforce the whole mental dialogue of “I’m so busy all of the time but I never get anything done!”

  1.  Can I delegate this task?

If you’re a school leader of any kind, can you select individuals or teams of staff who can take on roles and responsibilities? If you’re teaching within a year group team at primary level, or within a department at secondary, have you shared out workload so that it plays to people’s strengths and is fairly distributed. Like many others, I find delegating tough… but as Vaden points out, you need to allow time and training for people to complete jobs effectively (like you hopefully had when you started doing things for the first time). In fact, you’re really doing them a disservice in not trusting them enough to learn new things.

For teachers, it worth pointing out here that you can also delegate to your students! This might be asking them to self or peer-mark pieces of work, telling you what and how they want to learn, tidying up and looking after equipment or doing general class admin around school. Set your expectations high; model how to complete tasks properly; tell them that this is a test of trust and responsibility; and allow them a good amount of time to get things wrong until they get it right. They might eventually prove more helpful than the adults you delegate to!

  1. Does the task need to be done NOW? If it needs to be done now, then you need focus and concentration.

I’ve come a long way in the last year by adopting an attitude of ‘do the worst first.’ Turn the TV off and move away from distractions. Do not check your phone or your email. Tell yourself you’ll spend 15 minutes starting the task and see where you go from there. Momentum is everything.

With the really tedious jobs – big marking jobs for example, that require highlighted grids, stamps and stickers, and half a page of comments for the kids not to read – are often better broken down into smaller jobs. I used to tackle sets of books with blinkered determination; I had to wipe the job off my list at all costs, even if it meant spending the whole weekend marking. Now, I realise that it’s much more sensible to have a good weekend and recharge my batteries, and mark 6 books each day for a week. I’m certain that this not only improved my quality of life, but also the quality of my marking and assessment.

  1. If the task doesn’t need to be done now, allow yourself to procrastinate on purpose.While Vaden reminds us that procrastination is still ‘the killer or all success,’ he distinguishes this final step from the latter as a conscious choice to put something off until a more appropriate time, or until it fits into one of the other stages above. He talks about this as a means of ‘mitigating the unexpected change cost.’

I love this last idea! Education is plagued with change – change dictated from above (usually by people who haven’t and couldn’t teach themselves); it’s rarely useful; it’s frequently harmful towards children, staff and the profession; and mostly it’s just unnecessary. This ‘change for change’s sake’ has resulted in so much wasted time when my completed tasks/projects/resources/lesson plans /initiatives/ presentations/ displays/paperwork were binned after a term to make way for yet another new ‘drive for improvement’ or ‘success initiative.’

When I get behind an idea, I tend to go in full force with my heart and my soul. I believe in a job well done. I enjoy this: it’s who I am. But I’m also aware that if I don’t hold back a little with the way things are, I’m in danger of become extremely frustrated and cynical. In a three-round fight, if you throw all of your weight into every punch, you’re going to run out of steam in the first round. You need to throw a few jabs too. You need to be efficient with your energy and your power if you want to win, or even survive. Within the context of the classroom, this might mean doing only what is required when the latest initiative is introduced, and waiting to see if it’s still around in 6 months before you really hit the planning/displays/resources with some gusto.

Teaching is a truly exhausting job: use your energy efficiently.

If you want to read more from the Rory Vaden himself, please check out his blog here. Watching, reading and writing about this has definitely made me think about how and why I approach my workload in the way that I do, and inspired me make a few changes next time I sit down to work.