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Work Smarter, Not Harder: 4 Simple Productivity Tips To Ease Your 15 Hour Work Day

Vincent Paget

December 10, 2018

Working at a boarding school is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle. Unlike most other occupations, the line where work finishes and your other life begins is a bit more skewed, in fact, it’s less of a line and more of a big fuzzy grey area.Working up to 15-17 hours a day, you're constantly answering phone calls and emails, organising your residential team, teaching and preparing lessons, carrying out dorm duties, caring for adolescent children, it’s all incredibly demanding, stressful and exhausting…But it doesn’t have to be.From our experience in dealing with boarding schools from around the world, we've gained a better understanding for the way you work and the biggest problem seems to be, that most people have slipped into a habit of working harder, and not smarter.At Boardingware, we like to place an emphasis on working smarter, not harder, and I want to share with you, some tips on how you too can benefit from working smarter to increase your productivity and reduce the stresses in your life.Here are 4 methods to try that’ll help you to start working smarter, not harder.

1. Use A System To Organise Your Tasks

Productivity guru, David Allen, tells us that “The more [something is] on your mind, the more it’s not happening, the more inappropriately you’re engaged with it."According to David, the secret to stress-free productivity is your ability to be appropriately engaged at any moment; In the zone and totally focused on what needs to get done.That’s why you find you’re most productive when you’re close to a deadline or in a state of crisis, because, at these times, you're totally engaged with that particular task, nothing else matters apart from getting that one thing done.But reaching this high level of focus is easier said than done when you have hundreds of adolescent children to care for, a residential team to manage and a million other things on your mind at the same time.But rest assured, in David's book, “Getting Things Done,” he offers you a step by step process for dealing with this exact problem and teaches you how you can experience appropriate engagement without the need for stress or crisis to force you to.He proposes taking a systematic approach to organise all your tasks rather than accumulating them in your mind and either forgetting or avoiding them. He also suggests that his method will enable you to focus with more intensity whilst also being optimally available to shift your focus for any surprises that may come your way.His book goes into great detail (I highly recommend you read it), but to save you the time, here’s a quick rundown of what his system involves:

Step 1: Capture Your Thinking

The first mistake most of us make is to keep things in the back of our mind. You probably have something on your mind right now as your reading this article and as a result, you’re not fully engaged in absorbing this information.So the first step is to capture your thinking and get everything out of your head, big, small, professional, personal, just write it all down.This’ll give you, what David calls “Psychic Bandwidth,” the psychological space that gives you the room to think clearly and creatively, and the ability to focus on the things that need your attention the most.


Once you’ve written everything down, you’ll most likely end up with a very big and messy “To-Do-List" of everything that’s going on in your life. Most people stop here and think they have everything organised. But they’re wrong. More often than not, a to-do-list is an incomplete list of still unclear things.You’ll find that a lot of things on your list will be quite general, like 'finalise budget,’ ‘student field trip’ or ‘recruit new staff.' Whilst these things might indicate that you need to do something, they don’t tell you exactly what needs to be done. So although you’ve written them down, it doesn't really help because you still end up thinking about what or how you’ll actually do them.This is why you need to move onto step 2.[Tweet "The more it's on your mind, the more it's not happening #CaptureYourThinking"]

Step 2: Process Your Tasks

Now you need to run each of your tasks through a system/process to decide what work is involved in completing each one. The system that David describes in his book is quite detailed, but here’s the simplified version.Basically, there are 2 key questions you need to ask for each task. First, what’s the desired outcome you’re committed to finish? This’ll give you a target to aim for, and second, what’s the specific “next action” you need to take if you want to move that task forward?

