Organization for directors—and anyone else who wants to work smarter
1. My idea of time management is
a. finding a minute to deal with the fifth crisis of the morning,
b. having a blank calendar on the refrigerator at home, or
c. being able to address both crisis and routine tasks calmly and completely.
2. When I delegate tasks, I
a. plaster the walls with reminder notes until the tasks are completed,
b. bite my tongue but worry endlessly about how the jobs will be done, or
c. trust that the tasks will be done well but not necessarily as I would have done them.
3. My desk looks like
a. the play yard at the end of mud day,
b. a sticky note factory, or
c. an area arranged for serious, child-centered work.
4. The best time for me to do creative work is
a. in my dreams,
b. What’s creative? I’m unclogging the toilet again or
c. when I’m rested, relaxed, and energized.
5. It time to go home but my car keys are
a. maybe somewhere in the toddler room,
b. maybe in the grocery bag I left in the kitchen this morning, or
c. clipped to my backpack in the file cabinet drawer.
If you answered a or b to most of these questions, read on. If you answered c, you’re ready to help others become better time managers—go offer a class.
Everyone has unique and distinct life goals, but few of us feel we have enough time to carefully and consciously balance work, family, and personal priorities. Sheree wants to get paperwork under control so that she can compute expenses for her next monthly board meeting. Sam works from crisis to crisis and feels he doesn’t really know some of his staff. Kendra needs to be able to leave work behind when she locks up at the end of the day, so she can enjoy the company of her husband and young son. Karin knows that lack of organization makes her feel like a poor director and unsuccessful professional. All of these directors understand that organization will help them avoid burnout and sustain the energy needed to be effective in the job they love.
You work with staff, children, and their families and that means people will always come first. In service professions like early care and education, there is little room for people who would rather spend time with a calculator or computer than with other people. But in order to be responsive to people, you need a few basic organizational skills to maximize your time and efficiency, so you can get the important things—the ones you really care about—done.
Time efficiency involves two sometimes competing considerations: your priorities and your schedule. Examine your priorities and write them down. Some people find it useful to make a list of everything that is important and then categorize by A, B, or C according to significance. Only you can decide whether writing a weekly parent newsletter is more or less important than helping the new cook spice up the menu rotation. Your priorities will guide how you can best use your time.
Jenny’s priorities—Fall 2018
A Negotiate new rental agreement.
B Build collaborative relationships with professional peers.
C Investigate real estate for new program site.
A Help Margie, Beth, and José earn CDA credentials.
B Rewrite parent handbook.
C Organize art supply closet.
B Develop a training workshop on toddler language development.
C Make contacts in the child mental health community.
A Sign contract for the installation of the new play yard shade tent.
In the example above, Jenny’s priorities are outside the typical list of director job responsibilities. Each goes beyond the need to ensure children’s basic health and safety, and instead improves working conditions for staff, supports families, and builds professional status—all hallmarks of program quality.
As you set priorities, make note of approximate time allocations. Will the task take ongoing attention, say 45 minutes a week? Is it a task that has no specific time frame, or is it time specific? Is it a task that you can share or delegate? For example, Jenny’s interest in helping three teachers work on CDA credentials is a long- term task and will require focus as well as emotional, financial, and professional support.
Similarly, Jenny might consider whether the parent handbook must be rewritten or just updated. Updating specific information (about parent work days or new procedures for child release at the end of the day, for example) is a far smaller task than reformatting, printing, and distributing totally new booklets.
As she looked for the time to schedule her highest priorities, Jenny performed another useful exercise, a time audit—an evaluation of how she actually spends her time, in this case on a Monday morning in June.
Jenny’s time audit—Fall 2018
7:30 Check in with teachers, playground walk through.
8:00 Reorganize piles on desk; list priority tasks; answer phone calls from two salespeople.
8:30 File immunization records for newly enrolled children. Distracted by out-of-date files, pull and pile on floor for later storage.
9:00 Answer phone call from mother who led last week’s book fair. Call includes details on fair income, daughter Anne’s birthday party, teacher vacation plans, potential tuition increase, and meatloaf recipe.
9:30 Go to kitchen to find coffee. Check in with cook and discuss defrosting freezer.
10:00 Walk by playground and pull weeds along fence. Spot poison ivy and confer with teachers about avoiding the area until removal is complete.
10:30 Do Internet research on poison ivy removal, phone calls to 3 landscape companies, prepare note to parents about potential contamination.
11:00 Remember to return phone call to licensing representative scheduled for 9:30. Called but she’s not there.
11:30 Gather last week’s meal service info for USDA report, go to toddler classroom for report not submitted. Look for grocery receipts.
12:00 Start to plan Tuesday staff meeting. Ms. Sophie brings in Hanna who just vomited.
12:30 Try to phone Hanna’s mom but can’t find her new work phone number. Call grandma to retrieve information. Clear cot of books and papers for Hanna until her mom arrives.
Painfully, Jenny sees that she has not been able to carve out any time for her priorities! You can use a similar chart to track your time for a few days. Try to be ruthless and make note of every activity, interaction, and interruption. Highlight time wasters—the dragons that destroy careful planning and create frenzy.
Evaluate: Does your audit tell you that you’re spending the most time on items that are lowest on your priority list? Are you doing work that you could delegate to someone else? For example, does the cook really need a reminder about defrosting the freezer? Do you use routine tasks to hide from important ones? Note where Jenny lost focus, how she might have consolidated tasks, and why missing an appointment with her licensing rep might have dire consequences.
