How To Get Important Things Done: 3 Tips For Managing Your Time At School

Key takeaways

  • Feel busy but unproductive at the same time? You may be allowing ‘shallow work’ to take over your week.
  • Some work is more important than other work. Deep work is the stuff that really matters
  • Work Deeply. Schedule your day, determine your deep work philosophy and quarantine your non-work time to maximise the time you spend working on the things that matter.

How to get important things done: 3 tips for managing your time at school

Schools are busy. It’s easy to get to Friday afternoon feeling like you have been flat out, but still, have not got anything done. How did you end the week without ticking any of the big items off the ‘to do list’?

One of the major challenges in schools is balancing urgent things that need to be done now, with the important long-term projects that are going to improve your teaching, your school or your students’ lives.

In his fantastic book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World  computer science professor, Cal Newport provides some pearls of wisdom about how to be truly productive on the things that matter.

Why you feel busy but unproductive at the same time

Lots of what people call “work” isn’t that productive. It keeps you busy but doesn’t actually lead to improvement. Newport calls this ‘shallow work’.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World: 

[Shallow work] is … Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

All jobs have shallow work elements, and teaching is no exception. Responding to emails, organising excursions, photocopying and playing phone tag with a parent can all be non-cognitively demanding uses of your time.

Even some tasks more closely related to teaching and learning can be shallow: compliance-based assessment, dealing with small behaviour or relationship issues with students – these things are important for how a school functions, but they don’t bring about long-term improvements in teaching practices or student outcomes.

Shallow work can’t be deleted from schools, but it is worth thinking about how you stop it taking over your week.

Some work is more important than other work

All work in schools is important. Every time you do something at school, you do it because you believe it is going to make things better. Just because something brings benefit though, doesn’t mean it’s deserving of the next available unit of your time. Newport argues that instead of being consumed by busy tasks, we need to prioritise ‘deep work’ over more ‘shallow’ tasks.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World: 

Deep work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity…. to produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work… the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

How often are you in this state at school? For most teachers and school leaders, it rarely. Schools are distracting places – emails, phone calls, announcements, students, parents and colleagues compete with the organisation and resourcing that keep schools moving.

You feel like you run from one thing to the next all day and this makes it hard to find the long periods uninterrupted periods needed for deep work. Sound familiar? Let’s have a look at what Newport suggests you do about it.

Strategies for working deeply

1. Schedule every minute of your day

Many ‘organised’ people use a combination of ‘to do’ lists, calendars and email to manage their time. The problem with this is that all three are highly susceptible to the lure of shallow work.

Calendars are great for scheduling phone calls, lessons and meetings but are less often used to carve out time for deep, important work. Emails put you at the behest of hundreds of external requests of your time every week – most of them shallow tasks. Most ‘to do’ lists lack the sophistication to tell you what the most productive use of your time is. In the moment, people tend to do the things that are urgent or easy first and then wonder why they don’t have time to do the important stuff.

We are lucky in schools because our days are already planned in blocks with bells telling us when blocks start and finish. Newport suggests beginning your day by looking at the blocks of time that make up your work day. This process is good for a single day, but you can also extend this to plan your whole week too. Newport suggests using a blank piece of paper divided by the different chunks of time in your day (digital options work too – but try to keep it outside of your email client).

Start by filling in all the things you have to do – lots of this will be lessons and compulsory meetings. Then, fill in your blank spots with the activities you want to achieve in each block of time during your day. You want to make activities at least half an hour long, and this encourages you to batch similar tasks and complete them all at once.

So, Instead of three trips to the photocopier, and checking your emails all day, you may dedicate a half hour block to each category and action similar tasks in those blocks. By planning like this you’re more likely to identify and carve out time for deep work, while at the same time batching your shallow work to complete it faster.

Scheduling like this also allows you to pick the times when you’re at your best to do deep work – usually, this is in the morning when your finite willpower reserves are still full. Newport has a blog post detailing this process here.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World: 

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration…. Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter

2. Determine your deep work philosophy

Rituals are critical in maintaining a commitment to deep work, and Newport suggests four different ‘philosophies’ that you can use bring more depth into your day.

  1. The Monastic Philosophy. This approach sees people commit entirely to deep work and try to delete all elements of shallow work. Often these people will work for long periods in uninterruptable isolation. This approach won’t work for teachers – a lot of the shallow work done in schools can’t simply be ‘deleted’.
  2. The Bimodal Philosophy. This approach sees people carve out whole days or months for deep work and letting the rest of the time involve shallow work as it needs to. This approach may work well for teachers – if you’re willing to carve out school holiday time for work, this can be a powerful ‘deep work’ period that lets you push things forward on your long-term goals and leaves you free to be responsive to the more shallow demands of a school day during the term.
  3. The Rhythmic Philosophy. This is probably the most suitable for people working in schools. This approach involves carving out a consistent part of your day that is always used for deep work – the early morning works particularly well. In this approach carve out at least a 90-minute block and consistently work deeply during that time. No email, no social media, no talking to anyone – get in the zone and work.
  4. The Journalistic Philosophy. This approach suggests letting deep work fall into your day where it fits using the day-planning strategy discussed above. You’re more susceptible to the pull of shallow work in this approach, but if you can build the right deep work habits, this may work for you.

3. Be conscious of how you use your non-work time

To support a strong commitment to deep work, it’s important to think carefully about how you use your non-work time. Newport advocates a clear and well-defined end to your day – a ‘shutdown ritual, after which you don’t do any work, or think about work. It’s easy to give a lot of your out-of-work attention to school but doing so undermines your ability to work deeply when you get back there.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World: 

“if you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur… Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day.

Finally, Newport suggests that committing properly to deep work relies on eliminating some of the shallow elements of your life, especially those coming from social media. Lots of people use social media because it brings them benefits – Facebook helps you keep in touch with old friends, Instagram allows you to see videos of your niece, Twitter connects you with other educators. These benefits are real, but few people weigh them against costs these ‘network tools’ have on your ability to pay attention and work deeply.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World: 

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.

You can listen to Cal Newport convince you not to use social media in a TED Talk here, or check out his new book on being a ‘digital minimalist.’

Deep work isn’t easy, and fitting into a school day can feel impossible. But if you want to be someone who really makes a difference for your career, your students or your school you need to work deeply on the things that matter.

Key takeaways

  1. Feel busy but unproductive at the same time? You may be allowing ‘shallow work’ to take over your week.
  2. Some work is more important than other work. Deep work is the stuff that really matters
  3. Work Deeply. Schedule your day, determine your deep work philosophy and quarantine your non-work time to maximise the time you spend working on the things that matter.