Have you ever been running late to another meeting or in the middle of a project that requires deep thought, and heard the dreaded words, “Got a minute?”
Don’t get me wrong; I want to be available, visible, and helpful to teachers and staff members at my school. But when the “got a minute” question takes me away from the things I have to do, I find it challenging to maintain the focus and productivity needed to effectively accomplish my priorities. Culture matters, and as a school leader I have learned over and over again that it isn’t what you say, but how you say it. If you’re always in a rush, or immediately responding to the “got a minutes” regardless of how hectic your day is, it will take you away from the intentional and important work that awaits you.
5 ways to Prevent derailments and distractions
1. Establish boundaries. Leaders should set clear boundaries to protect their time. This may include establishing specific office hours, limiting non-urgent communication during certain periods, and communicating expectations with staff regarding when interruptions are acceptable. And the hardest part of all this: learning to say no when someone asks if you have a minute and you don’t.
Instead of feeling guilty for saying no, reframe it: The no right now means a yes later when you have the focus needed to listen intentionally and respond with kindness and clarity. If you need a few elevator speech sentences to help build the muscle to set boundaries, try these:
- “I’m currently in the middle of a time-sensitive task. Could we schedule some time later today to discuss your concerns? I appreciate your understanding.”
- “I want to give you my full attention, and I’m currently tied up; can we find a suitable time for a meeting tomorrow?”
- “I appreciate your need to talk, but I have a prior commitment at the moment; could we set up a brief meeting during my office hours to address your questions?”
2. Prioritize and plan. Start each day by prioritizing tasks and creating a clear plan. This proactive approach helps prevent getting sidetracked by less important or unexpected issues. For me, I utilize the Full Focus planner to keep me focused and goal-oriented. On Sundays, I look ahead and plan the week, and each morning, I list my daily Big 3: the most important tasks for the day. These two tools allow me to monitor my time and tasks to determine whether I really do have a minute in the moment or if I am already behind on the goals for the day.
3. Delegate effectively. Reframe asking for help and delegating duties this way: By empowering others, you can focus on your core responsibilities and avoid becoming bogged down by tasks that could be handled by others. If you have an administrative assistant, you already have a superpower in your office. My administrative assistants have an amazing way of helping with tasks that I want to do but could be done by someone else.
A not-so-funny example of this was when I thought I could be “helpful” this past summer by printing, sorting, and organizing the 800 letters across the district for students attending our district after-school programs. Three hours and hundreds of forms later, I realized that the first two were out of sequence, meaning the rest of the 798 forms had the wrong student on one side! Talk about an epic fail (and waste of a lot of paper).
So the next time you think you are being helpful, try not to be a Cabeen, and remember that there are probably five other people who not only could do it better but also want to do it to help you (and to save a lot of paper in the process).
4. Use time management strategies. Implementing time management techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique, time blocking, or the Eisenhower Matrix can be a game-changer. These methods can help you structure the day, allocate time efficiently, and minimize distractions by creating dedicated periods for focused work.
I have gotten into the habit of scheduling a 60-minute chunk of time every other week to review our building site goals, look at data, and reflect on growth, progress, and next steps. This work, to be done well, has to be completed without distraction. So I give my phone to my administrative assistant, shut my door, put on a Pomodoro timer, and get work done.
5. Reflect and adjust regularly. School leaders should regularly reflect on their daily routines and identify patterns of derailment or distraction. This reflective practice allows for adjustments to be made, such as refining time management strategies, improving delegation processes, or addressing persistent challenges. Continuous improvement is essential for maintaining focus and productivity.
I like to do an audit of “got a minute” repeat offenders. During the week, how many times do people pull you away from your regularly scheduled tasks? And do you see a trend of who needs you or what they need? Once you have time to reflect on the data, you can make adjustments. For example, if the same topic keeps coming up, maybe that is a gentle reminder to add more clarification and communication around that topic in upcoming staff newsletters.
If you have a few people that seem to need you for more than one “got a minute” a week, try setting up a scheduled biweekly meeting with them and encourage them to bring those concerns to the meeting. Then they have a time and place to ask you questions, and you have the bandwidth and self-regulation to respond.
Do the math: If just three people ask you if you have a minute each day, and that minute takes you at least 20 minutes to think on and respond to, you’ve just lost one hour of your day to solving others’ problems in the moment instead of using that time to strategically and proactively plan to support an entire school community. It doesn’t make it easier, but it does emphasize the importance of setting boundaries, prioritizing your time, and effectively achieving your goals in work and life.