Stree free productivity post-02

For instance, your desired outcome for “student field trip” might be to “take junior boarders on a day trip to the zoo,” and your next actions could be to “call the zoo and ask what days they’re open” or “send out permission forms for parents to sign” or “confirm which staff will be taking the trip” etc.Some tasks may not need more than one “next action,” such as “take out the trash,” and other tasks may not be actionable right now, like “buy a house,” but the majority of your tasks will require more than one “next action” and David calls these tasks, “Projects."If you process all your tasks from step 1, you’ll most likely end up with a huge list of small actionable tasks that can start to feel quite overwhelming. That’s why you need to make sense of it all in the next step.[Tweet "Break down your tasks into actionable steps #ProductivityTips"]Bonus Tip: When you're specifying your next actions, start each one with a verb, like “call”, “take”, “email”, “send”, “write”, “read" etc. This gives clear purpose for what needs to get done at each step.

Step 3: Map It Out

Now it's time to take all your projects/tasks, and bring them all together to put things into perspective. David suggests organising things into a set of different lists:

  • A “Projects” List for all of the projects you defined in step 2
  • A "Next Actions” List for all the tasks that you’re doing now or will be doing next
  • A “Waiting For” List for any tasks that you’re waiting for other people to do, like “waiting for staff to confirm their availability for the field trip"
  • A "Someday/Maybe” List for your larger tasks that don’t necessarily have any actionable steps yet, like “buy a house"

You don’t have to use these list headings, in fact, it's probably better for you to use different headings that are more suited to your situation, but nonetheless, the principles of this step still remain.With all your projects and next actions mapped out in relation to each other, you can then take a step back, look at what you're involved in, and start to make good intuitive decisions for what’s needed next.

Stree free productivity post-03

Your lists will help you to decide what your next overall course of action will be and it’ll also give you a sense of perspective and control to deal with any surprises that may come your way.For instance, if something comes up like “the zoo doesn’t cater for groups larger than 30 people," you can refer back to your lists, see how it’s going to affect everything else, and adjust/make changes accordingly.Being able to easily see everything as a whole will put you in control of all those things that would normally take over your mind and allow you to be appropriately engaged for what’s needed, whilst also being optimally available for what happens next.[Tweet "Use a system to help you rapidly shift your focus #ProductivityTips"]Since this book was published almost 15 years ago (2001), his method for physically filing your lists is no longer ideal. Instead, there are better ways you can organise your lists using software and one of the best tools on the market - and a tool that we use every day in our office - is Trello, and the best thing is, it’s FREE.Trello allows you to organise your lists online and from any device. You can make boards with as many lists as you want, easily move tasks around and see everything at a glance. Here’s a snapshot of what my Trello board looks like:


I have a “References/Resources” list for my long-term goals and other tasks that don’t require any next actions; a “Backlog” list where I keep all my projects; a “Sprint Planning” list where I keep all my projects that I'm currently working on; an “In Progress” list for all my ‘next actions’; a “Blocked” list for my tasks that I'm waiting on; a “Review” list where I keep all my finished tasks that need to be reviewed by others; and a “Done” list for all my completed tasks.Obviously, if you were to use Trello, your lists would be completely different, but the underlying principles will be the same. If you do use Trello or are thinking about it? I’d love to see how you lay things out. Please leave a comment below :)Bonus Tip: If a task will take 2-minutes-or-less, Do it right away. It’ll be faster to do it right then and there, rather than organising it through the system. Also, avoiding a lot of 2-minute jobs can quickly accumulate and prevent you from appropriately engaging with more important tasks.Here's a video of David Allen giving a talk about "Stress-Free Productivity" at TEDxClaremontColleges:.[su_youtube url="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHxhjDPKfbY" width="760" height="500"]

2. Prioritise Your Tasks With Daily Or Weekly Goals

Part of managing a boarding house is dealing with new demands that are placed on you at any hour of any day. Additional problems and jobs pop up all the time and disrupt your plans for the day, resultantly, you find yourself working overtime to get everything done, leaving you stressed and overworked.This is where setting daily or weekly goals can help. If set properly, daily goals can help you to prioritise your work, clear the chaos and clarify exactly what you need to focus on for that day.The key to creating effective daily or weekly goals will come down to 3 things:

