Urgent and important

A continuing journey with workload and delegation.

When I was a teacher, I was largely able to dictate my own workload around my timetable; when to set essays and therefore when I’d do marking, how I’d plan lessons and when I’d create resources. The time for this was limited but in some ways, that made things easier as there just wasn’t time for procrastination. This was also the problem though – for my wellbeing, my personal life, my thinking time – where did this all fit in?

As the years wore on, my limited time became filled with an increasing number of tasks headed my way from leaders around me; forms to fill out, notes to add to registers and online learning records, grades to be tracked, students to be traffic lighted. All of these activities encroached on the valuable ‘spare’ time I had to direct in meaningful ways for my students but the activities were apparently necessary and couldn’t be done by anyone else. I didn’t have the luxury of delegating so they were added to the to do list and as my career progressed, my to do list expanded with it.

‘We dilute our effectiveness by doing more efficiently those things that shouldn’t be done in the first place’ (Blanchard 2000).

With the benefit of hindsight, there was much I could have done to eliminate the less useful from the essential. Teaching was supposed to get easier with experience, not more difficult. I could have challenged a lot of the extraneous administration that gradually began taking over my life. I could have weighed up the value of certain tasks over others. I could have asked the question, ‘Which of these will add most value to my students’ learning and enable me to have some time to myself today?’ I could have asked, ‘If I’m adding this new thing, what will I stop doing to make room for it?’ These realisations always rise to the surface with the distance time provides. Would I have actually done things differently if I’d known this? Perhaps. I also recognise there are a great many barriers in between knowing you ‘should’ do something and actually doing it.

Being an anxious person, I often find myself compensating for my perceived deficiencies by ploughing hours into activities that I hope will ‘prove my worth’ to myself and other people. When I was teaching, this often meant prioritising the things other people needed from me as well as spending an inordinately long time on activities that looked great but wouldn’t necessarily result in a comparable impact on students’ learning for the time investment made.

Fast-forward to my first middle leadership position and I was working in the way I’d always known: doing everything that needed to be done in the time I had, and then some. I relied on myself to do all that needed to be done, apart from the moments when I’d tap a colleague on the head to
request a (probably not so) little favour. When I did work alongside colleagues, I was particular about the way they did things, essentially I expected them to do the tasks the way I would do them. My friends are all qualified in laminating to ‘Hannah standard’ as a result. Did it matter that they cut rounded edges to track along the paper contained within? Did we even need to laminate in the first place? Almost certainly not. None of this mattered when I was mired in the dense fog of my workload.

When I first gained some staff to manage, I kept my to do list, they had theirs and I was reluctant to encroach on their valuable time. I made assumptions about their workload and that usually looked like me shouldering more of it to protect them. There were times when I delegated effectively and gave them autonomy over the task but communicating this well and coming across as competent resulted in so much anxiety that it felt easier to just continue doing things myself.

As part of a leadership development programme during these early years, we were provided with some coaching over a number of months. My coach helped me to discover that weekends weren’t actually designated work time and perhaps not all my evenings were either. A revelation! Freeing up this time did mean that there was less time remaining to do my work and so my to do list would need to decrease.

The leadership programme also re-introduced me to the Eisenhower Matrix, a tool I had used on a study skills course with adult learners a few years previously but never really applied myself as everything had always felt both urgent and important. I recall listing all of my work and attempting to sort the various tasks into the four boxes. It took me a good hour to lay everything out. Some things were important to me – they dropped to the least important position as I placed all the tasks for various managers across the organisation ahead of them. What I soon realised, as a middle leader serving every other department in the college, was that I was being pulled in every direction by their competing priorities with no compass of my own. The important but not urgent things fell on to a ‘one day’ list and I continued to remain in a productive but exhausting frenzy.

‘Sometimes it seemed that all I did was shuffle papers without ever making any progress on the real work that needed to be done… It was a paradox – I was doing more but accomplishing less’ (Blanchard 2000).

Over the years, I continued to struggle to determine what was important. When you’re teaching pupils and developing teachers, it feels as though there’s a lot at stake and my anxiety made me think that none of the work could be dropped and if anything, more things needed to be added until the holidays arrived and I could finally stop to draw breath and make empty promises to take on less in the term ahead.

I recall an ex-colleague on the same leadership programme who had created a large version of the matrix on a window in their office. They’d written items on sticky notes and moved them between the sections to indicate where time was best spent. Out of the corner of my eye, one of the notes flittered down to the floor to settle in and join a pile of them already gathering.

This is perhaps representative of my own relationship with the matrix and needless to say, it was never applied to my workload in any meaningful way.

Until 2020.

I had hit a peak workload situation in 2019 where I realised I was taking on far more than I could handle. In reality it had always been this way but with now living my life on evenings and weekends and taking my lunch break each day, the problem was made visible and couldn’t be ignored much longer. A few days spent at home with my wise mum and I recognised something had to be done. I had to move beyond the frenzy of proving my worth to myself and everyone around me. I had to step out of the mindset that I couldn’t delegate work to my team now that I had one and I had to discard thinking that their work and priorities were more important than mine.

There’s a quote in The Holiday (yes, my sources are very academic, thank you every much) that I comes to mind frequently when I consider the unhealthy relationship I have with my workload. The kind where it controls me and dictates my time instead of the other way around.

‘You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason, you’re behaving like the best friend.

You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life for God’s sake!’

