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40 Hour Workweek

Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles   |   Aug 21, 2022

How to set a target number of hours to work…and stick to it

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to set a target number of hours to work…and stick to it

By Angela Watson

As we head into the new school year, I want you to begin thinking about a sustainable workload. During your first 6 weeks of the school year, you’ll likely be putting in longer hours as you get organized, acclimatized, and settle into the shape of your work this year.

But I don’t want you to just work until everything is done — because it’s never all going to be done, which means you’re always either going to be working or feel like you should be working.

Instead, I’m going to teach a principle I share in the 40 Hour Workweek programs I run for teachers, instructional coaches, and school leaders: it’s the Target Number Planner.

You can create a schedule in which you determine, at the start of the week, how much time you’re willing to spend on school stuff, and how you’re going to allocate those hours.

No more showing up at school and staying until all the work is done. You’re going to take control of your schedule and fit work into your life instead of life into your work.

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What if I don’t want to know how many hours I’m working?

Some 40 Hour members are resistant to the idea of choosing how many hours to work. They joined because they want to work smarter, not harder, and don’t really care about cutting down their hours. They just want to do the best job possible in a more efficient way.

What these teachers discover over time — and what I’m telling you upfront so you don’t have to figure this out the hard way — is that bringing your awareness to how much of your life you’re devoting to work is one of the best catalysts for creating change.

I can’t tell you how many members have said, “When I started writing down how much I was working, I truly could not believe it. I knew I worked a lot. But I had no idea how much!” Seeing the hours right there in black and white was just the boost many teachers needed to get serious about making lifestyle changes and being more intentional with how they use their time.

You can’t change what you don’t measure. By writing it down, you immediately see unhealthy and unbalanced patterns. The very thing that makes tracking so scary is exactly what makes it so worthwhile.

Recording your work hours has many benefits:

  • It will help you identify where you’re wasting time and sabotaging your success
  • You can see exactly what you’re saying YES to (and therefore, why you have to say NO to so much else)
  • You’ll be motivated to make better decisions about your time because you know you have to write everything down

All you really need to do is be open to the idea of choosing and tracking how much you work. That’s the foundation of being able to set reasonable boundaries on your time and having a sustainable work schedule.

I’m going to show you how to select a target number of hours to work that’s realistic for YOU and adjust it each week according to your workload and the demands in your personal life.

Do not shy away from creating a target number of hours because you’re afraid you won’t be able to meet your goal, or that it will be too much trouble to track it.

The target number you choose will be realistic and adjustable. It is not intended to make you feel guilty for not meeting it, and you can even change your number mid-week as things come up. The target number is just that — a target, a goal to work toward. 

How I chose my target number of hours

When my students’ hours were 8:00-2:30, my contractual hours were 7:30-3:00. That’s a required 7.5-hour day for teachers with 6.5 hours for students. The kids had a 30-minute lunch break and 30 minutes for special classes daily, so my instructional time was around 5.5 hours a day.

Contractual hours: 7.5 hours x 5 days per week = 37.5 hours per week

= Instructional time: 5.5 hours x 5 days per week = 27.5 hours per week

= 10 hours to get teaching tasks done while “on the clock”

I decided to make a concrete plan for using those 10 hours wisely because a lot of it was being eaten up by meetings, laminator malfunctions, impromptu conferences with parents, and so on. I used the 40 Hour List-Making System to help me ensure I had determined my Main Thing and priorities for each day and scheduled them into appropriate time slots. (More on this next week.)

My productivity strategies and the list system made me feel confident that I was using my time wisely and working efficiently during my 37.5-hour week. For me that particular school year, it was reasonable to add about 2.5 hours for working before and after school on my own time, for a total of around 40 hours per week.

There were other years — particularly when I was new to the school, grade level, or curriculum — in which my target number was higher. And of course, there were times of the year when 40 hours was impossible (back-to-school, conferences week, etc.). The great thing about the target number is that it’s adjustable: I chose what made sense for me and my teaching context in any given week. In a typical 5-day week, 40-45 hours a week was a realistic target for me.