  1. Is It Achievable? - It’s important that your goals that are not impossible to achieve. Setting ambitious goals can be good to push yourself but if you're constantly failing to reach your goals, it can affect your confidence and end up making you more stressed..The personal satisfaction of achieving your goals and ticking them off your list helps to boost confidence and happiness. So when you're setting your goals, make sure you consider not only the scale of the task at hand but also the number of tasks you assign yourself..Since you already know you're bound to receive additional tasks throughout the day, don’t be overly ambitious with your time. Instead, give yourself some room to deal with the extra demands that will pop up..
  2. Is It Actionable? - When writing your daily goals down, make sure they’re actionable tasks with clear instruction on what needs to be done. Instead of “budget report” write, "finish writing up draft budget report”. This’ll reduce any confusion when it comes to completing that task..If you use David Allen’s technique for ‘Getting Things Done’ (above), you can easily use your list of next actions to create a set of short-term goals for each day..
  3. Is It Urgent? - Ideally, you don’t want to add anything else to your list, but to prepare for those surprise tasks (that you're bound to get), you'll need to be able to quickly reorganise your goals for the rest of the day..That’s why it’s important to prioritise your tasks by urgency, how important is each task? This way you’ll be ready to quickly re-organize your priorities and appropriately deal with any surprise tasks that come your way.

[Tweet "#DailyGoals should be Achievable & Actionable #ProductivityTips"]Bonus Tip:  Keep a record of whether or not you achieved your goals within your set timeframe. If you didn’t achieve your goals, ask yourself why? what stopped you from reaching that goal? were you overly ambitious? or did you just waste too much time with something else?Over time, you'll begin to measure your progress and learn what kind of tasks are more stressful than others, how long and how much effort each task requires, and ultimately, you’ll begin to understand what you’re capable of getting done in a day, a week, or whatever timeframe you decide.This’ll help you to prevent burnout because now you can set the workload and amount of stress you give yourself each day. You can ramp up productivity and stress for a few days if you have a deadline coming up and you can reduce your workload for others.[Tweet "Measure your results to learn what you're capable of #ProductivityTips"]

3. Work Less, But Do More

Although managing a boarding house may require it, working for 15 hours a day can actually be counterproductive.There’s an age-old story (which you may have heard of before) that will help to explain why.Basically, it’s about two lumberjacks who were competing to see who could cut down the most trees in a day. One of the lumberjacks cut as many trees as he could without taking a break. He continued to work long and hard into the night despite noticing that his saw was getting blunt. However, the other lumberjack stopped every hour to sharpen his saw, so he could cut the trees more efficiently and with less effort. At the end of the competition, the second lumberjack managed to cut down more trees than the first, despite the first lumberjack working for longer hours.Sharpening our saw is a great habit to get into, and especially beneficial for helping you work productively and to avoid burnout.

Stree free productivity post-04

Our brains natural attention spans go through cycles, and on average, we’re only able to focus for 90 mins at a time, and then we need an added 20 mins of rest after that. So like the second lumberjack, taking small breaks to sharpen your mind and reset your attention span will do wonders for your productivity.[Tweet "Take a break and sharpen your saw #ProductivityTips"]Due to the nature of working in a boarding school, you can expect a lot of your time to be spent caring and supervising your boarders. So when you actually have time to work on your other professional tasks, like marking test papers, writing reports, preparing staff meetings or recruiting new staff, you’ll want to be as productive as possible.One of the best ways to work productively with the time you have is to work in short bursts of high intensity followed by small breaks. Working like this, is also known as "The Pomodoro Technique."The Pomodoro technique is a time management system that’s simple to learn and life-changing if applied correctly. In it’s simplest form, it goes like this:

