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Productive Planning Period: 5 ways to instantly increase your productivity

productive planning period

As a secondary science teacher, I can confidently say I know that you have 203948234 things on your plate on a daily basis. I can also confidently say that, if your teaching experience is anything like mine has been, you have something around 45 minutes built in a day (90 minutes if you are a lucky duck on block schedule!) to accomplish all of those things. Using that time well and having a productive planning period is utterly essential to you having any sort of work/life balance.

Work/life balance? What is this you speak of??

I never used to think it was possible to do this job well and only work my 40 contracted hours a week. But then I got really, really drained by this job, and became committed to making changes – like deleting email from my phone and no longer taking work home to grade. Slowly but surely I went from teaching 60 hours a week to 40-45 on average – all while managing 5 preps.

One of my keys to success was completely revolutionizing my planning period to maximize the effectiveness of that very, very limited time I had in the day to do ALL the things I needed to do. There are 5 ways I guarantee you can INSTANTLY have a more productive planning period if that is something you truly want to commit to doing!!

Productive Planning Period Tip #1: Lock your door and turn off your lights the entire period.

productive planning period

If you think I am kidding…I promise you I am not! This really is my very first simple suggestion for a more productive planning period – shut out all the external noise and distractions! This includes coworkers and students (and more, too, in tips 2 and 3 below).

You will be amazed how much time is saved when you don’t have anyone popping in to ask a quick question or check-in. Especially if those distractions come in the form of a student. I had a classroom once directly across from the girls’ bathroom, and I cannot tell you how many of my students would stop by on their way to and from the restroom to kill time or say hi. Even if it was just a few seconds before I shooed them off to class, it is still a distraction.

Not only does it take up precious time that you barely even have to begin with, but it is also a huge MENTAL distraction. You can’t possibly maximize your ability to focus effectively with interruptions. In every classroom I have had, I literally put my desk as far away from the door as possible to avoid people even being able to see if I am available to chat.

Am I anti-community and relationships with your coworkers? Absolutely not!! I think these relationships are absolutely essential but are MUCH better cultivated over a shared lunch duty or a Friday night football game supporting students. If you want to have a more productive planning period, you HAVE to prioritize that time to really getting as many of your tasks done as possible. And if you have to hide in a dark corner of your classroom in order to obtain 50 minutes of peace and quiet, so be it! But coworkers and students aren’t the only distraction you must avoid…

Productive Planning Period Tip #2: Don’t check your email during your planning period.

productive planning period
productive planning period

Nothing will throw you off your game more than an angry email from a parent or a digital request from an admin for yet another task on your plate. Can you avoid these entirely? Unfortunately, no. But you CAN avoid them during the small period of time you have set aside each day to plan and prep for your classes.

How? By not checking your email!!

I really think a HUGE part of decreasing your work hours is training the people in your work life that you are only available X amount. If we are constantly reachable via email, then they will expect us to be constantly reachable. There will be a transition period to change this perception, but it is 100% doable. I am living proof.

I used to check my email before school, during my planning period, at lunch, and after school. At one point in time, I even would check at home (before I deleted email from my phone – absolutely life-changing!) Because of this, I would go back and forth with some parents multiple times during a school day.

Yes, it may seem like it is only a few minutes, but those minutes add up! I highly recommend only checking your email once a day – twice if that thought just completely disturbs you. Check right when you get to school, and right before you leave to go home. Set a timer and don’t let yourself spend more than 15 minutes in your inbox. Then make like Elsa and LET IT GOOOOO!

I am serious. I know it may seem like just 5 minutes. But if your planning period is 50 minutes, you just spent 10% of it on EMAIL. Don’t believe me? Challenge yourself this week to do 0 email during your planning period. You will be amazed at not only the time reclaimed, but the mental energy you’ve preserved!!

But this “no checking email” thing goes both ways. I don’t want you to check your email during your planning period, and I especially don’t want you checking your work email at home. But that also means I don’t think you should be checking personal email and messages at work either. Here is why…

Productive Planning Period Tip #3: Don’t even look at your phone or personal messages.

productive planning period

I know it is hard to be a teacher. We don’t get coffee breaks or have the ability to meet with a friend for lunch or schedule an appointment during the workday. We practically have to call in a substitute to get in our two routine dental visits a year. It is ridiculous.