How I used my target number to design a sustainable work schedule

Since my contractual hours were 7:30-3:00 and my students’ hours were 8:00-2:30, I had half an hour before and after school to get things done.

I knew I needed a little more time before school to get ready for the day — a full hour would be ideal, especially since I’m not a morning person and need time to fully wake up before a couple of dozen rambunctious eight-year-olds come bustling through the door. And, I knew I’d want to take my full lunch break whenever possible.

I also knew I’d be exhausted after school and would want to leave as soon as possible. Usually, when I stay late, I end up talking to my colleagues or doing stuff online because it’s the only chance I’ve had to sit down all day. By the time that’s done, it’s nearly 4:00, and I’ve been in the classroom for an hour longer than I needed to be without getting anything accomplished that couldn’t have been done at home. So, staying late isn’t the best use of time for me, personally.

For those reasons, I decided I wanted to arrive at school at 7:00 a.m. (giving myself a full hour before school without the kids) and leave by 3:00 p.m. (which meant I had half an hour after dismissal to work). That’s 90 minutes of prep time before and after school combined, plus about 30 minutes for lunch and 30 minutes of planning time during (most) school days.

Theoretically, that’s around three hours a day to get my stuff done on days when I didn’t have meetings. Of course, the three hours weren’t all kid-free time: sometimes students would come into the classroom a few minutes before the first bell, my planning period was often cancelled, and dismissal could take as long as 20 minutes at the end of the day.

But I wasn’t responsible for instruction during those three hours, so not only did I plan to get my work done even with students in the room, I planned routines that put THEM to work as my helpers so I got even more accomplished than I would have on my own! (We’ll talk more in Week 3 about automating and delegating routine tasks to students so the classroom is self-running.)

I figured if I worked efficiently and intentionally, the hours of 7-3 would be manageable and would be the best way to structure my 40 hours.

Should the target number include ALL work-related tasks?

Teaching is truly my passion. I enjoy finding and sharing ideas online. I love creating elaborate activities and curriculum materials instead of using the materials the school provides or a simple version that I could create more quickly. I love to decorate and organize the classroom until things are exactly the way that I want them.

I didn’t count those tasks as part of my target 40 hours because they weren’t required to the extent that I did them, and I didn’t WANT to limit the time I spent on them. They’re the creative side of teaching that I gladly pursue, like a hobby.

If you LOVE spending hours making things for your classroom from scratch like I did, you might not want to count those tasks in your target number. To do so might feel restrictive and take away the enjoyment you get from being a teacher.

So instead, focus on setting boundaries around how much time you allow for mandatory tasks, which will free you up to do the fun, creative stuff as often as you’d like!

I did NOT enjoy spending my free time grading papers, so that was a task I included in my target number of hours. I was only willing to spend a small portion of my unpaid time in the evenings on assessment, so I created a schedule and boundaries for that.

Once the time I’d dedicated to grading and all the “work-work” was over, I was then free to choose how to spend the rest of my evening. If I wanted to go on Pinterest and find cool teaching ideas for an hour, I could do that, knowing that it was “hobby-work” I was doing just for fun. Or, I might realize I’d be better rested the next day if I went for a walk and then relaxed for the rest of the evening.

Similarly, I allocated a reasonable amount of hours at the beginning of the school year to set up my classroom (a few 12-hour days). I got all the main “work-work” tasks done during that time so the classroom was technically ready for students. Then — and only then — did I decide how much “hobby-work” to do in terms of decorating and other little touches which were fun for me but neither required nor necessary.

The target number is really a tool for intentionality. Much of the work we do as educators is not technically needed or required.

When you decide in advance how much time you are willing to allocate to the required work which is absolutely necessary, you’ll have more freedom to do the “hobby-work” and anything else you’d like to use your time for.

How to pick YOUR target number of hours 

Most teachers who are working 55-60+ hours per week won’t be able to get to 40 hours right away (and maybe not ever), so it’s important to pick a personal target number to work toward.

The goal is NOT to work a 40-hour week, despite the name of my 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program. (I don’t think The Choose Your Own Target Number Which Is Realistic For Your Teaching Context and Adjust It Each Week Club has quite the same ring to it.)

