Sorry, must dash

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Too much to do and too little time? John Caunt shows howold-fashioned planning can help.

Official figures released in August confirm what we already know - that teachers' working hours continue to rise.

A report from the School Teachers' Review Body reveals across-the-board increases in working hours, with just half of teachers' time spent with children while the rest goes on marking, preparation and admin.

So, in the face of a constant battle just to keep your head above water, how do you meet the deadline for a major assignment that comes on top of your day-to-day work?

For many teachers, it's either a case of writing off a string of evenings and weekends or postponing action in the hope that the task can be squeezed in when the next holidays come around.

But is there a way to make progress during what we used to call a normal working week? I've yet to find anybody who claims to have found the magic formula, but if you're to fit even more into that pint pot, a degree of organisation is vital.

First you should make a realistic appraisal of task and deadline, and deal with any concerns as early as possible. Beware of what one writer calls "distant elephants". Six months off, a task may look small and harmless, but as it looms closer its true dimensions become apparent.

If an unrealistic deadline has been set you may have no choice but to live with it. But, where discussion is possible, adopting a reasoned and assertive approach at the time the project is first discussed may allow you to make adjustments so you can manage it more easily.

Show that you have assessed the time requirements of the project and look at methods of overcoming the difficulty, such as finding additional resources or rescheduling the deadline. One tactic is to ask the person setting the deadline if it takes priority over other tasks and, if so, which ones.

The next step is to plan your progress to the deadline. Break the assignment down into stages and estimate how long each will take. Work out from this how much you will need to do each week to meet the planned completion date. Build in some slack to take account of unexpected events anddelays.

Finding the necessary time will be eased if you can remain on top of your priorities. Every demand can be defined in terms of its importance and urgency. Long-term projects and assignments tend to be important but not urgent - at least until the deadline starts to loom - and are often displaced by other tasks which are much less important but deemed urgent.

Remember that urgent does not mean important and try to make a habit of scheduling some timefor the longer-term important tasks into every working week.

With all your other commitments, you are unlikely to be able to devote protracted periods to the deadline task. This may make it difficult to refocus your thoughts each time you pick up the threads. Combat this by ensuring that you don't end a work session on the assignment without noting what you will do when you next return to it.

As you work towards completion of the project, use the finishing point for each stage as a milestone - a point at which you can monitor progress, and ensure that you are on track. Clarity about what you have achieved and what remains to be done also helps motivation. If you are able to get ahead of your schedule at any time, resist the temptation to slacken off. Use the time to build in some additional flexibility at the end of the project. The tidying up elements are often the ones most likely to be underestimated.

Time is frequently wasted fretting about how to get started on a major assignment. If afflicted, simply pitch in at whatever point appears most straightforward. The momentum you gain from making inroads into thetask will usually outweighany inefficiencies resulting from stages being tackled out of order.

If the project requires input from others, let them know in plenty of time precisely what you require and the date by which you will need it. Setting that date slightly ahead of the point at which you actually need the information will allow for any slippage on their part. So that's it. Old-fashioned planning and organisation seem to be the key. I would have liked to spend longer in search of that elusive magic solution. Unfortunately, I have a deadline to meet.

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