5 Strategies to Safeguard Your Time as a School Leader

Have you ever found yourself pressed for time during a meeting or in the middle of a complex project, only to be interrupted by someone asking, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I truly value being accessible and helpful to the teachers and staff members at my school. However, when these impromptu “got a minute” interruptions divert my attention from my crucial tasks, it becomes difficult to maintain focus and productivity. In my experience as a school leader, I’ve learned that it’s not just what you say that matters, but also how you say it. If you constantly rush or immediately attend to these “got a minute” requests, regardless of how busy your day is, it will hinder your ability to engage in intentional and significant work that awaits you.

5 strategies for avoiding derailments and distractions

1. Set boundaries. Leaders should establish clear boundaries to safeguard their time. This may entail implementing specific office hours, restricting non-urgent communication during certain periods, and communicating expectations with staff regarding acceptable interruptions. And here’s the tricky part: learning to say no when asked if you have a minute and you don’t.

Instead of feeling guilty about declining, reframe it: Saying no right now means saying yes later when you can fully concentrate and respond with kindness and clarity. If you need a few concise statements to help you develop the habit of setting boundaries, try these:

  • “I’m currently in the middle of a time-sensitive task. Could we schedule some time later today to address your concerns? Thank you for understanding.”
  • “I want to give you my undivided attention, but I’m currently occupied. Can we find a suitable time for a meeting tomorrow?”
  • “I appreciate your need to talk, but I have a prior commitment at the moment. Would it be possible to have a brief meeting during my office hours to address your questions?”

2. Prioritize and plan. Begin each day by prioritizing your tasks and creating a clear plan. This proactive approach helps prevent you from getting sidetracked by less important or unexpected issues. Personally, I rely on the Full Focus planner to keep myself focused and goal-oriented. On Sundays, I look ahead and plan my week, and every morning, I identify my daily Big 3: the three most essential tasks for the day. These tools enable me to monitor my time and tasks and assess whether I truly have a minute in the moment or if I’m already falling behind on my daily goals.

3. Delegate effectively. Reframe the act of asking for help and delegating tasks as a way to empower others while allowing you to concentrate on your core responsibilities and avoid getting bogged down with tasks that could be handled by someone else. If you have an administrative assistant, consider them your superpower in the office. My administrative assistants have an incredible talent for assisting with tasks that I want to do but could be done by someone else.

Here’s a not-so-amusing example: Last summer, I thought I could be “helpful” by printing, sorting, and organizing 800 letters across the district for students attending our after-school programs. After three hours and hundreds of forms later, I realized that the first two were out of order, meaning the remaining 798 forms had the wrong student on one side! Talk about a major failure (and a huge waste of paper).

So the next time you believe you’re being helpful, try not to be a Cabeen. Remember, there are probably five other people who not only could do it better but also want to do it to assist you (and save a significant amount of paper in the process).

4. Utilize time management strategies. Implementing effective time management techniques like the Pomodoro Technique, time blocking, or the Eisenhower Matrix can be game-changers. These methods help structure your day, allocate time efficiently, and reduce distractions by creating dedicated periods for focused work.

I’ve made it a habit to schedule a 60-minute block of time every other week to review our building site goals, analyze data, and reflect on growth, progress, and next steps. To do this work effectively, I need to avoid distractions. So I entrust my phone to my administrative assistant, close my office door, set a Pomodoro timer, and get down to work.

5. Regularly reflect and adjust. School leaders should consistently reflect on their daily routines and identify patterns of derailment or distraction. This reflective practice allows for necessary adjustments, such as refining time management strategies, improving delegation processes, or addressing ongoing challenges. Continuous improvement is crucial for maintaining focus and productivity.

I find it helpful to conduct an audit of the individuals who frequently ask for a minute of my time. Throughout the week, how often do people pull you away from your planned tasks? Do you notice any patterns in terms of who needs you or what they need? Once you’ve had time to reflect on the data, you can make appropriate adjustments. For instance, if a particular topic keeps coming up, it might be a gentle reminder to provide more clarification and communication regarding that topic in future staff newsletters.

If you have a few individuals who consistently require more than one “got a minute” a week, consider scheduling a biweekly meeting with them and encourage them to bring their concerns to the meeting. This provides a designated time and space for them to ask questions, and you have the capacity and self-regulation to respond appropriately.

Let’s do the math: If just three people ask for a minute of your time each day, and you spend at least 20 minutes contemplating and responding to each request, you’ve already lost one hour of your day addressing others’ problems in the moment instead of strategically and proactively planning to support the entire school community. It may not make it any easier, but it emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries, prioritizing your time, and effectively accomplishing your work and personal goals.