Why Educators Need A “Hard Stop” To The Work Day—Parkinson’s Law

As instructional leaders, one of our most important roles right now is making teachers' jobs doable, and helping them set healthy boundaries.

If we don't, 2020 will eat teachers alive.

(Not to mention administrators!)

Here's a quick example: setting a “hard stop” for the work day. 

Normally, teachers have a certain standard for themselves, and stop working when they've satisfied it. 

When the planning, prep, and grading are done to a certain standard, they can stop working and feel good about it.

But this year, it's almost impossible for teachers to meet their own standards. 

Especially if you're doing virtual learning—which, let's be honest, is never going to work as well as we'd like. 

This puts teachers into an endless loop of working as hard as they can, but still feeling like it's not enough. 

When there's no way to achieve our standards, we need a different boundary. 

I suggest using a good old-fashioned quitting time

We're re-watching The Office on Netflix, and it's jarring to see the Dunder-Mifflin employees just stand up and walk out when the clock strikes 5:00.

Who does that?! 

Actually, almost everyone. Our profession is the outlier. 

Sure, senior leaders often work outside of “work” hours, but not many other professions expect their rank-and-file members to routinely work crazy hours with no sense of boundaries. 

In our current context, working without limits is a recipe for burnout. 

When “Whatever It Takes” Becomes Toxic

Teachers will never feel like what they're doing is enough to fully meet the needs of their students—and if we let them, some will work themselves to the point of burnout. 

Our “whatever it takes” attitude can be helpful, but it can also become toxic. 

I believe in doing whatever it takes to help all students succeed—but with the appropriate party footing the bill.

If we need literacy intervention to get our students reading on grade level, let's do whatever it takes—and let's make sure it's properly funded. Let's not ask teachers to make up for failures of the organization or society to pay for what students need. 

Right now, society is not really meeting students' full range of needs, especially when school can't happen in person. Asking teachers to close that gap by working themselves to death is just not right. 

It's also not very effective. 

There's a productivity principle known as Parkinson's Law:

Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion

Cyril Northcote Parkinson

If you let yourself work “until you're done”…you'll work late into the night. Every day. 

If you force yourself to quit working at a certain time…a funny thing happens. 

Instead of getting less done, or doing subpar work…you'll simply work more efficiently.

You'll prioritize better, quit being a perfectionist, and spend less time on things that don't really matter. 

(Parkinson's Law is basically the inverse of the “law of diminishing returns.” Working more only produces better results up to a certain point.)

I first noticed this “Parkinson's Law” principle in my own work on a day I went to work with a bad cold.

Going Home Sick

It was a Friday, and because I was the principal, I didn't feel like I could call in and stay home. But I was in no shape to be at work, and it was obvious. 

“You need to go home,” my head secretary told me in no uncertain terms—and she was right.

But I had a long to-do list, and couldn't just leave it unfinished.

So I gave myself a hard stop. “I'll go home at noon,” I told her—and I did.

But before noon, I got everything done—the entire day's to-do list. And it was just fine. 

Has that ever happened to you? I bet you can think of plenty of examples.

Somehow, we make it to the theatre or the appointment or the airport on time—but when we're doing very few of those things that give us an external deadline, we need to give ourselves a hard stop. 

So give your teachers this same gift: a hard stop for the work day. 

Leaders Show The Way

If you want teachers to set healthy boundaries for their work day, start with modeling—the example you set is as powerful as what you say.

I'm not suggesting that you leave five minutes after the last bus, but give yourself a specific target time each day to turn off the lights and head home.

All day, if you work with that “hard stop” in mind, you'll work more efficiently, you'll prioritize better, and you'll anticipate getting to go home—so you'll do better work as a result.

Try it, and let teachers know how it's working for you. Encourage them to do their best while they're working, but then to stop working—and stop worrying—at a certain time. 

(Let each person choose their own time—don't dictate it. Just give them permission.)

Note: this also works for email—if you give yourself all day to check email, it'll take all day.

If you give yourself 20 minutes to clear your inbox, three times a day, that'll usually be enough—because the hard stop will force you to prioritize. 


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