Build systems for working smarter
Use these tips to stay organized and make time work for—not against—you.
Plan for tomorrow. Many teachers and directors find that they work most efficiently by planning at the end of one day for the next. Of course, you’ll need to build flexibility into the plan, but write down what you want to accomplish and an idea of how long each task will take. Avoid overscheduling and keep some time for yourself, even if it’s 15 minutes for muscle-relaxing yoga stretches at your desk. Clear your desk and put away supplies before you lock up for the night.
Determine your prime time. Try to block off the time of day you feel most energized and creative. Use this time for high priority projects that require thoughtful analysis rather than routine tasks like calling the plumber or fixing a broken wagon. Alert staff and parents that, for example, you will be working on the budget on Thursday between 9 and 10:30 a.m. and will respond only to emergencies during that time.
Work for efficiency. Use the 4 D’s to deal with paper, including mail, files, and routine paper: Do it; Delegate it; Delay it; Dump it. Routing slips are useful for making sure everyone gets to see catalogs and magazines. Put your name at the bottom of the list so you can add the material to the proper resource shelf after everyone sees it. Use text messages thoughtfully and consolidate messages directed to the whole staff so that the environment isn’t filled with the constant ding of new message alerts.
Keep a master plan book. Use a planner (paper or digital—each has advantages) for both personal and professional daily to-do lists, weekly and monthly tasks, and a yearly calendar. Avoid the temptation of multiple calendars and instead keep all information—family vacations, doctor appointments, paydays, library book due dates, staff meetings, and conferences—in one place. Add address pages and phone numbers to the planner (an appropriate backup to your smart phone’s contact list) as well as a folder to store stamps, business cards, and sticky notes. Record mileage and other unreimbursed business expenses and make tax time easier by highlighting these week-by-week.
Temper the telephone. Alexander Bell gave the world a useful tool—not a tyrant that interrupts work, concentration, and face-to-face conversation. Control your own impulse to respond to every phone chime and be careful to address classroom phone use in your policy handbook. Be firm with solicitors, be mindful of scams, and tell callers at the beginning of the conversation how much time you have. Try to make routine calls early in the day, model the behavior you expect by being courteous and direct. If you use a voicemail system, make sure your outgoing message is clear, thorough, and timely. Let callers know when they can expect to hear back from you.
Organize as you go. Control files, paper, and other potential clutter day-by-day. Develop an effective file system and use it. Don’t let things that are no longer useful accumulate. If it’s broken, fix it now. If it can’t be fixed or is too old to stimulate children’s learning, put it in the donation box for disposal every Friday (teachers can take turns managing this task). Be selective with storage space; libraries and common resource areas (for art supplies, manipulatives, dramatic play props, and puzzles) are more efficient than several personal stash closets. Invest in quality equipment that won’t waste your time and money with repairs and replacement shopping. Target one area at a time—one book shelf or desk drawer—and keep it tidy. Two minutes spent once a month is a better time investment than two days every two years.
Use technology wisely. Keep basic documents in easy-to-locate computer files and recycle them as needed. For example, you’ll likely have to remind families of your outdoor play policy in hot and cold weather. Compose your document carefully and save it, changing the date with the season. If changes are necessary, most of your work is already done—just revise. Use email for regular communication and save messages in the email filing cabinet (by date, family name, issue, or whatever system works best for you).
Keep paper copies of only the most essential communications and remember to keep backup files—and store them safely off site. Master database management to help you manage financial data, family information, staff training records, and food service documentation.
Learn to delegate. Effective leaders know how to motivate others to get work done. Delegating maximizes efficiency and increases the ability to get more done in less time. But it is a demanding skill that requires determination and your willingness to let go of the Super Woman title.
Some tasks are only yours to do—counseling a teacher about her habitually late arrival time or negotiating a rental agreement, for example. No matter how unpleasant, these tasks cannot be delegated. However, there are program management tasks that can be shared with others. This doesn’t mean dumping what you don’t want to do but instead framing tasks to fit the skills and interests of another. The art of delegating involves carefully organizing the task, stating your expectations, and providing feedback—from a distance. Allow room for mistakes, self-paced work, and creative problem-solving. Be available for check-ins but consistently communicate your trust that the job will be done independently and successfully.
Avoid procrastination. If an unpleasant task is the cause of procrastination, promise yourself a reward for getting the job done. Unpleasant tasks seldom disappear, and putting them off often worsens the situation. When the size of the task makes you want to put it off, break the job down into bite-sized pieces and work 15 minutes a day to get it done. For example, if you must rewrite your parent handbook, work on one section at a time. Set a realistic deadline for completing the task, decide on a starting action, and enlist the help of others who can check your work, protect your work time, and keep you on task. And don’t let perfectionism paralyze you. Every task will eventually need to be redone; perfection is more than almost any job requires. But in the words of Madeleine L’Engle, A life lived in chaos is an impossibility.
Bloom, P. J. (1998). Avoiding Burnout: Strategies for Managing Time, Space, and People in Early Childhood Education. Lake Bluff, IL: New Horizons.
Hindle, T. (1998). Manage Your Time. New York, NY: DK Publishing.
Lee, K. (2003). Solutions for Early Childhood Directors: Real Answers to Everyday Challenges. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.