The “Things That Matter Most” Protocol

There is too much time in my day and I don’t have enough to do.

…said no one above the age of fourteen. Ever.

For most of us, packed schedules and long to-do lists make every day an exercise in determining opportunity costs. If I choose to do activity “y”, what will be the impact of forgoing activity “x”? There simply is not enough time in the day to get everything done, so we have to prioritize, identify our most critical tasks, and then make choices about where we are going to invest our time and energy.

Perhaps my favorite quote (and I am a quote guy) is one by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.

This is a powerful phrase, and it implies several responsibilities for the reader:

  • We must be keenly aware of what is most important in our many roles (professional, personal, spiritual, etc.)
  • We must recognize, and accept that some uses of our time are more valuable than others
  • We must be incredibly vigilant to ensure that our limited amount of time is spent in a manner that supports the things in our life(or individual roles) that matter most

None of this is easy to do in a society that glorifies busyness and where the “tyranny of the urgent” often drives our day-to-day living. There are days that pass where I (1) can’t figure out where the time went, and (2) am unable to clearly identify what I actually did. I was incredibly busy, but I accomplished almost nothing of substantial value. This happens more often than I would care to admit.

Obviously, I am not writing this post from the perspective of an expert, but as a someone who struggles (every single day) to ensure that I am giving appropriate attention to the things in my life that “matter most”. I have read countless articles, and books, about how to be more productive (and I’m sure I will continue to do so) — looking for a quick fix, or a “system” that will solve my problems and “tell me” what to do. So far, I have not only been unsuccessful, but I have recognized that most blog posts on this topic repeat the same advice — over and over. Have a plan. Schedule your critical tasks. Take time for reflection. Say no. All, probably pretty good advice, but most of these suggestions still leave me feeling like I spend a majority of time “checking things off my list” and leave me wondering if the things I am doing are really making a difference.

(Before I move on, I do want to say that there are a few books I have found to be particularly helpful when it comes to living a meaningful/purposeful life: Essentialism by Greg McKeown, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, and Broadcasting Happiness by Michelle Gielan are especially helpful.)

As an example, I am the principal at a diverse, urban junior high school in Arizona. I have grown extremely tired of the current educational narrative in our society that says the right things (kids come first, we must value our teachers, principals should be out in classrooms, etc.) but then doesn’t “walk the talk”. This brings to mind another one of my favorite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Your actions speak so loudly that I can not hear what you are saying.

We have an educational system that generates enormous amounts of red-tape for teachers and administrators, demands investment of time and effort that goes well beyond inadequate recognition/compensation (at least for teacher and support staff), fails to adequately invest in kids (especially those with the greatest need), and standardized tests students into oblivion. Unfortunately, there is a significant divide between hopes for an ideal educational system that supports ALL stakeholders and our current reality.

As an administrator, I see this in my job as I struggle to manage paperwork, district initiatives/requirements, emails, budgets, school safety, student behavior, data, testing, teacher evaluations and a plethora of other minutiae. Honestly, many (not all) of these activities “suck the life” out of my day. Some of them, I don’t enjoy and I must struggle to make any meaningful connection between their completion and a clear benefit for my students, or my school community. That is why I have recently been considering ways to “redefine” the principalship in a manner that is consistent with my core beliefs and values about education and that allows me to ensure that “things that matter most are never at the mercy of things that matter least”.

I typically make every effort to get into classrooms every day, but this past Friday, I spent my entire day on campus. I covered for a teacher who was absent, but didn’t have a substitute. I helped with labs in a couple of science classes. I interacted with kids during lunch supervision. I taste tested some awesome peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I ran an AVID tutorial class. I did not answer emails, work on district initiatives, or wrestle with red tape. It was BY FAR the best day I have had this school year. It was meaningful, encouraging (to me — and I hope students and teachers), and helpful. It allowed me to actually see what was happening in classrooms, experience lessons from a student’s perspective, and engage in the student learning process. My day on campus also prompted me to think about my core beliefs as a school leader and how I should invest my time. Being a “type A” personality, I’ve actually considered a protocol to help me decide how I should make decisions about my day-to-day activities. Here are a few of the questions I am going to begin asking when making decisions about how to spend my time. Note: these questions are based upon my personal mission and beliefs about my responsibility as an educator. Your questions may vary.

Should I work on, or do ______________ (insert action/activity here)?

Does this action/activity help build positive relationships with my students, staff members, and/or parents?

Does this action/activity address a specific need of my school community, or alleviate a burden on someone else?

Does this action/activity contribute to a positive climate on campus and/or in our school community?

Does this action/activity contribute to improved teaching practices, an increase in student learning, or a more productive learning environment?

Does this action/activity encourage a student, staff member, parent, or member of our school community?

Does this action/activity “add to my cup”, thereby allowing me to do a better job of serving others?

If the answer to any of these questions is YES, then it is probably worth investing my time to get that task done, or complete the activity. If the answer is NO, there are a couple of additional questions I need to ask.

Will there be negative repercussions (for me, or for our school) if this activity is not completed?

If NO, don’t do it, say no, or take a pass. If the answer is YES:

Is this just a hoop that I am required to jump through (is it cutting through red tape)? 

If YES, complete the activity with the minimum amount of time and energy investment to avoid negative repercussions. Just get it done. If NO, do what needs to be done to avoid negative personal or school community consequences. This may sound like a questionable approach, but consider opportunity costs. Spending significant time on a “hoop” means losing out on opportunities to work on high impact projects/activities.

In summary, it is critical that we spend our time attending to what is most important in our life at any given moment — whether that is at work or at home. Our decisions need to prioritize people over process, purpose over “hoop jumping”, and critical content/activities over red tape. I have come to recognize that in order to maintain my ability to sustain efforts to support others, I need to make reflection on my personal “what matters most” protocol a daily deliberate practice.

In your life, or your job, how do you make decisions about where to invest your time and energy, and how much to expend? Please share your ideas and strategies in the comments.

(I’m working on an actual flowchart/protocol sheet to use as a reminder for my daily decisions. I will share when it is done.)

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