Staying Focused – Challenges, Benefits, and How To

How to Stay Focused in School Leadership and Improvement - Mafost Blog with Expert Co Authors

If you’ve sat behind the principal’s desk for more than 6 hours, you know it’s difficult, and in some cases impossible, to stay focused on any single task. Magnify that challenge across days, weeks, and semesters, and you have the daunting challenge of staying focused as a school principal or educational leader.

Why is it so hard to stay focused? What are the pitfalls and sidetracks for meeting goals or following through?  How can we make it easier to say no to distractions? What supports can we use to stay focused?

In this post, you’ll discover an array of techniques to help you stay focused on school improvement, including:

  • Three Costs of Not Staying Focused in Education
  • Tips to Help with the Daily Grind and Strategic Plans
  • Three Ways to Gain Master Focus (including the 100 Boxes Method)

But first, special credit and thanks to the co-authors:


Distractions in Educational Leadership

There are many reasons it’s easy to lose focus. Before we jump into tips, techniques, and strategies for maintaining focus, let’s look at three areas of distractions:

  1. Acting on Improvement Plans
  2. School Leadership Teams
  3. Teacher Teams

Distractions from Acting on Improvement Plans

There are so many factors that keep us from staying focused in educational leadership. Often it shows up in the follow-through. This can unintentionally weaken your impact on learning.

A lack of focus in school leadership can be perceived in many ways.

Follow-through might not be caused by a lack of commitment. It’s often perceived that way in a school setting. But the reality is, it might be a result of distractions. So let’s talk about two common areas of distraction:

  1. Distractions in School Leadership Teams
  2. Distractions in Teacher Teams
Why Summer Break is a Great Time to Focus Your Improvement Plans

Distractions in a School Leadership Team

It’s simple for a leadership team to be distracted from focusing on their plan. Here some causes:

  • Agendas from different stakeholders that don’t align with the district/building plan.
  • New, but not necessarily better, ideas that create divergence.
  • Lack of data that highlight the small early successes.
  • Pressuring from local politics.

Distractions on Teaching Teams

Teachers often cite time as a variable that limits their success. Sometimes it’s the distractions that take time away. Distractions such as:

  • The focus on “covering content” on a schedule can be a distraction to learning.
  • Even when teams know from data that some students are not mastering content, they’re driven by the perceived need to be “finished” with standards by state testing dates.
  • School priorities that don’t match classroom priorities.
  • Policies that hinder innovation.

I’m sure you could add a dozen more items to these lists. Ultimately, where is the locus of control?

There’s a hard truth here.

It can be tempting to blame third parties and things we cannot control so that we may excuse ourselves from substantial work that needs to happen before moving forward is possible.


It can be tempting to blame third parties and things we cannot control so that we may excuse ourselves from substantial work that needs to happen before moving forward is possible.


Tips for Staying Focused

Whether it’s a school improvement plan, your daily leadership tasks, or your own professional growth, here are a few power tips for staying focused.

Staying focused on a school strategic plan:

  • Avoid planning bloat. Keep your plans short with a limited number of priorities.
  • Visible goals on walls, dry erase boards and all agendas.
  • Use stand up power meetings and “what’s your job” talk (more on this below).
  • Designed goals to be accomplished in the short-term that lead to the BHAGS.

Staying focused in the daily grind:

  • Choose your moments. What moments will you engage in today? (Power of Moments, Book on Amazon*)
  • Accountability partners are key!
  • Plan time for the unknown. Literally, mark the space in your daily calendar.
  • It’s okay to have a “do not disturb” period each day or week.
  • Put your phone away (in another room, with your secretary, out of your hand, etc.) during meetings, hallway conversations, and office work time.

Tips for staying focused on professional growth:

  • Start with a personal mission, vision, and goals (see more below).
  • Set aside daily time in your schedule for reading/reflecting. Make sure it’s written in the calendar, or it won’t happen!
  • Remember mindset.
  • Create growth habits – little time slots for daily growth.
How Does Over-Planning Block Action and Results?

The Distraction of Shiny New Words

Most enjoy learning new flashy terms, but even the most articulate among us get lost, intimidated, worried or confused when leaders start using foreign terminology.

