There will never be a 'slow time' for nonprofit pros. Here's how to deal - Generocity Philly

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Jun. 12, 2018 12:45 pm

There will never be a ‘slow time’ for nonprofit pros. Here’s how to deal

"I will never be allowed the time to get to the fun things on my to-do list. That realization was the beginning of a new era for me." Columnist Valerie Johnson shares her productivity hacks.

Always racing.

(Photo by R. Kennedy for GPTMC)

It’s both event season and fiscal year end for a lot of nonprofits, which is another way of saying that most fundraising professionals are feeling extra burned out right now.

If you fall into this group, you probably coach yourself through the busy year by saying things like “Just get through the end of the fiscal year!” and “Once we hit June 30, things will slow down!” or even “In July and August, you can catch up on all that stuff you wish you had time for!”

And to that I call bullshit. It took 10 years in the professional world, but I finally conceded: There is never enough time. Things will not slow down. I will never be allowed the time to get to the fun things on my to-do list.

That realization was the beginning of a new era for me. Because I used to motivate myself by thinking that someday, perhaps far down the line, I would catch up. There would be more time. So I was constantly striving for this (nonexistent) time when things would suddenly be easier.

Researchers have found that on average, you are interrupted or switch tasks every three minutes.

By reframing my thinking, I quite suddenly stopped caring so much about my never-ending to-do list. Sure, I would never cross everything off the list. But it was okay, because there would NEVER be enough time to tackle everything. Why stress myself out about something I can’t fix? I started thinking about what I COULD accomplish every day, rather than agonizing over what I wouldn’t accomplish.

Each and every human being gets 24 hours in a day, and I function best when I get a full eight hours of sleep every night, a workout in the morning and a couple of hours of downtime after work. Which means I have eight to 10 hours per day for work each weekday, and there is only so much I can accomplish in that timeframe.

Once I reframed the way I think about my workload, I started looking into productivity and time management. And holy shirts and pants, there are a whole lot of scary statistics out there. 

Did you know that researchers have found that on average, you are interrupted or switch tasks every three minutes? Or that it can take 23 minutes to get back to where you left off once you get back to the original task? Or the more stressed you are, the more frequently you will switch tasks?

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Immediately after typing that sentence (which I interrupted to open a new tab and grab the exact statistic I wanted), I:

  • Grabbed my phone to review the notes I wrote on this article while I was on the train this morning
  • Saw an unfinished Facebook post to say happy birthday to my cats, Agador and Spartacus
  • Put the phone down because I realized I wanted to put that into the article
  • But before I typed it out I went back and linked those stats above to the source so I wouldn’t forget
  • And finished this list, then finished the Facebook post, before continuing to write the article.

(This is not a joke — I actually did this exact thing, as evidenced by this catchy and cute Facebook post.)

There’s this myth that multitasking is a good thing. Lots of job seekers are right at this very minute writing cover letters featuring their multitasking skills and swearing up and down at interviews that they excel at multitasking.

The truth is, multitasking isn’t a great way to get things done. When you are stressed, by upcoming events or deadlines or big projects (or by not crossing as many things off your to do list), you become less productive by multitasking more frequently.

Once I listened to all the podcasts and read all the articles and tips on productivity, I started experimenting. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know what’s worked for me:

1. Prioritize.

Once I realized I would never get it all done, I took a really hard look at prioritizing my work. Every morning I take a look at today’s to-do list, determine what absolutely must get done today, what should get done today and what can wait until tomorrow. And then I work on those things, in that order.

That doesn’t really help you get to the big things, though — those higher level, strategic things that you always wish you could do and never have time to do because they don’t matter right now. Which leads me to …

2. Schedule time with yourself.

Literally block your calendar for tasks that you know need to be done. This works for big and small things. Do you want to take some time to plan out your overall annual social media strategy, rather than just plugging along planning things out days or a few weeks in advance? Schedule it and stick to it.

Scheduling is easy, but committing to a specific task at a particular time can be harder. You may want to pass over that strategy session to get to some other things that have a higher priority on the day in question. And sure, a true emergency trumps strategy. But at the end of the day, strategy is pretty important too, so commit to making it happen when you schedule it.

3. Be selfish.

Minimize interruptions. Communicate to your coworkers that you’re on Do Not Disturb. If you have a door, shut it. Turn off your email notifications. Silence your cell phone. Commit to 25 (or 45, or 60) minutes of uninterrupted work. Don’t answer the phone, don’t distract yourself by popping onto Facebook to see how many people liked your cat photo. Work uninterrupted until your time is up, and then take a break.

It seems counterintuitive to take lots of small breaks, but intense concentration followed by short breaks actually helps with motivation and creativity. Plus, you get to reward yourself for 25 minutes of hard work with five minutes to grab a snack and check your texts.

4. Don’t put things off.

Got a big event coming up, and someone wants to schedule a meeting with you the day before about something that’s a medium priority? I say go for it. Pushing things back, changing deadlines, delaying starting one thing until another is completed — this all ends up creating more work in the long run.

If you put the meeting off now, you’ll end up doing twice the work in half the time to make up for it later. You can make it all work regardless of how much is going on that week if you’re scheduling your tasks efficiently. Be realistic, of course — no need to accept an invitation for a meeting about your supervisor’s kid’s dog’s birthday that would be better suited as an email — but don’t completely shut down in times of stress either.

5. Find what works best for you.

Mentally, I am at my best in the morning. In the afternoon, I lose motivation, get hangry or sleepy, and generally have a harder time getting important tasks done efficiently. Therefore, important meetings or tasks get scheduled in the morning for me. I tend to get in early and dive into the most important task as soon as I get to the office, while setting aside the last hour of the day for menial tasks that don’t require much effort. I know plenty of people who are on the opposite schedule — morning is tough, but afternoons are full of energy and creativity for them. Whatever works for YOU is key.

Am I a rock star of time management every day? Not even close. I have days where I realize pretty early on that it’s not a good day to get stuff done and roll with it. Embrace it, even, because it’ll be an easier day to get through if I concede that no work will get done rather than stressing about what I could or should be doing.

I also have days where I hit the ground running, knock 20 things off my to do list, and go home feeling like Rocky Balboa after knocking out Ivan Drago. Ahead of the “slow” [insert eyeroll here] summertime, do some trial and error to find out what works for you!

Your future, less-stressed-out self will thank you.

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