How to achieve a work life balance (Part 1)

This is an edited extract from How to Lead: The second edition of Leadership for Learning by Matt Bromley, published by Spark Books UK and available in paperback and ebook.



The qualities and skills I listed in my previous two posts about school leadership (read Part One here and Part Two here) are all vital weapons in a senior leader’s armoury but it is also important that leaders retain perspective and lead healthy lifestyles if they are to cope with the demands of the job and achieve longevity.

The term ‘work-life balance’ is frequently used but, in my experience, rarely understood. Leaders accept that it is healthy to have a life outside of work but rarely acknowledge that this is also a sign of increased effectiveness. Too many people think that keeping sensible working hours is a sign of laziness or is symptomatic of a lack of commitment. Some people measure a leader’s ability by how early his or her car pulls into the car park and by what time of night it drives away again. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The phrase ‘work smarter not harder’ may have become a hackneyed cliché but its sentiment remains as true today as it has always been. We all know colleagues who boast about the long hours they work. They tell us they’ve been in school since 6 o’clock that morning and didn’t leave the office until 7 o’clock the previous night as if this is, in some way, a measure of ability or effectiveness. They wear their work ethic like a medal, proud to be so industrious. Like Boxer in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ they find just one answer to every problem: ‘I must work harder’.

Working unsocial hours – depriving oneself of a life outside of work – is a measure of one’s ineffectiveness. An effective school leader should be able to manage his or her time effectively and delegate appropriately in order to fulfil his or her duties within reasonable working hours. Organisation and delegation are basic management skills, after all. Moreover, an effective school leader should model a healthy work-life balance. An effective school leader should lead by example in showing his or her colleagues that it is important to have a life outside of work because doing so increases a person’s sense of perspective and improves their quality of judgment. It helps to minimise stress.

Enjoying a life outside of work adds to a person’s life experiences and frame of reference. They can relate to colleagues and to students more readily if they experience life outside of school. At its simplest level, watching last night’s episode of Coronation Street gives you a shared experience with colleagues and students – you have something with which to connect to other people. Spending time with family or friends, allowing the events of the day to melt away, allows you to distance yourself from those events and therefore to establish some perspective about their relative importance.

That is not to say the events that seem of vital importance by day become irrelevant by night. As a school leader you deal with serious matters which require serious thought and care. But it is right that school leaders remain detached – emotionally speaking – and are able to make logical, strategic decisions which stand up to long-term scrutiny; not rash decisions of the heart, decisions taken under stress.

Let me make clear that being a school leader is not just a job: it is a career and something you should feel passionately about. It is important that school leaders do their jobs well. But that does not mean they should work all hours of day and night; nor does it mean they would be better at their jobs and get more done if they did so.

So, how do school leaders strike the right work-life balance? Everyone has a different way of working but being organised is clearly at the heart of it. There are various ways to organise your workload and I discuss many of them in How to Lead: The second edition of Leadership for Learning. Here are just three examples:

Keep lists

Prioritise tasks according to their importance and timescale; make informed decisions about the relative impact of the actions that are asked of you upon students’ learning and well-being. For example, use a 1 to 3 scale (or traffic lights) whereby 1 is urgent (usually to be completed within 24 hours), 2 is important (within 2 to 3 days) and 3 is neutral (ideally by the end of the week but often by the end of the month or half-term). There should be a fourth category: items to be delegated.


Knowing which tasks can be delegated and to whom is important; keeping track of those tasks – striking the right balance between giving colleagues genuine ownership of the task and ensuring it is completed on time – is also important.

Keep meetings short and productive

This can be done by circulating a clear, agreed agenda prior to the meeting and doggedly sticking to that agenda, ensuring that deviations are avoided. The minutes of meetings should be short and should list the actions required and the people responsible for their completion. Meetings are often important, unavoidable and the most effective way of making decisions. But knowing when a meeting is necessary and when meetings can be avoided is just as important.

Ask yourself: can I achieve the same outcome without a meeting? Can the matter be resolved by email, a telephone call or a ‘walk and talk’? If a meeting is necessary, what is the best format? A formal, round the table meeting or a short, standing briefing? Colleagues will respond better to meetings if they know they are only held when necessary.

When I wrote the first edition of Leadership for Learning back in 2010, I argued – in the chapter on work life balance, an edited version of which you’ve just read – that making time for yourself and switching off from work was not only good for your health but was also crucial to increasing your effectiveness as a leader. I said that working unsocial hours and depriving yourself of a life outside of school was a measure of ineffectiveness because a good school leader should be able to manage his or her time effectively. Enjoying a life outside of work, I added, expands one’s life experiences and increases one’s frame of reference.

Since I wrote that chapter, new research has emerged which suggests that striking a work life balance is not only heathy, it also improves your thinking skills and creativity… and you can read all about it in Part Two of this article.

Read more about successful school leadership in How to Lead: The second edition of Leadership for Learning – available now in paperback and ebook.

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