Is it urgent or important? A new teachers' guide to the psychology of time management

Is it urgent or important? A new teachers' guide to the psychology of time management

Let's start with the bad news: now that you're a teacher, your to-do list will never be complete. Ever. Part of the deal with having a job that's so important is that you will also have so many demands on your time that working 24/7 wouldn't be enough. It's imperative, then, that you master the art of effective time management early. You can only work a certain number of hours per day (and that should very much not be 24/7).

Effective prioritisation is the answer, says psychologist Bradley Busch – and that starts with a simple question about the task that you're facing: is it important, or urgent?

"You need to be aware of the difference between the two; people tend to get them confused," he explains. "If you only ever do the stuff that's urgent, you'll constantly be firefighting and neglecting the stuff that's important."

Meetings are a perfect example of this. When you're suddenly asked to attend one that starts in 10 minutes, it will naturally feel like an urgent request, but you should ask yourself whether it is actually important for you to be there. If not, you can politely decline and explain that you are working on other important tasks.

"You will get better with experience at differentiating between the two, but it can be a challenge for student teachers and NQTs who don't have that experience to draw upon," Busch continues. "It takes quite a bit of self-confidence to say what is important. You have to remember that you only have a finite amount of time and you need to have the ability to say no."

But how can you work out if a task is important? Easy, Busch says, you just need to think about how much it feeds into your ultimate goal. Your aim as a teacher is to ensure your students learn as much as possible. This means all tasks should be weighed up against how much they improve students' knowledge and understanding of your subject – if something isn't going to help your pupils to make progress, it should be lower on your list of priorities.

Take lesson planning, for example. It can be tempting to spend hours and hours creating gorgeous resources and fancy slides, but how much impact will aesthetics really have on the learning? Give this some consideration (and then step away from the 'effects' menu on Powerpoint). Busch says it's even worth weighing up marking in the same way.

"There's a lot of debate about this," he says. "Look at how much time you spend on it and how much impact it has. If pupils aren't reading or properly engaging with your comments, then there's probably a more effective way to use your time. It's linked to the concept of opportunity cost – for each thing you do, there's something else you can't do."

Productivity and avoiding procrastination are also big concerns – and Busch says there's a (seemingly counter-intuitive) trick that can help you to complete your work more quickly and effectively. It's a simple idea: start more than one task at a time, and leave one unfinished while you complete the other. It comes down to something called the Zeigarnik effect, he explains. Our brain has a tendency to fixate on unfinished tasks – you will stay subconsciously 'switched on' to that task until it is complete and you can forget about it. This means that, rather than putting off tasks until you have a big enough chunk of time to properly complete them, just getting started, even briefly, is a more sensible approach.

"Even if you just do it for 10 minutes, that is half the battle," Busch explains. "Our brain hates uncompleted tasks, so once you've started, the effect kicks in and you'll want to see if through."

This is not to be confused with flitting between two (or more) tasks at once, though – that is the way to mental overload. Having started a few tasks is good, but when it comes to actually sitting down and getting on with work, you need to focus on one thing at a time – and that means cutting out all distractions. Shut down unnecessary tabs on your computer (especially social media), put your phone out of sight and set yourself a clear schedule – a lot of people favour the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for 25 minutes and then give yourself a five-minute break.

The most important aspect of time management, Busch says, is making sure that you are putting your own wellbeing above everything else – for your sake and your pupils'. If you're exhausting yourself in a mad dash to try and get everything done, you are going to become less effective as the effort takes its toll.

"When you're stressed, your focus is narrowed," he explains. "It's like having blinkers on. You're less likely to explore the range of options and instead get fixated on a singular idea – often the first one you think of because there's a sense of urgency and a sense that you don't have time to consider the others.

"This can also have a negative impact on your sleep, your decision-making and your concentration. If you're too stressed you're more likely to interpret things negatively or catastrophise."

Realistically, in any school, you are going to experience some stress. But, he adds, not all stress is bad – in fact, a little bit can actually be beneficial to your performance by spurring you to action. Busch describes it as the 'Goldilocks effect' – finding the sweet spot between feeling nonplussed and completely overwhelmed. "If you don't have any stress at all, that tends to mean you don't care, which doesn't help," he says. "But when you have too much stress, that is damaging. Ultimately, you need to find the level that works for you and operate there. Make looking after yourself your top priority."

This article is taken from the EdCentral Alternative Student Teacher Manual, which is available to download now for free.​

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