Getting Organised: Setting up a System
Being organised is one of the things that teachers have to do well to stay on top of their demanding workloads. I can’t stress how important this is for your efficiency and effectiveness as a teacher.
In an earlier post 10 Top Tips for Becoming an Organised Teacher, I mentioned (in step #1), that you must implement some sort of system to keep on top of your workload.
So where do we start?
One of the first things that we have to do is to figure out what needs to be done. Once we have a good idea of that, we can then start to organise those outstanding items into some sort of order and priority: those that can be done now or later, and those which are one step tasks or larger multi-step projects.
Empty your head.
It is vital that you get everything onto paper and out of your head. The whole point of the exercise is to empty your brain of the things that are demanding attention from you, but which are always in a state of competition with other thoughts.
These mental instances are constantly in a state of being forgotten, remembered, prioritised and stored. Our memories are wonderful and can be harnessed by training, but for most of us, we just want a system that can help us get things organised so that jobs can be completed.
The Blank Sheet
So as daunting as it may sound, get a sheet of paper and list everything down that you can possibly think of that has to be done, or what you want to do: basically this a list of needs and wants that you will brainstorm.
Those items can be everything from marking exams to learning how to play the violin. It doesn’t matter what it is: get it down on paper.
Here is an example…
You will notice from these items that they are a mixture of work and personal items. There are short, medium and long term things to do. There are things that most definitely have to happen and others that might happen someday, if you have time.
Everything has to go down
But why put everything down together, both work related and personal items? The answer is simple: it rarely works that you can be organised in one area of your life and expect the other areas of your life to be healthy.
If you are super organised as a teacher but neglect your home life, sooner or later it will all fall apart (and vice versa). We know it’s sound advice to keep balance in our work-life arrangements, therefore it makes sense to get our organisation in balance too.
Furthermore if you only get some stuff out of your head, you will continue to be hampered by competing attention between some items that are organised and others that or not.
So, back to the ‘stuff’ that you have just emptied out of your head and onto paper. You had all of these items and hundreds more, competing for your attention. It’s no wonder people feel unorganised, when they don’t have a place to put all of these things.
Having written everything down on paper, you are now in a position to start organising them into their proper places.
Where does it all go?
David Allen in his fantastic book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity calls these locations ‘buckets’. The thing about buckets or locations for your items, is that there is always a place for everything. There is never an occasion where an item doesn’t have a home to go to.
The system that I use has the following locations or buckets as follows…
- Next Action items – Things that can be done soon.
- Waiting For items – Things others have to do.
- Calendar – Things to do at a specified time and date.
- Projects – Multi-step actions that form a larger whole.
- Someday Maybe Items – Would be nice to do someday.
- Filed Away for Reference
… which means they are no longer being monitored as part of your system. You don’t have to think about them anymore!
A word about Tasks and Projects and Someday items…
Before we go on, it’s important to be clear about the difference between tasks and projects.
Tasks are things that you can action, either now or at some point soon and can be done as individual actions. If it can be done in less than two minutes, do it to completion and out of the system. If it takes longer, delegate it or defer until you can deal with it. (see diagram)
Projects are things which require a number of actions or tasks to be done before the project can be completed.
We can illustrate this by looking at marking history exams and writing a history exam. The former may take two or three hours to complete, but it is something that can be done in one step without having anything else around it to complete it, hence it is a task.
On the other hand, the latter is a project because there are probably a few individual steps to take before setting the exam: gathering sources to use, reviewing unit plan to align assessment material, constructing exam questions, constructing a criteria sheet etc.
You may have wondered about carrying projects around with you. Well that might be difficult if it includes a whole drawer of a filing cabinet! But what you can do, is note your projects in a page and then list each item into actionable tasks that you can tackle until project completion.
By the way, once you arrange your items into buckets, you will quickly notice that projects can then be actioned in individual tasks as before.
The golden rule about tasks and projects is making sure you assess the item as an actionable item and whether it is something that has multiple steps (project) or an individual item (task).
I also like to keep a page for those someday items; those pipe-dreams, just to remind me about them. Over time I have come to see that many don’t materialise or they take a different course from what I had originally planned. I like having them down on paper where I can occasionally review them.
What if I can’t action it: where does it go?
As mentioned above there are only three places where things can go, if they are not actionable.
- Someday Maybe – I want to do this, but no plans yet.
- Filed Away/Reference – Files in filing cabinet, teddy bear in closet, pencils in drawer etc.
- Binned – If you don’t need it, give it away or bin it. It’s important not to clutter up.
So let’s do something with all the stuff.
Having emptied your head, and with a little knowledge about actionable items, task and projects, it’s time to start moving all of it onto your lists.
I started off using a sturdy notebook with tabs, a wallet at the back and an elastic for extra security. If you’re into arts and crafts, go ahead and be creative. I’m not, so I buy Moleskine notebooks that do all of this for me.
Here is an old one that I used previously…
Anyway, whatever you use as the home for your tasks and projects, make sure that it is portable and is close at hand for ease of use.
Let’s get practical.
Okay, that’s a lot to take in, so I’m going to run through an example where we brainstorm and empty our head of a few things (nine items for our purposes) and see where they go.
So the system we have gathered should go through this workflow diagram as follows…
You should be able to recognise those areas we discussed above and the natural progression through the workflow from collecting stuff to getting it dealt with.
The shaded areas on the periphery of the diagram are those seven homes for the stuff to go. (The project area is really one, but I have illustrated that you break these down into actionable steps as before).
Putting stuff into your system
Now we are ready to allocate those items that have been taken out of your head, giving them a home in your system. To make things simple I have chosen nine items, as mentioned above, and I have placed them at the top left hand side of the following diagram to make it easier for you to see what I am doing.
Note carefully what homes in have put them in in the workflow itself. Can you see why they have gone there, rather than elsewhere?
The reality of life and teaching, is that you never stop completing things and adding new things into the system. There will be a continual movement in, through and out to completion.
The difference is, these things will be tackled productively and efficiently rather than in a haphazard or random fashion. Deadlines will be met and tasks will be completed on time. You will know exactly where on the completion continuum you are at any given time.
Workflow to System Location
We can see now that taking the information above from the workflow diagram and placing it into one of our seven locations is a simple step. Here goes…
There is nothing new here, but I wanted to illustrate that one of the items on our list, send email to parent, was a quick task that we could do in under two minutes, so that immediately took it out of the system. The green tick merely shows that it is complete, and it is not one of our seven locations.
Hopefully you can see how wonderfully liberating this can be, when you start implementing a system such as this. Your organisational skills will be self evident in how productive and efficient you become with your time and resources.
It doesn’t matter so much whether you chose pen and paper or something digital to achieve this: as long as it’s portable and you know how to use it, it will work for you.
My last piece of advice is to recommend that you invest in David Allen’s book that I mentioned above: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Everything that I have illustrated here, in which I have barely scratched the surface, I learned from this bestseller. When I first read it I was floored by the beauty and simplicity of it all. Now I couldn’t imagine working without it.
Good luck teachers, in implementing your system and let me know how you get on. If you have any questions please ask.