Here’s an example.

An innocuous email from a superintendent, filled with jargon might send even the most hardened principal down a rabbit hole looking for a new way to plan for the upcoming guiding coalitions and constructivism. The superintendent’s new favorite word and good intentions may trigger a fight or flight mechanism in the educators they serve and most often, educators vote with their feet and choose flight.

Shiny new words rarely help leaders provide better focus.

The appeal of a common language is right in front of us. We need to look no further than the impactful educators that are fueling explosive growth in professional learning discussions on social media, where the most appealing educational leaders on social media are not only exceptional thinkers and leaders but highly relatable and focused on simple messages.


The most appealing educational leaders are not only exceptional thinkers and leaders but highly relatable and focused on simple messages.


Three Costs of Not Staying Focused

The final sections in this post will offer more ways to stay focused, but first, let’s dive a little deeper into understanding the costs of not staying focused. Three concepts may prove helpful:

  1. The Cost of Pendulums (Read more on Pendulums and School Culture)
  2. The Power of Small Increments
  3. Resistance, A Side Effect

Pendulums, The Cost of Distractions

I don’t know if other industries suffer from pendulums. They probably do. But education is especially prone to pendulum swings.

Here’s how it usually occurs.

An initiative is adopted for a year or two, and then that shiny new word, idea, or strategy comes through and creates a major shift. Usually, it’s touted as “change”, “innovation”, or “doing what’s best for kids.”

Sometimes the shift is an improvement. Sometimes it’s not. In the law of averages, it’s most likely to come out as a net neutral.

The Power of Small Increments

Ultimately, a lack of focus creates minimal gains (a lack of clarity does the same). The organization loses out on the benefit of cumulative growth.

It’s like a savings account.

We all know a small increment each week with minimal, but consistent growth creates exponential returns in the long-game. Pendulums swings create costs. In a savings account, excessive stock trades or fund purchases create a ratchet of expenses that eats away at the cumulative growth that was once possible.

Lack of Focus, Full of Resistance

The world of education leadership is full of lurking variables and ill-defined limitations. A wise administrator will think through the latest ideas carefully before adopting.

Many good ideas have found roadblocks of resistance from those who have experienced the frustration of investing countless hours toward a change that was soon abandoned.

This too will pass is a difficult claim to disprove.

Let’s dig deeper into ways to stay focused. In the next few sections we’ll review:

  • Strategy for Focusing: Personal Mission
  • A Technique for Focusing: Power Meetings
  • A Technique for Focusing: 100 Boxes

The pendulum swings create a ratchet of expenses that eats away at the cumulative growth that was once possible.


Three More Ways to Stay Focused

These final ideas for staying focused in educational leadership will remind you of a strategy you already know about and share two techniques that may be new to you. They are:

  1. A Personal Mission Statement
  2. The Power Meeting
  3. 100 Boxes

Personal Mission, Vision, and Goals

Have you ever stopped to write a personal philosophy of education? If you have, it was most likely written for a teacher preparation course, placed in a binder, and forgotten.

Perhaps the time has come to dust off the personal philosophy of education and reexamine and update it.

School districts and schools have their own personalized mission, vision, and goals. The more recent ones also include a set of core values. Should educators have their own personalized mission, vision, and goals? The answer is, absolutely.

It can be the difference in whether you have focus or not.

However, we also have to tread carefully. At the end of the day, we must remember that everything we do is for student success. Thus, our own personalized mission cannot interfere with student success.

That said, it is important that we craft a mission in which we can believe. The mission should keep us motivated daily. Sometimes a personal mission statement becomes our daily affirmation. Sometimes it becomes the thing we cling to when we are having a rough day.


Sometimes a personal mission statement becomes our daily affirmation. Sometimes it becomes the thing we cling to when we are having a rough day.


Having that personalized mission can make all the difference in the world. The mission should be written down and revisited from time to time to adjust to current practice, theory, etc.

The same could be said for a vision and goals (core values as well, if you like). Remembering your mission, vision, and goals is important as the educator navigates his or her career. By keeping them in mind, an educator will know when to take a stand, when to fight injustice, and when it’s time to move on.

Power Meeting: What’s Your Job?