  1. Select a Task
  2. Set a timer for 25 mins
  3. Block all distractions and work intensely until the timer rings
  4. Take a 5-minute break
  5. Woohoo that's 1 Pomodoro completed
  6. Repeat steps 1-4, 3 more times and then take a 15-minute break.
Stree free productivity post-05

This sounds absurd, right? How are you supposed to get anything done in 25-minutes. Well, the aim of this technique is to work with time, rather than against time.So instead of working for long periods of time and suffering from mental burnout, you work in a series of short high-intensity sessions broken up by small breaks that help refocus your mind for the next session.The key is to be fully focused (appropriately engaged) on a single task during that 25 mins. No multi-tasking allowed.And the small breaks are not allowed to involve anything that may be distracting for you, like social media, games, addictive websites etc. Instead, it’s best to just get up, move around, stretch or jump up and down - Power naps are also a great way to boost your brain function and focus.

4. Embrace Technology

Technology has definitely made its mark in every aspect of our lives - personal and professional - but are you making the most of the technology that’s available to you? and are you using it to its full potential?A lot of people simply aren’t aware of the technology available to them or what it’s actually capable of.It’s time you embrace technology.Chances are, a lot of your daily tasks can be made more efficient or even fully automated with technology. Even a few small tweaks can end up saving you a lot of time and increase your productivity.Here are a few examples of how you can hack the technology you use to improve your everyday life:

Streamline Your Incoming Email

As a boarding professional, you’re constantly receiving emails from concerned parents, staff members, upper management and friends. Some of these are urgent and some of them aren’t, and figuring out exactly which ones need your immediate attention can take up a lot of your precious time.One of the best things you can do with your email is to optimise it with "filters and labels" to automatically categorise all your incoming mail.In Gmail, using filters and labels is easy. You can set criteria to filter emails by sender, words that are contained or aren’t contained in the message, the size of the email etc.Next, you simply define a certain label, such as “Parents” or “Residential Team,” that’ll be applied to all your emails with that filter. All your incoming mail will now be categorised into easily understood labels that you've chosen.In essence, learning how to work with labels and filters will allow you to create several automated processes that organise your mail as you see fit. By spending a little bit of time to tweak your settings now, you’ll not only notice a cleaner inbox, but you’ll also spend less time dealing with irrelevant mail - It’s like having your own personal assistant that sorts your mail for you.[Tweet "Let #Gmail sort your email like a #PersonalAssistant with Filters and Labels #ProductivityTips"]Another Gmail trick is to use their “Canned Responses” tool. This tool lets you create email templates and easily insert them into a reply or new email so you don’t have to write it out each time.It’s a handy tool for replying to the same questions over and over again or sending out the same weekly or monthly notification email to your residential team etc.Here’s a video which explains how you can set this up:[su_youtube url="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8snv5omwI2s" width="760" height="500"]

Take Control Of Your Unnecessary Subscriptions

Is your inbox overflowing with unnecessary information from websites that you’ve subscribed to? Some of them might be interesting and relevant, but a lot of them are unnecessary and end up leaving your inbox looking like this:

inbox full

You dread going through each email and clicking the ‘unsubscribe button,’ it’s painful and time-consuming, so instead you delete them and temporarily clean your inbox until the next batch comes through.[caption id="attachment_801" align="aligncenter" width="770"]


A snapshot from my Unroll.me account, showing how easy it is to manage my subscriptions[/caption]A better option is to use a software service like Unroll.me, which helps you easily manage all your subscriptions from one place. All you have to do is sign up with your Gmail account and you’ll be able to see all your subscriptions in a list, unsubscribe from each one with a single click, and also combine all your favourite subscriptions into a single digestible email that’s sent to you at a time of your choosing, either daily, weekly or monthly.This will save you time and keep your inbox nice and clean. And the best part about this service is, it’s free, so there are no excuses why you shouldn’t have a clean inbox.[Tweet "Take control of those unnecessary subscriptions with @Unrollme #ProductivityTips"]

