The School Principal ‘Time-Clawback’ Method

Time. Such a precious resource, yet most of us take it for granted. How can we get a better understanding of what our time is really worth?

School principals value their time because they’ve started to understand a brutal truth:

There is NO silver bullet to winning your time back.

As you become a school leader, demands on your time will naturally start increasing. And there’s no easy way to stop this.

You often hear about the new “breakthrough” tactic that will free up half your workday. Some quick tip that tells you to: say no, delegate, prioritize.

If only it were that easy.

Just try one of these quick productivity hacks, and you’ll see that in a few weeks you’re back to your old routine, swamped, drowning in a sea of urgent but unimportant tasks.

Well, we’ve talked to 112 experienced school leaders from across the country and distilled their learnings into the Time Clawback Method. We then combined their wisdom with the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement (kaizen) to create a holistic system for incrementally regaining control over your time.

Why Combine Continuous Improvement & Time Management?

Well, time scarcity is a symptom of a bigger problem in the world of education. It is really hard for educational leaders to properly separate value-added from non-value-added activities in their circle of responsibility.

As I’ll explain later, the core idea of lean management is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. This mindset forces us to focus first and foremost on the customer which, in our context, is the student. Then, through a process of continuous improvement, principals can “incrementally” clawback their time slowly but steadily through what Taichi Ohno termed “systematic waste elimination”.

So, by combining managerial insights from experienced educational leaders with kaizen principles, we will be getting to the root of our problem.

But, before we break down the Time Clawback Method into a step-by-step blueprint for you to follow, let’s quickly get a glimpse into a principal’s average day.

The Best and Worst Things About Being a Principal

A principal’s job can be extremely rewarding. On the face of it, being a headmaster looks like very pleasant work. It’s certainly important and purposeful, a calling really, not a job.

How many of us can say that we are transforming a young person’s life every day?

You may think that principals are powerful Chief Executives of their school. They lead the building, shape the culture, call the shots, and make things happen.

If that’s what you thought, you’d be wrong.

Having asked a bunch of them, being a principal can also be extremely frustrating and sometimes outright painful. What is it that leads to over 50% attrition rates in some schools, three years into a new position?

You start the day by playing “traffic cop” in the parking lot. You then make a few calls to straighten out school supplies. After you’re done with calls, you go on your daily “walk around” to be sure classes started on time.

While you grab your morning coffee, your first appointment is with one of your 600 parents. This will be followed by more meetings, more problems to solve, more calls to answer, requests from the Superintendent, suppliers to chase, even burst pipes to restore, leading well into the afternoon. The workday has so many interruptions that you completely lose control of your true priorities.

The educational leader’s unparalleled level of responsibility combined with an overly complex job is a recipe for burnout.

Manage Your Time To Avoid Burnout

I’m writing here today not only to give you some advice on how a principal can better manage his/her time. I’m writing to argue that time management is one of the key building blocks to school effectiveness.

Learning how to tame your daily routines and habits can directly impact your school’s outcomes.

Using the first large-scale observational study of principal’s time-use, we can show that principals’ time management skills decidedly drive school performance.

So let’s start by mapping out where they actually spend most of their time according to the IREPP and Stanford University study:

Principals on average are found to break down their time as follows:

  • 30% on Administration activities (e.g. managing student discipline, fulfilling compliance requirements and accounting)
  • 20% on Organization Management tasks (e.g. dealing with budgets, organizing school resources, managing staff, networking with other principals as well as proactively hiring personnel)
  • 15% on Internal Relations tasks (e.g. developing relationships with students and interacting socially with staff)
  • only 6% to Day-to-Day Instruction tasks (such as conducting classroom visits and informally coaching teachers)
  • and 7% to more general Instructional Program responsibilities (such as evaluating the curriculum and planning professional development)
  • Finally, only 5% on External Relations tasks, such as fundraising or enrollment
  • Close to 20% of all observations did not fit well into any of these categories and are related to various tasks

What should they be cutting back on and where should they be spending more of their time?

The study tells us that time spent organizing resources, managing staff, recruiting key personnel and other organizational tasks is associated with significantly improved school outcomes.