My mum bought me a book that shifted my perception of delegation and I noticed that, as well as attempting to protect my team from having too much work and relying solely on my own assumptions to determine what that looked like, I had fallen foul of acting on someone’s advice without realising its drawbacks.

As a quiet person who requires thinking time, I was struggling with the immediate decision making often required and expected of leaders. It was suggested that phrases such as ‘I’m not sure. Let me have a think about it and get back to you’ might give me that thinking time I felt I was in such need of. I was actually already saying variations of this already, albeit for a different reason – because I was keen to prove myself to others, ‘leave it with me’, ‘I can take a look at that for you.’

As Blanchard (2000) suggests, what these phrases also do is permit the ‘workload monkey’ to shift from one person’s back to your own. When the original owner of the ‘monkey’ was actually one of my team then this was even more problematic as I was saying quite clearly to them that this task was no longer their responsibility and they wouldn’t have to provide me with a progress report. I would do it all and so I repeatedly shouldered additional workload.

Instead, I now pause as often as I can catch myself doing this and think instead:

‘Who does this particular workload monkey belong to?’

If it’s not me then I ask the owner, ‘What might the next step be?’ so the monkey remains firmly with its owner. They don’t have to solve the entire task, just the next reasonable step to be taken, which could be as small as a conversation or some initial research. The important thing is that it hasn’t found its way onto my to do list.

Blanchard’s approach to dealing with delegation helps you to describe a task fully, including its purpose and desirable outcome. It takes you through how to assign it to the right person and create a form of review. Either the task owner will recommend what they think should be done before acting, with a high risk task, or they will act first and then advise you about what they’ve done where the task is of lower risk.

If you’re also struggling with the why of delegation as well as the practicalities, I’d recommend reading The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. I’ve got another couple of books on the subject and will update this post to share their insights if they prove helpful over time.

This new strategy wasn’t without its challenges for me. I was still trying to work out how I could decide what was important and I was trying to work out where the monkeys belonged as far too many of them seemed to be sat with me.

The delegation matrix

Earlier this year, I enrolled on a Free CIPD FutureLearn course on people management skills and in one of the activities, I was introduced to an application of the Eisenhower Matrix to delegation. This could be the model I needed.

The first time I used it was prior to a longer than usual holiday where I felt outfaced by my workload and needed to take stock.

The matrix was a tool that helped me reflect on my priorities. Determining which quadrant tasks belonged in felt easier than it had previously. I was answerable to fewer people, the purpose of my work was clearer and I had a narrower remit of responsibility so the identification of what was important certainly felt more obvious. I managed to cross things off my list more easily, especially where the task was fuelled by anxiety more than purpose. This process of structured reflection helped me to determine where I could put tasks so they weren’t filling my headspace or dictating my time and preventing me from getting meaningful work done.

Once I’d worked out where all my workload sat, it was time to decide if it belonged on my list at all or if it should sit with someone else.

I was easily able to see that those tasks in the high importance, high urgency quadrant were for me to do myself. Now. They were important enough for me to spend whatever time was required to get them done between now and the deadline. They needed to be done quickly but thoroughly.

There were other items that had high urgency but that weren’t as important. All of these I delegated to my team with a clear and urgent deadline attached to each, with the offer to check back in should they have any questions. They were straightforward enough for me not to have to expend much effort in explaining them therefore they’d happen quickly with little investment of my own time.

I started off with plenty of items in the low urgency, low importance quadrant. This box, you’ll undoubtedly find, will allow you to decide what you let go of to make room for what’s right.

The vast majority of tasks in this quadrant, I managed to remove altogether. Others shifted to my ‘one day’ list in case their importance increased and others, I chose to delegate to my team during a 1-1 where we were able to talk about the task at length, discussing a check-in point and what the first steps would be. These would remain on our agendas for 1-1s to check in and see their progress.

Then there’s the low urgency, high importance section. Most of these stay with me because they’re aspects of strategy where I should really be spending most of my time. With some of them, I have enlisted team members to support with them in part, in order to provide an opportunity for their development and contribution to the organisation at a higher level.

This matrix doesn’t necessarily have to operate in the way set out as you may find that certain tasks require a level of delegation that isn’t dictated by the box it sits in but overall, I find it to be a helpful framework to guide my prioritising. I use it at the end of each month as I look ahead to the next month’s priorities or at other times when I’ve identified I’m feeling overwhelmed and I would benefit from reviewing my workload.

From what I’ve learned so far, there seem to be some underpinning elements to make the use of Eisenhower’s matrix meaningful:

  • A clear sense of purpose and priority at an organisational level
  • A strong sense of purpose in your role and vision for your work
  • A clarity about your team’s strengths and skills
  • An understanding of your team’s workload that isn’t built on assumption
  • A time and space set aside for regular reflection and use of the matrix
  • A value for your own time and energy – a recognition that it needs to be spent in ways its likely to have maximum impact and job satisfaction

Without these elements, it may prove difficult to identify what’s important and delegating effectively may be a challenge.

The more routinely I use the matrix, the greater clarity I have around what’s important, what isn’t and what I already have on my plate. This clarity guides my yeses and my nos. It helps me to accurately answer the question, ‘is it now, some day, or never?’ It means I can determine who, when and how. Perhaps, most importantly, it helps me consider where I can add most value for the time I choose to invest.

‘If you never stop to question what you are doing, how will you know you are doing a good thing?’ (Poynton 2019)

References

Blanchard K (2000) The one minute manager meets the monkey. Harper Collins

Poynton R (2019) Do Pause: you are not a to do list. London: The Do Book Company

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