I chose the number 40 for the title because it’s aligned with most teaching contracts.

You’re likely not being paid to work more than 40 hours a week. Therefore, you should be intentional about maximizing what you get done during the hours for which you’re getting paid, and being very mindful about how much you work for free.

(And yes, teaching is a salaried position, but you have clearly defined hours that you are required to work and your contract does not obligate you to work most evenings and weekends. So, my goal is to help you do the vast majority of your tasks well during your required hours.)

So, what should YOUR target number be?

My advice is to avoid choosing your target number by thinking about how many hours you need in order to get all your work done. You could work 100 hours and still have stuff left on your to-do list. Teaching is like parenting: it’s a never-ending job, and there’s always something more you could be doing.

Instead of thinking about how many hours you need in order to be a good teacher, frame your thinking in terms of how many hours you need for your LIFE. Think about all the stuff that’s most important in the big picture: family, friends, spiritual growth, exercise, eating well, sleeping, relaxation, hobbies, and so on.

Ask yourself: How much more time would I need in a day to make my life feel less stressful and busy? 

Not stress-free, of course, but less stressful. Start small. Would one extra hour a day make a small difference in the amount of rushing you do after school to get errands done, or give you some time to play outside with your own kids in the evenings?

If one extra hour a day would help your stress level, estimate how many hours per week you’re working on average right now, and subtract five from it (one hour per weekday). 

This is your baseline target number.

If that number seems impossible or scary, subtract three hours from your current total instead of five. You can lower your target number slowly over time as you establish more productive work habits and learn new strategies in the club.

Remember that you are not counting “hobby-work.” If you’re currently working around 60 hours a week but are spending 15 minutes each morning tracing adorable script font letters onto your whiteboard for a cute display, 15 minutes checking personal email and social media during your planning period, and 30 minutes every afternoon chatting in a colleague’s room…

…subtract just those three things on a daily basis and you’re technically working one less hour daily, or only 55 hours a week.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop doing any of those things. We’re just not going to call them “work” anymore and bemoan the impossible-to-reduce 60-hour weeks. This is the time to get real about how many hours you actually need in order to get the job done. Then you can use the rest of your time however you’d like, for fun school stuff or personal stuff.

So, take whatever number of hours you’re “typically” working each week, and subtract 3-5 from it (depending on how bold you want to be). This is the baseline you’ll work with to choose your target number each week.

How to be flexible and adjust your target number each week

I don’t want your target number to be a source of stress. Most people feel anxious or disappointed in themselves when they don’t meet their goals. When (not if) you work more than your target number of hours, you might feel discouraged, and if too many weeks pass without you meeting the goal, you might feel like giving up and start slipping back into old, unproductive habits.

Here’s how to avoid that.

Choose a target number of hours on a week-by-week basis. Sit down on the weekend (I like Sunday nights for this) and look at the obligations you have for work and your personal life. Then create a schedule that meets those needs.

If progress reports are due tomorrow and the science fair is on Friday, adjust your target number of work hours upwards for the week.

If your child’s birthday party is on Saturday, adjust the target number of work hours downward, and don’t feel one bit guilty about it. You can always plan to stay late at work next week to catch up, if needed.

Though you won’t be able to anticipate all the demands that will come to you throughout the week, you should be able to set an estimate for how much time you can realistically devote to work in the next couple of days.

You can even give yourself permission to revise your target number mid-week if emergencies crop up. Always set yourself up to be successful even if you have to alter your expectations. This is about intentionally and mindfulness with your time, not keeping a perfectly planned schedule.

How to allocate your target number of hours throughout the week

Here’s where the REAL magic of the target number comes in.

When you’re choosing your target number for the week, you’re looking at your calendar, planner, or to-do list (whatever kind of system you use.) You’re noticing what extra obligations, appointments, errands, social events, and so on are coming up at school and your personal life.

So, when you choose your target number of hours for the coming week, you will also choose your schedule and how to allocate those work hours.

This way, you’re not heading into school on Monday morning without a plan, using up all your allotted work hours before the week is over. You’re going to decide in advance when you want to work and for how long.

