(Vermilion, £11.99, 2010)
Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich
I was keen to buy this from the moment I heard an interview with the author several years ago, not least because so much of our jobs in Education are what I will politely call ‘contact’ tasks; things that we can’t farm out to call centres in India or shippers in the next county from ours. Nevertheless, I was still intrigued by what he could share, and bought the book to find out what I could glean from it.
While the bulk of the book is indeed based around setting up an internet-only business, and streamlining it to within an inch of its life, there are several brilliant sections on actually becoming more efficient. It could quite easily be two books mixed into one – one about being a more organised person, and the other about automating a ‘virtual’ business.
The main benefits an educator can get from the book are practical ideas about efficiency. The author writes about strategies to reduce and improve communication, especially through email, and how to inform and reduce meeting times. These are two big problems in schools and colleges, and many good tips for improving them can be found.
Email for example has two main ‘choke’ points – habitual checking, which becomes inefficient, and replying can unresolve initial questions. The author recommends only checking work emails twice a day. When that statement is first read, how you react may well reflect your dependence on email. He suggests that 11am and 3pm are good times to check and respond to email, stating that if you check your email first thing, it controls your initial tasks. By waiting until 11am, it forces you to complete any outstanding work in good time. To help others appreciate this, re recommends setting up an Autoresponse, explaining that this is the policy of the email account, and also where other help may be found. While the logic is sound, how could this work in an educational environment?
Certainly, there is a range of evidence to suggest that schools need to improve their communication skills, and the use of email has helped this. In many other ways, it has also stifled and hindered communication, and Ferriss recommends answering any question with as a definitive answer as possible, recommending services which book up your ‘appointments calendar for you. He is all for automation, and it is this lack of personal touch which might be hardest to accept, and which may well depersonalise effective communication.
Nevertheless, there are some really sound ideas in this book, as well as strategic ways forward, to improve communication. His view on meetings for example are probably shared by many staff – by and large, meetings are over-long, pointless and create work rather than find solutions to problems. He advocates having a very specific list of minutes in advance, which people action before the meeting, the aim being that if you action enough of the points relevant to you, you are effectively able to withdraw from the meeting – your purpose has been served! While this may function well in a small business, I can see the practice being less successful than the theory in schools.
This book has aspiration – to improve, refine and streamline work tasks. While not all the ideas are appropriate, suitable or even relevant to Education, there is enough in here to ensure that schools and colleges will really benefit from.
The Management Angle
A big danger for SMTs is both the ‘include all’ email and the automated meeting – that of a meeting which involves the same people, at the same time, for the same duration every day/week. While it is important to get heads working together, the idea of an agenda completed in advance is both clever and could save countless valuable hours each year if implemented effectively.
Likewise, developing an ‘open after 11am’ strategy for emails, and only including emails to people you would like a response from can only boost productivity. Ferriss writes that email is the hardest thing to for an individual to give up, but many staff in SMT would be far more productive if all their email went through a human ‘filter’ first, to cherry pick relevant emails for action. A £60,000 head using 20% of their time to sort emails that a £15,000 could do in the same length of time is effectively wasting £9,000 a year.
The Teacher Angle
There are many repetitive tasks we would all as teachers much rather not involve ourselves in, yet are necessary for the job. Creating reports and labels, researching policies and mining data all take up time away from the real grit of teaching; planning, pupil contact and assessment.
In this book, Ferriss recommends offloading a lot of this autonomous work to others. While we may feel uncomfortable following his suggestions to use Mumbai-based office staff, there are plenty of other ways teachers could utilise others for mutual benefit or financial gain. A recent search on eBay for example found cottage industries happy to create labels for your primary class children’s books, for probably pennies more than it would take for you to make yourself, ignoring any time costs.
The Pupil Angle
Efficiency is not often seen as an important skill, but how often is it overtly taught to the children? Writing maths down using figures rather than words is efficient, as is touch-typing, preparing in advance and learning clever methods to remember the Periodic Table. Teaching children to pass on messages, and to complete tasks discretely from other members of a group are all very useful skills which are active in our lessons, but not often signposted enough. After reading this book, I tested this concept by looking at one pupil who was particularly efficient in getting ready for the ‘work’ part of the lesson. We discussed it, noting her techniques (sharpen at the end of every lesson, so the pencil is sharp at the beginning of a work task), and the class adopted some of her strategies. The result: whole-class productivity inside two minutes, rather than five.
“By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.”
Robert Frost, American Poet
How much time do you spend carrying out non-essential tasks? How much time would you have freed up if you could have these tasks removed?