No one likes to be locked away from the outside world for 7-9 straight hours a day. But, I really believe if you are willing to not look at your phone, you can instantly have a more productive planning period. Why??

It’s a rabbit hole of mental distractions. One minute you are responding to a few texts, the next you are thinking about a kid’s orthodontist appointment reminder message you got that you need to reschedule and the next time your dog needs to take their flea meds. Or if you are like me, a quick glance through your messages turns into a not-so-quick scroll through social media. Before you know it you’ve burned through a chunk of your planning period – basically doing absolutely nothing of substance.

I know this is a tough one, but it is worth it. I had to physically keep my phone locked in my desk to prevent the distraction. It is too easy to fall down that hole. Instead, I made it a reward. If I stuck to my plan and had a productive planning period, getting through everything I needed to, my reward was a few minutes at the end of planning to check my phone. It worked like a charm!

Even if you don’t end up getting to receive that reward, I still recommend doing this. Protect your planning period at all costs – from others and yourself!! – if you really want to use that time more wisely. Save the mental scrolling break for when you are eating lunch.

Okay, so I have told you my 3 best tips for protecting the time in order to maximize the very few minutes you have. Now how do we best use that time?? That’s where my last two tips come in.

Productive Planning Period Tip #4: Time block your period to force yourself to focus.

productive planning period

Take a week to do some action research. Time yourself and see how long it takes you to do tasks you regularly do during your planning period, like:

  • Grade a set of bell ringers.
  • Grade a set of labs.
  • Prep a lab.
  • Write lesson plans for 1 class period for 1 week.
  • Update your class website

You get the idea. I don’t need to tell you all the things you do. But here is the kicker: you’ve got to time yourself doing each thing. By timing yourself you have now quantified how your time needs to be spent. Yes, this is an estimate and not all lab preps are created equal, but you have something to go off of.

From there you can break up your planning period into smaller chunks, and use a timer to make sure you work within those time blocks.

For example, let’s say you have a 50 minute planning period. You may break it up into the following time blocks:

  1. Grade bell ringers from last 24 hours (5 min)
  2. Grade assignment you collected in last 24 hours (10 min)
  3. Prep lab for next class period (10 min)
  4. Write lesson plans for your next unit in X class (25 min)*

Then set timers. Over time, your brain will get used to working under time constraints and work more productively. I promise you this works. I used to spend 2 hours writing every blog post. When I was relegated to only being able to work during naptime (thanks to my two tiny human bosses who live with me) I told myself that if I wanted to get a blog post written every week, I needed to be able to get it done in 45 minutes TOPS. I simply did not have 2 hours a week (= one entire afternoon nap) just to write a blog post.

Within a few weeks, I had trained myself to do just that – and now I can churn out these posts to you in under 45 minutes every time! You can do this too with your teaching tasks! I promise you!

*I am a huge fan of batching your lesson planning. Such a time saver. You can read more about how I do that here.

Productive Planning Period Tip #5: Plan how you will use the time in advance.

productive planning period

Don’t waste time sitting down and figuring out what you need to do first. Make a plan the Friday before for the entire week’s worth of planning periods. Decide exactly what you need to get done and write it down.

I keep a simple notepad like this on my desk. At the end of each week, I fill in what I will do each day during my planning period. Then when you sit down (in your dark little cave of productivity you’ve locked yourself into) immediately start with this list. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. NO DISTRACTIONS!! Just your plan of attack, you, and your silent, dark room for the most productive planning period ever!

I beg you to try these suggestions if you feel like you constantly have more work than you can get done in your workday. First let me assure you, that is more than likely true, given the unreasonable expectations placed on teachers. Second, let me encourage you that it is possible to use your work time more efficiently so that you can leave work at work and truly have a life outside of it. I am living proof! And here to cheer you on along the way to experience it for yourself, too!

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