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Top Stress Busting Tips – No.2 Re-think your to-do lists

One of the things that contributed to my burn-out as a Head and the subsequent six months absence from work, was a sense that I was sinking. I never seemed to be on top of my ‘To-do list’. There were so many interruptions in a very large and bustling school. The phone would ring, there […]

One of the things that contributed to my burn-out as a Head and the subsequent six months absence from work, was a sense that I was sinking. I never seemed to be on top of my ‘To-do list’. There were so many interruptions in a very large and bustling school. The phone would ring, there would be a knock at the door, parents wanting to see me and then there was my email account. I must confess, that rather than allocating myself two or three times in a day to check my emails, I allowed myself to be distracted every time a new email notification flashed up on screen.
There came a point, when I stopped going to Heads’ meetings. They were a great bunch of people, but someone would always say something like,

‘’Have you all filled in form…… (insert any piece of bureaucratic nonsense you like here!)?’

This would either a) panic me because I had never even heard of the form, or b) depress me because every other Head in the room was nodding sagely to say that they had indeed completed said form (Looking back, I bet some of them were fibbing!). I would return to my car and with a deep sigh and  add another item to the list.
More worryingly, I was spending so much time chasing my own tail, that I developed a habit of trying to reduce the number of items on the list by working my way through as many of the smaller things as possible so that I could experience the satisfaction of ticking them off. I was making the mistake of expending most of my time and energy on the 80% of the items that would have the least amount of impact, whilst often not getting around to the 20% of items that would make the greatest impact on the development of the school! This is an easy but dangerous trap to fall into.

Returning to work, I continued visit Chris Roome (the mental health therapist who helped get me back to work), to continue to help me develop coping strategies, to stay in the job that I loved.
In one session, I raised the issue of the dreaded to do list and how inadequate it made me feel.
Chris gave me some good advice. He suggested I got to work five minutes earlier and took my list and broke it down into three columns:

• Must do today
• Should do today
• Could do today (time permitting)

It really did help. It made me focus more on prioritising what needed to be done. I still never completed my list, but I could usually go home at night knowing that I had completed everything in the ‘Must’ column. This gave me some satisfaction and a greater sense of being in control of things.

Chris also encouraged me to be realistic about what I could achieve each day. Many people fall in to the trap of over-scheduling and leaving no time to deal with the ‘curve-balls’ that will be thrown our way, each day.

So, on a Friday, I had a fourth column: ‘What I did today’. In this column, I recorded all the telephone calls, emails, unscheduled meetings, the children who had been sent to see me (some for good reasons, others less so!). These were the occurrences that had prevented me from working on the first three columns. It helped to remind me, going into the weekend, of all that I had achieved, both planned and un-planned!

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