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New term, new school year; time for a new habit?

I recently saw Steve Huffman co-founder and chief executive of the online discussion forum Reddit sharing three tips for success. ‘Really the job is all about time and stress management more than anything else…,’ sound familiar? His last point was almost throwaway, ‘…and that is something you’re in complete control over.’

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The paradox here is that we forever feel we need more time and that it goes too quickly. This is not the language of ‘complete control.’ Since measurement of time is well established, it’s quite challenging to step back and reflect on why we feel this way. Hoffman’s point however is not about how we feel; it’s about how things are. As leaders we have responsibility not just to manage our own time and stress, but to model this for others too, enabling them to be competent and productive in their work for many years to come. And here’s a serious point; I’ve lost count of how many people I saw retire when they were in their 50s in years gone by. Those days are by and large gone. My state pension age is 68, for those younger I’d put money on it being more like 70. For most of us the need to be engaged in paid employment in our later years is a necessity. In short, we’re here for the long game. The start of a new school year is a good time for serious consideration of how we put our own beneficial habits in place, and how we enable those around us to find their ‘best fit’ for managing busy home and work lives too.

Hoffman goes on to explain there are easy things to do about this:

• Get lots of sleep. You can’t handle stress and decisions without it.

• Schedule actual thinking time about the future; don’t be a slave to your calendar.

• You don’t have to answer every email, and you’re not obliged to meet with everyone who wants to see you and talk about their business. Your first priority is your business and yourself.

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Public Health England in July 2015 identified improved sleep as a particular issue for mid-life adults of whom Derk-Jan Dijk of Surrey University said: "It is that group that are the most sleep-deprived, probably because of greater occupational and family demands." Sound familiar again? Public Health England has clear warnings and advice worth a read.

Hoffman’s point about ‘scheduling actual thinking time’ sounds obvious; and from listening to school leaders in my role as a coach it seems frequency of thought is high. The challenge is around the quality of our thinking time and what leaders describe as intrusions to our thoughts, often driven by concerns about things that have already happened, things that may happen, or what other people think. This kind of ruminating is clearly not the ‘thinking time’ Hoffman is referring to. Creating time and space for useful and purposeful thought, using a framework to assemble our thoughts and a process to work through challenges helps keep the long view in mind. Active management of our thinking time is crucial to sustaining an energetic and hopeful outlook especially when the daylight diminishes and the pressure starts to build as the term gathers momentum.

Not responding to all emails and not meeting with everyone who asks to see you – radical. There can be an expectation that those in the public sector are there to meet the needs and requests of everyone, leaving leaders pursued into constant responsiveness. Hoffman is right about priorities. Separating feelings of obligation to respond from leadership priorities is a start in re-scoping what goes in and what goes out of your calendar. Note the latter point and ask yourself, ‘What should I stop doing this year?’

If it was five tips, I’d be adding to this very sensible list a review of diet and exercise habits.

A colleague told me recently she’d kept a food / mood diary at one time as part of a health studies programme. The insights from this were profound and she made useful changes to her diet. We all know it’s not good to have sandwich lunches sat at our desks (or in the car!), this again is something we’re in control of and may need some new ideas of when and what we eat to work for our routine and our health.

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We know that sedentary jobs and lifestyles are bad for our health; the NHS website offers suggestions for creating walkabout habits. Having a ‘walking meeting’ became popular in my last role; there is something good about walking and talking, the rhythm of walking with a colleague while current matters are considered and reflected on, questions asked, outcomes and vision clarified and actions put forward.

The most challenging matter here is whether we repeat the rhetoric of ‘but I can’t do anything about it’ or if we want to ‘be in complete control’ and look at where the possibilities are for some beneficial changes. Walking for 30 minutes a day, eating a high protein meal during the day, switching your phone to silent after 9pm. The challenge? Why not establish one good new habit at the start of this school year, share it, and pass the challenge on to your teams? Make a point of showing you take your personal physical and mental health seriously, model it and invite them to join you!

By Helen Woodward
Independent Consultant 
Twitter: @Helen_MaryG

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