The phrase “work smarter” has been rattling around CPD sessions for years. Every time I hear it, I have to suppress the urge to stash a few bricks in my handbag and take a run up at the person who has dared imply I am currently working not smart. Working stupid, if you will.
We’ve all at some point succumbed to work-paralysis, overwhelmed by the looming to do list tower atop the desk and the countdown clock echoing its loud tick. Rationally, you know that the sooner you commit to it, the sooner you can unshackle yourself from it.
And even though the feeling of being fully immersed in the flow state is a pleasingly familiar one, still something holds you back.
Background: Seven signs you were a teacher in the 1980s
I do lots of education-related work as well as the teaching bit. And with a confusing tapestry of a career, I've had to develop a brace of motivational tricks for organising my time, shifting my arse, and just getting on with it.
My factory setting is: "I’ll just have a bag of crisps/watch The Real Housewives or pluck my eyebrows or sharpen all my pencils/buy something off Amazon, then I’ll start."
So time management has been a constant bone-idle ghost wedged in my machine and I've had to find ways to trick myself into getting started in order to feel ever so slightly efficient.
Here are a few methods I've used to pull a fast one on myself:
1. Build in procrastination time
I know that when I sit down at my computer to start work, I will muck about for at least 10 minutes before doing anything of use. How will I cope if I don't swing by Facebook to compare myself negatively to some woman I knew from 30 years ago and haven't seen since?
And while a wise man once said: "Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead?" I know that I definitely will not do that straight away. So I plan the first 10 minutes of my day and again after lunch as muck about on the internet time. I'm not going to be cross with myself for it. It’s my ritual.
2. Use the journey to and from work productively
One of my current hobbies is an English literature degree, so I have lots of books to read. My journey to work for two days a week is about an hour's drive away. Since I started wading through audiobooks, I've stopped thinking of this time as dead air. And no matter what happens in the day, I know that by listening to 2 hours worth of set texts on the journey alone, I feel like I've achieved something.
Unless you travel to work by means of transport that absorbs all your concentration, or you live across the road from work, there’s a chunk of time to listen to audiobooks, podcasts, plays or music. Or to do something a bit more writey or watchy if you're on a train or bus. Or maybe if you walk, or run or cycle to work, the journey is the productive destination in itself. Health n that, innit.
3. Put something on your to-do list that you've already done, just so you can cross it off
For me, this is just about starting as if I'm already on a roll. If I start the task feeling productive, I can often confuse myself into actually being productive.
Look I've already started! Hurrah for me!
4. 20 minutes at a time
On a good day, I can concentrate for a whole hour at a time, sometimes two. On a bad day, I get so distracted that toddlers would give me the side-eye and hiss ‘immature’. On those days I have to force myself to get on with it by bargaining with myself.
I close any internet tabs that will, without doubt, distract me (if possible I close all of 'em), shut down my email, put my phone on aeroplane mode, and set a timer for 20 minutes. I can manage 20 minutes even on a bad day.
Often, even just 20 minutes of focused get-on-with-it time is enough to give me the required boot up the jacksie to carry on and complete the task.
5. ‘Unless I hear otherwise’
Honestly, Harry Potter can shove his spells, "unless I hear otherwise" are the most magic of words. If your time is being wasted by a ditherer in the ranks (that ditherer might even be your boss), use this spell in a concise email to explain what you're going to do and when.
"Unless I hear otherwise by 5pm, I will assume that you aren't able to attend the meeting and will approach another colleague for their input."
If there is no reply, then do it. Do that thing. You have given them a reasonable right of reply. You haven’t gone rogue. You have put the ball in their court.
It’s the most effective of bluff callers too…
6. Be pragmatic regarding what to worry about
On occasions when I'm plagued by worry, in true English teacher style, I make a mind map. I tip all of the (often nutzo) concerns out of my head in onto the page. I separate them into worries I can do something about, (then work out what that thing is and make a plan to do it) and worries that I have no control over. The worries I have no control over are more difficult. Sometimes it helps to work out if it’s a rational worry, or if I'm catastrophising. Either way, distraction techniques often the key to displacing those ones.
Of course, the ideal scenario would be not to worry at all. I mean, worrying is a bit self-indulgent. It’s about the worrier, not the worry-ee. Can something be changed by worry? No. Does worry make anyone feel better? No. So if we’re being truly pragmatic, worrying wouldn't be a thing at all. It wastes time.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons