Time management is an age-old challenge for leaders of all kinds of organizations, but the problem seems particularly acute for school administrators. While educators have a strong sense of their core mission, constantly-changing policies, mandates, and curricular goals leave many teachers and principals grasping for a unified sense of purpose in their work. The structure of schools and the school day contribute to a rushed, fragmented, and unsustainable pace of activity.
The result is not just stress and burnout, but also a loss of efficiency and effectiveness both for individual educators and for schools as a whole. There is a surprising dearth of good resources on how to address this issue. John C. Leonard's Finding the Time for Instructional Leadership is a notable exception, but most authors, including Leonard, focus primarily on better ways to delegate responsibility or manage one's calendar.
There's nothing really wrong with such a technical approach, but it overlooks a more fundamental aspect to the problem of our break-neck, harried, frenetic approach to work and life. Working and living this way separates us from our deepest selves, cuts us off from our feelings, limits our relationships, and deprives us of opportunities for more fulfilling lives of purpose and joy.
Marc Lesser's excellent little book, Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, addresses the issue of time management from this kind of contemplative perspective. Lesser, a former business executive who now consults world-wide, draws heavily from his ten years as a full-time student of Zen in offering a rich, thoughtful perspective on our unsustainable work habits and provides a wealth of practical, down-to-earth strategies for slowing down so that we can actually be more productive at the things that really matter.
Lesser (who acknowledges the irony of his name) starts by noting that as societies and individuals we have become addicted to our unrealistic agendas and ubiquitous digital distractions at least in part because we are convinced that our self-worth is tied up in the accumulation of our accomplishments. In this era of Perpetual Recession we may not rely as much anymore on our wealth as a sign of our worth, but we have perhaps doubled down on the assumption that if our lives are to be useful and meaningful, we must be busy.
The fallacy of this kind of thinking is nearly self-evident. Our busyness does not result in a greater happiness or even a sense of accomplishment, but rather frustration and a feeling that, whatever we may have done today, there is twice as much to do tomorrow.
Less offers a way out of this cycle of frustration and fear by first emphasizing the power of sitting still to figure out what we really are seeing, hearing, feeling, fearing, and hoping for in this present moment. The act of just sitting with ourselves is in itself a radical break with the busyness addiction, and open us up to a vast universe of self-awareness and new possibilities. The author offers instruction on a variety of simple mindfulness techniques through which we can begin this journey of self-discovery.
The "Less Manifesto" is Marc Lesser's framework for what to do with this self-awareness when we begin to slow down and listen to our own hearts. The author explores, through a series of straightforward exercises, how we can get in touch with the inner fears that motivate our incessant busyness (a direct link to the Enneagram of personality), and from a new place of openness begin to identify, test, and challenge our own (often unrecognized) assumptions (a strategy that perfectly echoes Argyris and Schon on the concept of theories of practice).
Such self awareness work does not come easily, of course, and Lesser also offers great wisdom on how we can come to recognize our patterns of resistance - the ways in which we flee from our own fears and aspirations, usually through some intentional distraction or through the busyness of work itself.
By breaking through these layers of resistance and distraction, we can reflect on our work in light of three fundamental questions: 1) What is my purpose for being here on this planet? 2) How am I doing in relation to this purpose? 3) What steps do I need to take to align my purpose and my actions? In slowing down to ask these questions, we build capacity to change our work habits so that we are investing our time in the things that really give us life and joy. Lesser emphasizes that in the end we may appear just as active (and certainly more productive) before we began the less-is-more journey, but our activities will be farmore closely aligned with our values and life purpose.
Less is a book that is both philosophical and practical. The perspectives and strategies offered could enrich the work of teachers and school leaders, especially since schools as workplaces seem to be so resistant to reflection and contemplation. It isn't a silver bullet, however, even if a reader were to faithfully implement all of Lesser's recommendations (not that any silver bullet really exists). One key source of our busyness is the relentless demand that others place on us to complete tasks associated with their key priorities. The author doesn't address this challenge specifically, but it seems the key to meeting this problem is in first being perfectly aware of our own priorities and patterns, so that we might then more effectively work with the (often misplaced) priorities and frustrating patterns of others.
Self aware (contemplative) living is a journey and a lifestyle rather than a technique, and the recommendations of Less are a starting point for the reflective practitioner. Consider this book for your personal and professional library.
You can get a sense of Marc Lesser's teaching and approach in this 50-minute video that summarizes key points from his book:
Note: This post originally appeared on the Contemplative Learning Solutions website.