Automate Tasks Between Your Favourite Apps And Web Services

You probably have a lot of apps and tools that you use on a regular basis - like Gmail, a To-Do-List, Dropbox, Google Spreadsheets - and that’s great, but you can make them even better by connecting them with each other and automating tasks between them.With software services like ‘IFTTT’ (If This Then That) or Zapier, you can make your favourite apps talk to each other and automatically complete tasks when a certain trigger is set off, all without you even having to lift a finger.For example, you can use IFTTT to set up a trigger with your Gmail, so when you label an email with “ToDo", it’ll automatically create an event in your google calendar as a reminder.

Screenshot 2015-12-04 16.24.19

Or you can use Zapier to automatically create new Google Calendar events when you fill out a new entry in your Google Spreadsheet.You can use these free services for so much more, from automating all your business software to setting your coffee machine to automatically turn on when you wake up. The possibilities are barely limitless.[Tweet "Automate your life with @IFTTT and @Zapier #ProductivityTips"]

Explore Alternative Options With Technology

When it comes to harnessing the power of technology, there's a sea of options out there, but it seems many people either aren’t aware or simply choose to ignore them. For most of your daily tasks, more often than not, there'll be a piece of technology that'll be able to do it better, or at least assist you in some way.For instance, Google has a range of free apps that can easily improve your workflow. Google docs, spreadsheets and hangouts can help you to communicate with your team and work on projects collaboratively.Trello is also another handy tool for managing projects with your residential team. It’s a simple and effective way to assign tasks, track their progress, and communicate and collaborate with other members of your team.Furthermore, our service - Boardingware - is specifically designed to help residential teams to easily manage their boarding house. You can effectively track your boarders, processes leave requests, sign in/outs, take roll calls, record pastoral information, organise transport and much more :)My point is, whilst it can be scary to ditch your traditional methods for technological solutions, if you’re willing to embrace it to its full potential, the benefits will be well worth it. Sometimes it’s about taking a leap of faith and technology is definitely a leap in the right direction.[Tweet "Take the leap and embrace technology #ProductivityTips"]Small Piece of Advice: When it comes to exploring alternative options with technology, be aware that there's a lot of different options out there. So make sure you have a good look around and choose the right one for you and your school.

Bonus Tips To Relieve Stress

Sometimes, no matter how organised and productive you are, stress is inevitable. Let's face it, working at a boarding school is demanding and even if you do use all of these techniques. So here's some quick tips to help you when you're feeling stressed:

  • Exercise - I’m not talking about heavy weight lifting or running a marathon. Just a light jog or a brisk walk is enough to get the “feel-good” endorphins flowing, so you can get pumped and ready to get on with the job..
  • Meditate - Even if it's just for 5 minutes, meditation can help to calm the mind and relieve any tension you may have built up. I use Headspace, a meditation app for your smartphone or web browser, to calm my mind when I’m feeling overwhelmed..
  • Sleep - Sleep deprivation is one of the main contributors of stress, so make sure you're getting enough sleep each night. If you're feeling tired during the day, a 20 min power nap can work wonders..But be aware, if you “power nap” for too long during the day, you risk falling into deep sleep and this can end up making you feel even more tired and sluggish. 20-30 mins is the optimum “power nap” duration.

What's Your Technique?

As a boarding professional, what do you consider to be the most stressful part of your day? Do you have your own techniques for dealing with your demanding lifestyle?If you do, I’d love to hear them, along with any other questions or thoughts you may have in the comments below. I respond to every comment.Or you can Tweet us @Boardingware with #BoardingwareChat

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Vincent Paget

I'm a kiwi living in London and who has been part of Orah since 2015. Working in operations, my passion lies in finding efficiencies and scalabilities in all areas of the business. Beyond the office, I'm all about outdoor adventures like football and fishing, along with music, travel, and quality time with friends and family, especially my dog.

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