Extinguishing time bandits and energy vampires

Focus is an amazing resource for teachers and leaders in schools. Dan Goleman in his book Focus the Hidden Driver of Excellence cautions,

“Attention works much like a muscle—use it poorly and it can wither, work it well and it grows.”

Daniel Goleman

With the complexity of work in schools, the potential for attention to be consumed by distraction is greater now than ever. The pace of change and the work of schools to keep up may create conditions of perceived extra pressure. And, maybe this perception in turn creates the sense that everything is an urgent matter.

Urgency for change is often identified as a source of energy for implementation. But without intentional, systemic design of how to use that sense of urgency, the sense of urgency itself can be a source of distraction. People might feel that they need to interrupt others in order to get things done.

Just think about a task someone might be focused on in the spring season of an academic year: scheduling comes to mind. The person creating the matrix of time for next year’s teaching and learning tries to concentrate on the detailed work of a timetable, and someone pops their head in the door, asking “Got a minute?”

If only it were a minute. A UC Irvine study found that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds just to return to the focal point prior to the interruption.

Then, imagine this sort of interruption happens six, seven times in the day. That’s 2.3-2.7 hours lost per day trying to get back the same focus . Those interruptions can cost 11.5-13.5 hours a week, and 230-270 hours a month.

Interruptions have been called ‘time bandits,’ and for good reason. The things that take away time from focus on learning have greater impact on our work. Shorter time to accomplish a burgeoning list as schools transform means that everyone feels a greater sense of pressure. They have to work faster to get things done. That leads to more potential for inaccuracy and error. The perceived pressure has been found to negatively affect morale, decrease motivation and increase stress—and that’s why time bandits have earned the additional nickname of ‘energy vampires.’

Time in schools

There are roughly 37 weeks to the academic year in the international school. If a school allocates one collaborative hour per week except for weeks when the meeting day might fall on a holiday or a school event, that amounts to a precious more or less 33 hours a year to spend working together on problem-solving that’s focused on learning.

Well-intentioned people attend meetings and sometimes, sabotage their own focus. Some examples of interruptions to learning during a collaborative session might be:

  • Small talk and gossip (54%)
  • Side discussions about other projects (45%)
  • Late arrivals/early departures (37%)
  • Technology and connectivity problems (33%)

(Source: Udemy Report on workplace distraction, 2018)

Given that time in a school year is finite and can be unintentionally wasted through interruptions and distractions, what can we do to help ourselves avoid giving time bandits and energy vampires opportunities to run amok in our schools?

Priority 1: Provide dedicated collaboration time

We cannot implement without shared and common understanding of how we are enacting learning in our schools. There is no way around this one. It is one of the keys to alleviating the anxiety of an implementation dip. Teachers have to work together, and that time and space needs to be part of the timetable of a school. When collaboration is protected time, some outcomes might be:

  • It’s visible to everyone that we value collaborative work because it is in everyone’s timetable.
  • Collaborative goals gain value in everyone’s perception, and that participating in improving our school is something we all engage.
  • We have time to do all the things we need to do.
  • We get better at collaboration skills.
  • We are rehearsing toward becoming a high-performance team.
  • We learn to get better at our own practice.
  • We cross-pollinate ideas across disciplines and classrooms, networking our cognition so that we create even better ideas.
  • We ensure that interdisciplinarity isn’t theoretical and silent in plans but is lived through teacher discourse, which ultimately can lead to implementation.
  • We have opportunities to inquire together.
  • We have opportunities to advocate for our ideas.
  • Innovation is possible because we are building a greater sum of parts as a group.
  • We get things done well.

The list above is not exhaustive, but you get the idea of the power that dedicated time, focused and free from distraction, presents and the quality work collaboration might produce.

Priority 2: Have essential agreements about focus time

We have wonderful open door policies, which makes us accessible to colleagues. Sometimes, we might agree that when the door is closed to a collaborative space, it’s focus time. Similarly, classroom teachers who work in shared spaces might devise ways to signal to colleagues that it’s focus time. These agreements among the team helps in protecting the focus without interruptions.

Priority 3: Communicate the need for focus clearly, in concrete terms

This is about clear communication. If I need to design a timetable and set aside three hours for working on it, I could request for no interruptions for that reason. People generally honor such requests when they know the reason why it is made, for example, “Please allow me to concentrate on building the timetable from 9.00-12.00 today because I need to make sure everyone has collaborative time with their subject groups and there’s no time clashes in the schedule. Interrupt only if there is an emergency involving safety and health.” Communicating with the team is key to valuable focus time.

Priority 4: Use tools to focus for effective and productive meetings

Publishing an agenda is useful, especially when the agenda has been thoughtfully designed, with clear goal(s) and time allocations for each item. Meetings with no clear and thoughtfully designed agenda tend to meander, and time and collective cognition is lost in these meanderings. Additionally, we can co-create agenda as a group, and have the opportunity to prioritize what it is we intend to accomplish in advance, signaling to the team that we are expected to come prepared to contribute because we all agree that the priorities on the agenda are meaningful to our work together.

Using protocols for the learning that we do together at meetings creates meaningful use of the time and gathering. A useful protocol for moving from goal to action and tagging on follow up is a simple end-of-gathering summary chart that a team can co-create with this information:

What is the goal Who does it By when

Making the process visible allows for teams to follow up, to park thinking and go back to it for the next steps.

Other strategies for effective meetings might be having a time-keeper and a scribe or scribes to gather the group’s thinking into visible notes.

Priority 5: Expect products

Sometimes, there is a misconception that if we’ve met about something, that it’s been done. This can be avoided if we design a performance of understanding into our collaborative time, a product that we co-create that propels our collaborative goal further along in its implementation.

For examples, if a gathering intends to create shared and common understanding  interdisciplinary learning, it may imply a dialog around what people understand interdisciplinary links and learning looks like, making visible the examples that already exist in a chart or written notes. Then, the group might consider moving into a discussion around the final criteria for an ideal interdisciplinary inquiry (IDU), producing a set of task specific descriptors for what a successful IDU looks like for the group’s context. The products of this meeting are: shared understanding, examples, and task specific descriptors for the task of designing IDU. These products not only make the collective thinking visible to all, but they also give launch points for next actions.

Designing time and focus on learning into the systems we put in place ensures the focus so needed by individuals and groups to create good work. The  intentionality with which we design structures and systems is significant in creating the conditions for our learning ecosystems to flourish.

Featured photo: Stockholm Sweden Photo by Yoav Aziz on Unsplash


Freifeld, L. (2017, November 20). 6 Jaw-Dropping Facts About Workplace Interruptions and What You Can Do. Retrieved 9 April 2019 from https://trainingmag.com/6-jaw-dropping-facts-about-workplace-interruptions-and-what-you-can-do/

Goleman, D. (2015). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York: Harper.

Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress.  Proceedings of the 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2008, 2008, Florence, Italy, April 5-10, 2008. doi:10.1145/1357054.1357072

Schulte, B. (2015, June 01). Work interruptions can cost you 6 hours a day. An efficiency expert explains how to avoid them. Retrieved 9 April 2019 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/06/01/interruptions-at-work-can-cost-you-up-to-6-hours-a-day-heres-how-to-avoid-them/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b2c6b2ed3dfe

Udemy for business (Ed.). 2018 Workplace distraction report(Rep.). Udemy.com.

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Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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