It confirms that, when principals consciously make “more productive” time investments instead of getting distracted by administration work, schools have seen greater gains in student test performance over the past three years.

The Stanford study confirms that school principals should focus more on organizational tasks to significantly improve school outcomes.

Surprisingly though, the study finds that, while Day-to-Day Instruction activities, such as conducting classroom observations, are higher in high-performing schools, they are marginally or not at all correlated to improvements in student performance. They may even have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments of the school after a certain point.

Certainly, classroom visits or even teacher coaching are not the cure-alls they are sometimes portrayed to be. After a certain level of performance, classroom visits have diminishing returns.

Is there hope? Can Principals Gain More Control Over Their Job and Responsibilities?

I believe so…

This is where our School Principal Time Clawback Method comes in. Combining the wisdom of 112 experienced school leaders with core lean management principles, we are giving you a step-by-step blueprint to gain back control of your time.

The core idea of lean management is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, “lean” means creating more value for customers using fewer resources. This mindset forces us to focus first and foremost on the customer, which, in our context, is the student. It begins with the fundamental question, “What does my customer/student value?” and defines anything beyond the absolute minimum amount of resources needed to fulfill the student’s needs as waste.

You may have heard that lean is suited only for manufacturing. Not true. Lean applies to every environment and every process. It is not a tactic or a cost reduction program, but a way of thinking and acting for an entire organization.

In Japanese, the word for “waste” is “muda.” Muda points to human activity that uses up resources (time, money, brain power, space) without leading to any substantial value.

Waste covers all the things that happen, but shouldn’t happen, in any organization, including schools: all the activities that unnecessarily spend time, money, and energy, and ruin potential.

Before diving into how to start eliminating waste from your daily routine, you have to first answer the following two vital questions:

      ✪ What do your customers (students) consider valuable?

I will describe value for the student in the plainest words possible; namely the acquisition of knowledge in a manner that is fairly easy, quick, and enjoyable. With this definition, I mean to drive home that everything and anything that does not directly involve the student’s acquisition of knowledge is waste.

Once you’ve redefined what value consists of in your context, you’re ready to jump into the process of muda reduction.

      ✪ Can you think small enough? How can I take a step so small that it is impossible to fail?

Through a process of continuous improvement, principals can “incrementally” clawback their time slowly but steadily.

Forget “breakthrough” improvement all at once, which is often unstable and short-lived.

“Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” – Benjamin Franklin

From this perspective, in order to solve big problems, you have to think small. Commit yourself to continuously taking small baby steps towards improvement at a very high and steady frequency.

If you maintain this one commitment, you’ll overcome the fears and other psychological responses often associated with change, such as procrastination and feelings of resistance. By focusing on making the steps as tiny as possible, you guarantee small successes you can build on and gain momentum.

Time should be earned back through many small changes as you implement each of the nine maxims proposed below. Here it goes:

1. Successful Principals Balance Their Workload

Just like the Japanese reduce Mura (Unevenness, Imbalance) through production leveling (heijunka), you can implement a fixed repeating scheduling of your routine tasks. You should then allocate time to each of these fixed repeating slots. While the slot time may vary from week to week, it is important that you stick to the slot sequence.

Scheduled weekly and monthly slots can include “meeting” days for one-on-one discussions, team gatherings or “focus days” to concentrate on certain crucial tasks and “buffer days” for catching up. Devoting a staff’s entire day to one kind of work encourages collective concentration that spurs productivity.

How this can change your life: Your goal here is to standardize your weekly/monthly schedule to about 80% predictability. You will then manage your calendar by exception. You will set out each week with a standard set of meetings and work sessions ahead of you dropping tasks into your pre-allocated time slots.


Simple Steps:


  1. Create 3 standard agenda types in your calendar with color codes (green, yellow, red). Green is for instruction-related and relationship-based activities. Yellow is for the organization. And red is…you guessed it… for administration.
  2. Ask what are the recurring, must-have work sessions every week? Fix those into your calendar and inform your staff. Monday mornings, I’ll be doing X, Thursday after lunch I am doing Y. Needless to say, keep meetings to the minimum. Leave 30 minutes of blank space before and after your slots to allow for planning variation.
  3. First thing on Monday morning, review your calendar backbone. Plug new tasks into their respective slots. A new coaching session with your 8th Grade Math teacher? Into the Tuesday 10 am slot. Recruiting a Substitute Teacher? HR is on Wednesday afternoons. Of course, there are exceptions; you may even add slots for those. You can also do this with green, yellow, and pink Post-It notes on your office wall, or even use the free program trello.