It’s much less tiring to do school work on your own time when you have clear boundaries around how much of your personal life you are willing to sacrifice. It’s depressing to sit down with a huge stack of papers to grade on Sunday night when you have no idea how long it’s going to take you to get through them.

But if you know that you have carved two hours out of your weekend schedule to disappear into a quiet room of your house (or local coffee shop/library) to have focused, undistracted grading time, the goal feels much more do-able.

You’ll also work faster and with more focus: the boundaries on your time create a sense of urgency. You won’t be as tempted to waste time checking social media or flipping through TV channels. You know you have a short period of time to be productive, and then you can enjoy the rest of your day.

Here are some examples of ways that 40 Hour members have allocated their work hours:

  • Go to school two hours early every day, and leave when the students leave in the afternoon, taking no work home.
  • Work nine hours on Monday and Wednesday, and eight hours on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
  • Stay one hour late every day, and work at home from 8:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. three days a week.
  • Work only contractual hours from Monday-Friday, and then work at home from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturday.
  • Arrive an hour early every weekday morning, and stay three hours late on Friday to prepare for the coming week.
  • Work for three hours every Monday evening to prepare for the week ahead, and stay one hour late Tues-Fri.

Give yourself the freedom to choose and follow a schedule that works for your life each week. Deciding in advance how to allocate your hours gives you a sense of control over how your time is used and ensures the most important tasks get done.

Another option for choosing your target number is to begin by writing down the hours you plan to work each day this week, and then total them up to find the target number. So if you know you can stay late 2 hours on M-W-F and spend 3 hours Sunday on school stuff, write that in your planner for each day: Monday work hours: 7-5, Tuesday work hours: 7-3, and so on. Then total that up to see what your target number is for the week.

And if the schedule doesn’t work? Adjust it!

Say to yourself, “I thought I’d only have to stay late 2 hours each afternoon this week, but finalizing my gradebook before report cards is more complex than I thought. It’s Wednesday now, and I’m going to adjust my target number by 3 so I can stay an extra hour each afternoon for the rest of the week. That’s the amount of time I can realistically allot to getting this done, so I’ll give myself the extra 3 hours and I’m going to do whatever it takes to finish during that time.”

Resist the urge to write off an entire day or week simply because you’ve wasted time, worked too much, or gotten too far out of balance. Choose in that moment to adjust your target number and allocation of work hours for the remainder of the week and keep moving forward. It’s perfectly fine to have lots of weeks where you’re working more than you intended, especially when you’re just getting started with this process.

Over time, you’ll get better at choosing a realistic target number and allocating your hours in a way that fits your lifestyle. As you pay more attention to how long the “work-work” actually takes, it will become easier to make accurate estimates and stick to the schedule you create.

How to begin

Look at your calendar and think about the week ahead. Choose a target number of hours for THIS week only. It doesn’t matter if that number doesn’t work every week or if it’s higher than what you’d like. Just decide, in advance, how many hours you are willing to work this week, then choose how to allocate those hours.

When will you go in early? Stay late? Mark this down on your to-do list or calendar.

As you begin your workweek, give yourself grace if you go over your target number. The goal is NOT to work the exact number of hours you planned: That’s impossible unless you can predict the future and know all the challenges that will crop up this week. You’re just being mindful and not allowing school to consume all your time.

You’ll probably find that this process allows you to work fewer hours than you normally would without really trying much, because you’ve set a “work curfew.” So, while you might ordinarily stay at school until all your work is done, if you’ve set a hard cutoff of 4:30, you’ll be surprised how much you get done in that shorter time period (even if you ultimately choose to stay a bit later than planned).

If you want support with this, our 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Full Year program has reopened to new members now through Aug 25th.

Remember: choosing a target number of hours to work is not about perfection, it’s about intentionality.  You’re simply deciding in advance how many hours you’d like to allocate to work, and being mindful of how your time is passing instead of just working endless hours until everything is done.

This is the start of a mindset shift more than anything else, as you practice fitting work into your life instead of life into your work.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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