Why it’s essential to focus on high-impact activities

Dennis Sparks

Much of our present struggles with our organizations have to do with remembering what is essential and placing it back in the center of our lives.  —David Whyte

“I’m so overwhelmed that I have no time to really think about what I do,” is a common lament of educators who face unprecedented responsibilities.

That’s why it is essential that administrators and teacher leaders maintain a relentless focus on and disciplined action in a small number of areas they believe will have the greatest impact on teaching, learning, and relationships in schools.

A key to success in high-pressure educational environments is leaders’ ability to increase the amount of time spent on the relatively few categories of activities that have the greatest impact in the achievement of important goals, which, in turn, requires reducing time spent in areas that make little difference.

A helpful tool in making this distinction is the “80/20 Principle” which asserts that a small proportion of our actions produce a disproportionate share of the results we intent.

“For the 80 percent of activities that give you only 20 percent of results, the ideal is to eliminate them,” writes Richard Koch writes in The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less. “You may need to do this before allocating more time to the high-value activities.”

Because administrators and teachers who feel overwhelmed often feel powerless in the face of rising demands, it’s important that they acknowledge that they have the discretion to do at least some things differently and to recognize that the real enemy is the use of their time in unproductive ways.

Koch explains it this way: “There is no shortage of time…. The 80/20 principle says that we should act less. Action drives out thought…. It is not the shortage of time that should worry us, but the tendency for the majority of time to be spent in low-quality ways.”

Administrators and teacher leaders can:

1. Set aside a few minutes to identify actions that are likely to have the greatest impact and those that make little or no difference. Most leaders can quite quickly identify those activities that produce a disproportionate share of the results they value and those that have little effect.

2. Carve out time for the high-impact activities by eliminating or minimizing one or more time consuming but less-effective activities. If leaders think their colleagues will view them as derelict in their duties if they neglect those activities, they may well be surprised to find that they are far less important to others than they thought.

3. Practice “next action thinking” by identifying the next action step and making a commitment to complete it on a to-do list or calendar.

4. Complete that action, determine its effects, and commit to the next action to maintain momentum.

When leaders focus their attention and energy on those activities that make the largest difference and encourage others to do the same, they lead through example and provide a fundamental tool for continuous improvement.

What are those activities in your work which produce a disproportionately large positive result?

 

6 Responses to “Why it’s essential to focus on high-impact activities”


  1. 1 Jamie November 13, 2013 at 8:06 am

    I remember first learning about the 80/20 principle at one of your workshops and it’s an idea that stayed with me. I’ve been spending a lot of time writing lately and find that is bringing me greater clarity which in turn enhances my coaching.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks November 13, 2013 at 8:18 am

      Sometimes just one or two well-focused and well-executed activities – that may take just a few minutes a day – can make a huge difference. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jamie.

  2. 3 Jane Kise (@JaneKise) November 13, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Had this conversation yesterday with a higher ed administrator who is truly being asked to do two full jobs. We used Covey’s matrix of categorizing by urgent/not urgent and important/not important–what are the urgent but not so important things that keep you from getting to what is really important? Thanks for your additional suggestions

    • 4 Dennis Sparks November 13, 2013 at 11:27 am

      Thanks, Jane, for reminding us about this relatively simple, straightforward, and powerful tool for clarifying our priorities.

  3. 5 Beverley Moore November 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I am working with a wonderful board in northeastern Ontario in the area of mathematics. The 80/20 theory is so spot on and aligns with the focus we are brining to scale in the area of learning mathematics through a problem -solving approach. It has been and no doubt will continue to be very exciting work, when you see and hear teachers’ surprise to find that a few powerful tasks that immediately identify what students already know as well as their misconceptions, enable teachers to know exactly what the next step in the teaching process must be… and how this leads to precision in this process generating so much more time to address the critical learning goals and less time wasted on what kids already know….So powerful.

    • 6 Dennis Sparks November 17, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      I appreciate your comment, Beverley, and I’m pleased that these ideas are useful to you. It sounds like all of you are doing some wonderful things for students…


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