2. Identify Your Most Important Problem and Solve It First

This idea will help you when you’re in firefighting mode and don’t know what to tackle first. A key concept in Lean is called the Theory of Constraints (ToC). The ToC shows us how a lack of priorities can lead us to mistakenly optimize a short-term solution while causing the whole school to be more inefficient.

An example is a principal who decides to coach three new underperforming teachers instead of fixing a faulty hiring process (oh no, more underperforming teachers will be hired!). According to the ToC, you should first address the most important constraint that stands in the way of your goal. In manufacturing, this is called a bottleneck. When you solve your bottleneck, you then find the next one.

How this can change your life: Focusing on the most important constraint is a habit that makes your life easier as if by magic. There are two reasons for this. The first is that problem-solving this way gets rid of problems for good. The second is that the constraint or bottleneck often hides other problems that also go away by themselves, this is sometimes called a domino-effect.

Simple Steps:
  1. In order to set your priority, ask yourself, “What is the most important constraint that stands in the way of my goal?” Another way to put it could be, “What can I solve today that will make everything else easier to solve”?
  2. In order to find the root cause, repeatedly ask the question “Why?” (five times is a good rule of thumb) until you can peel away the layers of symptoms. E.g. Why am I having a lot of discipline issues in the 3rd grade…5 Why’s…I need to improve the hiring process to test the classroom management skills of new teachers.
  3. Focus on this one problem until you solve it. Then another constraint will emerge.

3. Work From Your Calendar, Not a To-Do List

Successful principals think in terms of minutes, not hours or days.
Viewing your day as a set of 1,440 minutes will help you focus on essential tasks. Time is finite and deciding how to allocate your 1,440 minutes is probably the most important decision you’ll be making every single day.

A to-do list can become a monster. Research shows that most list-makers never complete more than 41% of their planned jobs. Daily lists tend to randomize the order of importance among your tasks, muddling your focus. Items on a to-do list can sit there forever, constantly getting bumped by things that seem urgent at the moment.

How this can change your life: Knowing that everything you have to do is written down somewhere, that your calendar is planned out and prioritized, that new tasks will not slip through the cracks, will really decrease your stress levels.


Simple Steps:


  1. Create an extremely simple “task parking lot”. Task management tools can be complicated, so I would suggest you create a simple excel sheet that sits on your desktop (with your own categories such as: urgency, importance, person responsible, extra comments).
  2. Dump ALL your tasks into the list as soon as you think of them. You have to get it all out of your head and capture it somewhere. This will reduce your stress. Your brain is not meant to hold all of the stuff you have to do.
  3. Every Sunday night open your calendar to the left of your desktop and the list of your tasks to the right. Start “dropping” tasks from your task list into your preset fixed repeating slots (see point # 1). Start from important tasks and move down towards urgent ones.
  4. Close your task list and don’t go through the list again until the following Sunday. For the next seven days, you should only be feeding the list with tasks an soon as they arise.

4. Establish a Systematic Process of Workplace Organization Through 5 S’s

This methodology will help you go beyond simple housekeeping and help you establish a culture for maintaining a visual workplace (visual controls and information systems).

How this can change your life: Visual management creates an extra layer of communication among collaborators in shared working environments. By setting standards in unison, you are effectively deciding once and for all things where should go. As a result, you save hundreds of hours from “renegotiating” each item’s location again and again. A school can then also measure its self-discipline towards sticking to its rules.