It’s become very trendy as of late to ask, “What’s your why?”

A simple and light-hearted strategy to keep a serious focus on an organizational mission or why is the stand-up power meeting.

Years ago, one of my superintendents had regularly scheduled 10-15 minute stand-up power meetings with us in various locations around the office and schools. There were only ever two questions asked in that predetermined location, usually on the corner of a hallway, in the gym or on the front steps of a school:

  • So what’s your job?
  • What’s the most important thing we need to talk about today?

The answer to the first question was always, “I help kids learn.” It sometimes took people a few meetings to get this one right and they were always welcome to explain how they did this, but all quickly understood the lesson and their place in the learning cycle.  

Once, the second question was open-ended, but it was expected that the most important thing had a direct correlation to learning. There would be follow-ups as necessary, but the message was clear: whether you are a principal, caretaker, librarian, secretary or any of the many varied roles in education, it’s all about learning here.

That’s focus. Daily focus.


Every human being enters each day with a finite amount of mental energy. Once that energy is gone, it’s gone for good. – Daniel Bauer


100 Boxes, Key to Staying Focused

Have you ever stayed at work until 6 pm, but your mind left around 1 pm? If you have, you’re not alone and there is a reason for that.

Every human being enters each day with a finite amount of mental energy. Once that energy is gone, it’s gone for good.

If a finite amount of mental energy wasn’t bad enough, it’s about to get worse …

Do you ever get interrupted as a school leader? How often? Pretty annoying right?

Or do you believe you are a strong multitasker? You’re not.

Microsoft conducted a study and found that workers who were interrupted or frequently switched tasks took on average 15 minutes to get back on task.

Think about it this way (read more from this excellent article) …

In a typical 8-hour workday, imagine that you have only 100 blocks of finite mental energy. Each block stands for 5 minutes (8 hour day x 60 minutes = 480 minutes. 480 minutes / 5 minutes = 96 blocks).

The 100 Box strategy is a simple, but smart, way for educational leaders and principals to stay focused on the right work.
Staying Focused with Mental Blocking

First thing in the morning you start knocking out an evaluation debrief form for twenty minutes (yellow boxes; 4 x 5 = 20).

You tend to work with your email open with notifications on. It’s not long before your computer is buzzing and a pop-up on your screen announces, “You’ve got mail!”

So you switch tasks from the important debrief to the urgent email.

Email is never just email. You open your inbox. Read the email. Now you feel like you have to respond and it’s not just a short answer. You write a well-thought response to the email and check a few more.

Before you know it, 15 minutes have passed.

“Shoot!” you think. “I need to get these evals done!”

So you get back to evaluation, but it takes you 15 minutes to resume where you left off (the red blocks … remember the Microsoft study?).

I’ll ask again.

As a school leader, how often do you get interrupted or choose to switch tasks?

Also, note in the picture above all those red blocks. That represents just 10 interruptions or switching of tasks in a typical 8 hour work day.

If you feel like you often run out of time or your mind just feels spent before the end of each day, there is a perfectly good reason for that.


Focused work is accelerated work. It’s as if there’s no resistance and achieving goals occurs at a faster rate.


Focused Work, Accelerated Performance

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to 100 school leaders on work-life balance in Forsyth Co. Georgia and needed a rental car.

Sixt was running a deal where I could rent a luxury car cheaper than renting an economy.

Tough choice, but renting a Mercedes CLA over a Toyota Yaris is a no brainer.

When I left the car rental it was about midnight. The roads were clear and I had a fast car.

The Mercedes accelerates as if there is no resistance and you can drive extremely fast.

Focused Work is Accelerated Work

Focused work on one task is like driving a Mercedes CLA down I-85 with no traffic at top speed.

Interruptions and switching tasks are like driving that same car, but after driving for 10 minutes you hit gridlock and drive stop-and-go for the next 20 miles. Ugh!

The choice is yours.

We can work in focus mode by limiting distractions and creating proper boundaries from interruptions or we can switch tasks and drive stop-and-go through traffic.


So what do you think? Do you have ways to stay focused in your daily work and in your overall school improvement efforts? Did you find valuable ideas in this post? Consider passing this post along to help spread the ideas.


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