Productivity leads to a mind like water

[Let me start by saying thanks for checking out this post, but please know that I’m not an expert in this area of productivity. I’ll describe what I’ve recently learned/tried and hopefully you will try as well and then check out the resources I share.]

I’m an elementary school principal and feel that I’ve always been fairly organized with my materials and time. Productivity is a topic that has had my interest recently as I’m preparing for the onslaught of the typical crazy school spring. The spring is overwhelming because educators are presently hard at work to meet goals for the current school year, but we (especially admins and other school leaders) are also deep into planning (budgets, schedules, staffing, professional development, etc.) for the next year. This is my 11th year as a school administrator, yet I still find myself “just hanging on” each spring trying to survive. My students, staff, parents, and most importantly, my family, deserve better than “hanging on.” That’s not how I want things to go anymore, and I’m doing something about it.

My foray into better productivity started with listening to a podcast from Shifted Learning. Julia Fallon and John Pederson chat with Seattle principal Justin Baeder, and one of the topics they cover is David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. After I listened to the podcast, I threw my wife/kids into the family truckster, headed to the local bookstore , purchased a copy of the book, and knocked out a couple of chapters by evening.

You really need to read the book yourself, but some of the gold nuggets for me are:

First this isn’t simply just a book about “getting things done” and being busy all the time. The book helps you clear your mind of the jetsam that often deters you from being present and focused. It helps you capture and organize your thoughts so that you can move past the “tyranny of the urgent” and devote more energy to fulfilling and stimulating projects that require creativity. More than that, the concepts and strategies in GTD help you better enjoy time with your loved ones. Instead of worrying about possibly forgetting 17 work projects while spending time with your lovies, you’ll actually be able to BE PRESENT with them because your system has previously captured those thoughts and you’ve organized what you need to do to get them accomplished.

“Mind like water” is a key concept in the book and it is a simile for comparing a pool of water to the mind. When you toss a pebble into a pool of water, the laws of physics constrain the water to react “totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; It doesn’t overreact or underreact.” This is how we want our own minds to respond to stimuli. Stress and anxiety shouldn’t force us to overreact or not react at all. These situations that present to us should be dealt with in the manner that they deserve. We just get them done.

We make lists because we think that it helps us get things accomplished, but how many times have you made a list and actually felt more overwhelmed because of all that is on it? Felt anxious because that list doesn’t really help you accomplish anything? A great tip from this book (and with encouragement from John Pederson) is that when you make a to do list, begin each item with a verb. Instead of writing “Gavin’s parents,” write your list item as, “Call Gavin’s parents to tell them he’s really been working hard this week.” Instead of “report cards,” break it down into specific action steps like, “complete math grades in PowerSchool” and “Add comments for 4th hour Language class.”

The 2-minute rule is one I love. As you process your in-box (email inbox, mailbox in your office, postal mailbox), consider each item in it from top to bottom and make some decisions about what to do with each. If the action required to appropriately deal with the item takes less than two minutes, DO IT RIGHT THEN. An example of this for me would be employee time sheets. If there are time sheets in my mailbox, I shouldn’t take time to stack them up on my desk to be ignored for several days, causing me stress later because I’m late in getting them done. They take less than 2-minutes to read and sign, so do them NOW.

Email, Email, Email– When it comes to email, stop letting it rule your world and cloud your mind. Don’t check it first thing in the morning. I used to do this, and it only seemed to stress me out before I kissed my kids and wife goodbye for the day. Then the content of some of those emails would occupy my mind the whole drive from my house to school. Pick a time that is convenient for you to check and respond to email all at the same time. If you don’t have time to respond to email, don’t check it. It will only take up mental space that should be devoted to whatever task or situation is at hand. For me, I check and respond to email about 9:30 a.m. after I’ve done announcements and have made a lap around the building and walked through each classroom. Great advice to me from John Pederson was to turn off the push notification on my smart phone and set it to manual. His sage counsel is that if your phone/computer auto-refreshes your inbox every minute, that’s 1440 scheduled interruptions per day. [Think on that for a moment. Is email a tool of convenience?] 1440 scheduled interruptions per day!

I no longer have to look at that taunting red number on the envelope icon on my phone because I’ve shut down that notification. Some people have been used to me responding ASAP to emails, but they’ll just have to get used to me having a different timeline. If it’s that important of a message, it won’t come in an email. I only check email about twice per day now, and it honestly seems like I have fewer messages to deal with. I know this can’t possibly be true, but I know I’m saving time and metal energy by only focusing on email during scheduled parts of my day.

Commitments and agreements–Allen’s section of the book that discusses negative feelings was very poignant. We often think that stress and anxiety come from being busy and having a lot of work to do. The GTD author suggests that these negative feelings actually come from failing to meet agreements and letting others down. If you don’t have a good system for capturing/organizing your thoughts into action steps, things don’t get done and then you break an agreement that you had with someone else. That broken agreement (often with yourself) is likely the source of the negativity. Allen then goes on to cover how to (1) not make the agreement, (2) complete the agreement, and (3) renegotiate the agreement.

Another great section of the book was the importance of a productive and inviting physical work space where you will “get stuff done.” I’ve always been a lover of a clean desk and organized filing system. To me, the clean desk is a metaphor for a clean mind. Everything is organized and where it belongs so you can quickly and effectively deal with new work that comes your way.

My newly cleaned GTD desk.

Envious co-workers trash my desk less than 24 hours later. 🙁

I appreciate you checking out my thoughts on productivity, but please go straight to the best sources on this topic.
David Allen’s book Getting Things Done
Justin Baeder’s blog posts on principal productivity
Merlin Mann’s blog 43 folders
Shifted Learning Podcast with Justin Baeder
OmniFocus application (highly recommended by Twitter friends John Pederson and Neil Ringrose)
OmmWriter is a great word processing app that I use when I need to focus and just crank out ideas in writing.
Another great article about getting stuff done from the Illuminated mind blog. (HT to Pederson)

8 thoughts on “Productivity leads to a mind like water

  1. Curt,
    I appreciate your post and reflection of the whole GTD process. As a former elementary principal your words rang true in my head. Now at higher ed, these pieces will still apply especially in my administrative position. Now I deal with big kids, but the issues are still the same. Thanks-will check out the book!

  2. Thanks Sondra. GTD is a great book. Really helps you think in a more beneficial way and leads you to “pay attention to what you are paying attention to.” (paraphrasing John P) There are many mundane and boring tasks that go along with the principalship, but they are absolutely necessary to handle effectively. The GTD system/mindset helps you to be very efficient in handling the mundane so that you have more creative mental energy and time to think about and plan actions for the very big and important things in education.

  3. Pingback: Productivity and a mind like water by @WiscPrincipal | TeacherCast

  4. Great ideas! Also, check out Frank Buck’s book, Get Organized!: Time Management for School Leaders. It’s a great resource of practical ideas that can help anyone become more effective and efficient! You can find his site here –

  5. Pingback: Productivity and a mind like water by @WiscPrincipal | TeacherCast Blog

  6. Pingback: » Surviving May madness I know this much is true.

  7. Pingback: Surviving May madness by @wiscprincipal | TeacherCast Blog

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