Simple Steps:
  1. Divide your school into ‘kaizen areas’ to be addressed separately (classroom, office space, canteens, etc.)
  2. Set workshop dates for all areas in collaboration with the people in charge of the areas in question.
  3. Spend 35 minutes of training before each workshop
  4. Launch the workshop following these instructions:
                            * Sort (Seiri) – collect all items in the area and throw away rubbish
                            * Set In Order (Seiton) – organize all items in the area
                            * Shine (Seiso) – clean all items in the area
                            * Standardize (Seiketsu) – set a visual standard for where every item should be (the visual standard should signal when the item is not in its place)
                            * Sustain (Shitsuke) – maintain the standards

5. Always Carry a Notebook

Some of the world’s most famous billionaires, including Sir Richard Branson, attribute their success to keeping a notebook handy. Jotting down stray thoughts, meeting notes and great ideas create indelible impressions, both on paper and in your mind.

How this can change your life: Research shows that the brain uses several intertwined functions to process handwritten information. This results in more active, accurate recall than typing. 60% of what we hear is forgotten within 9 hours. Note taking also promotes active listening and deeper understanding.

6. Drop Planning for Kanban

Traditional planning is only suited for a highly predictable environment. You focus on deadlines and work on all necessary tasks in parallel in order to meet that deadline.

As opposed to that, The Kanban process is based on pulling work from a backlog (task warehouse), and completing one task at a time and only as needed—a concept known as ‘Just In Time’ in Kanban methodology. There are no prescribed phase durations, and priorities are reassessed continuously, based on the most recent events. In an uncertain environment, kanban system stabilizes your execution.


Simple Steps:

            1. Prepare a simple task board, which consists of three columns: “To Do” “Work in Progress” and “Done".
            2. Set a work in progress (WIP) limit: Set a self-imposed limit of items being worked on. No other item should be started until the existing items are completed.
            3. Implement a process of frequent (re)prioritization.
            4. Set small planning meetings when backlog reaches three items. The team will decide here which of the backlog items are the most valuable and should be moved into the WIP phase.
            5. Because workflow is continuous in Kanban with no fixed iterations, a Kanban board never gets cleared.

7. Hack at your Inbox in Batches

A survey by the McKinsey Global Institute indicates that office workers spend up to one-third of their days reading and replying to emails. Be aware that “email is a great way for other people to put their priorities into your life.”


Simple Steps:

            1. Use the “321-Zero” system to keep email in its place: Three times a day, spend 21 minutes reviewing your messages. Your goal is an inbox with no new mail. This arbitrary time limit will force you to reply with clear, short answers. Act on each email when you open it.
            2. Decide if you should work on it immediately, enter it on your calendar for later action, delegate it, or file it.
            3. Frugal use of the Copy and Forward commands help you avoid snowballing responses that clog your inbox.

8. Institute daily stand-up meetings (also known as a “daily scrum”, a “daily huddle”, “morning roll-call”, etc.)

Your objective should be to align the team ahead of the day to come while also injecting a great level of enthusiasm and vigor into the atmosphere. It shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, and you should stay positive/constructive on at least 7/10 items on the agenda.

To keep these meetings effective you have to focus on:
      * A short brief of key events of the previous day
      * Review of key metrics (disciplinary infractions, attendance rates, logistics & operations metrics -transportation, food, supplies cost) and improvement actions (open/closed actions)
      * Setting priorities for the current day & opening the floor to a few questions

Ideally, you would also have an improvement whiteboard with only the key improvement points and metrics you will be sharing with the team. This is a publicly visible whiteboard or chart that identifies raised improvement points/suggestions and tracks the progress of their resolution.


9. Worry Only About the Problems in Your Circle of Influence

As the great Stephen Covey wrote in his masterpiece The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we should only concern ourselves with issues we are able to directly impact on our own with our talents, time, resources, etc.

Maybe also devote some time to issues that we can impact indirectly through others and/or through their resources. However, avoid spending time on our “Circle of Concern” which represents everything that we come into contact with that concerns us but that we cannot impact.

The ability to recognize that something is not in our Circle of Control or our Circle of Influence allows us as leaders to focus our time and resources where we can make an impact.

Now You Try It.

I hope you can see the potential of the Time Clawback Method for your school.

Yes, it takes hard work to build time management habits. No wonder drug will bring back your carefree days before you became a leader.

But if you follow this method step-by-step, you will gradually clawback your time, and gain control of it once again. Thankfully there are some school principals ahead of us who’ve built a set of habits through real-world testing. There are also universal philosophies such as 'Continuous Improvement' which surprisingly offer the same set of ideas.