When I managed a nonprofit team I inevitably had staff who struggled to meet deadlines. So I’d ask them to keep track for a week of how they found themselves spending their time. My boss, generously, even made funds available to send folks to time management courses.
It seldom worked.
Because most traditional time management advice involves cutting out unnecessary activities. Some of this is possible, but many nonprofit workers simply have too much to do in too little time. The “unnecessary” is sometimes hard to find.
Recently I happened on an article in the New York Times by Adam Grant, Productivity Isn’t About Time Management. It’s About Attention Management. In it, he talked about someone who couldn’t find any tasks to drop from his calendar:
“This is going to sound like a joke, but it’s not,” he confessed. “My only idea is to drink less water so I don’t have to go to the bathroom so many times.”
But Grant offered an interesting solution; a reframing of the conundrum. He suggests that time management is actually part of the problem, not a solution.
What might the real, solvable overarching problem be?
I would suggest it’s an existential one.
The real problem is failing to personally assess why we’re doing what we’re doing, and is it what we want to do?
It sometimes seems easier to put one’s head to the grindstone, or bury it in the sand, and just not strive to know. Because that takes work. Hard work. Personal, introspective work. And that’s harder than making a list of the minutes spent doing X, Y and Z. And we might just learn something we’re afraid to learn.
But fear-based avoidance doesn’t work so well over the long term. Not if you want to be productive, and not if you want to feel good about yourself.
If you don’t know the why of your work, and don’t like the what, it’s most certainly not a match made in heaven. It’s no match at all. And you’re likely to avoid doing it as long as you can get away with it.
Avoiding the real problem and priorities makes you feel unproductive.
Which makes you feel a need to better manage your time. But that’s addressing the symptom, not the root cause.
TRUE STORY: I had a star performer who I promoted from grant writer to annual giving director. She was terrifically organized and a great project manager, so it seemed like a good idea. On paper. And she was excited by the idea. At first. But then she started to miss direct mail deadlines (though she’d never missed a grant deadline). Could she have too much work on her plate? We tried addressing time management. She made beautiful spreadsheets showing the amount of time spent on different tasks. Things didn’t appreciably improve. Until… one day she came to me and said she’d realized something. She didn’t enjoy the direct mail aspect of the job. So she kept putting it on the back burner. She asked if she could go back to being the grant writer. She didn’t even care if it would mean a reduction in pay. She wanted to do what she preferred because that was why she liked her job! [I didn’t reduce her pay because… she was that good and I wanted to keep her. I just didn’t realize a promotion to a different job wasn’t the best route to that end.]
Being ‘busy’ does not equate with being productive.
Time management has crept into our culture because of our obsession with productivity. How often do you hear yourself or others say “There just aren’t enough hours in a day?”
There might just be enough hours to get everything done that needs to be done, were it not for the fact we busy ourselves with stuff that allows us to avoid the necessary by doing the unnecessary.
As Seth Godin states, you get no points for busy.
“Points for successful prioritization. Points for efficiency and productivity. Points for doing work that matters.”– Seth Godin
Doing busy work is what procrastinators do.
And procrastinators put off ‘til tomorrow what could be done today precisely because, for whatever reason, they’re avoiding doing what they’re putting off. If you procrastinate, this doesn’t mean you’re lazy. In fact, the word procrastination is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. But it’s also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against your better judgment. This is a form of ‘self-harm,’ and something you can learn to overcome.
If you’re asking “how can I get more done?” you’re asking the wrong question.
It’s important to figure out what needs to get done, not just what can get done.
No one can do it all. No one.
So don’t put this on yourself, and don’t let someone else put it on you either.
- What am I doing that doesn’t need doing?
- What am I doing that doesn’t need to be done by me?
- What am I doing that doesn’t need to be done immediately?
First organize your attention, then your time. If you focus solely on time management you’ll just feel bad when you realize how many hours you’re wasting.
Address the problem’s root cause: your agenda is filled with all sorts of busy work.
Often it’s not busy work given to you by others. It’s your own invention, or habit, or compulsion at work. In other words, back to procrastination (i.e. ‘self-harm’) as the culprit.
Procrastination is focusing on the immediate rather than the important. It turns out humans possess a ‘present bias;’ we’re wired to prioritize short-term tasks over long-term ones. It’s evolutionary to focus on providing for one’s needs in the here and now. At one point in time it was a useful survival adaptation. In a modern, post-industrial society, not so much.
“Over time, chronic procrastination has not only productivity costs, but measurably destructive effects on our mental and physical health, including chronic stress, general psychological distress and low life satisfaction, symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor health behaviors, chronic illness and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease.” –Charlotte Lieberman
Ultimately the act of putting important things off – when you know you should not – makes you feel bad. You chastise yourself for lacking will power. This becomes an emotional problem that gets in the way of managing tasks in the most effective way possible. By the time you really do get to the priority, the situation has become more urgent and inherently more stressful.
So you default to more busy work. It becomes an endless, self-defeating cycle.
Do the work that matters most.
Take into account what matters most to you. Because you really can’t separate the task from your feeling about that task. At least not for long. And not without doing the task, and yourself, a disservice.
If you find yourself working at a job that doesn’t matter to you, think about your options.
Sometimes you need to stay put, but consider how you might tweak things to reframe the situation into one that better addresses your personal raison d’etre. How might you make the job matter more to you personally? Who else might you enlist for support and guidance?
New York Times writer Adam Grant suggests:
“Attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.”
Manage attention to focus on projects and people that matter.
Personally, I feel productive helping a lot of people become more effective, and joyful, in their jobs. I know most nonprofits don’t have large budgets to carve out for consultation, coaching and classes, so I enjoy being an accessible resource.
I love to write this blog, and find myself spending countless hours on it. It might not be ‘efficient’ in the short-term, or even from the perspective of an outsider looking in, but it feels enormously ‘effective’ to me because it’s what I want to be doing at this point in my life.
When you’re focused on the big, priority stuff, the amount of time you spend on it won’t seem so important.
I still carve out time for other tasks, but I’m trying to be judicious with my choices and arrive at a semblance of work-life balance. As E.B. White wrote:
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
In Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, he finds productive people go after the saving and the savoring simultaneously. They gravitate to projects that are personally interesting and socially meaningful.
That sounds like a recipe for a successful nonprofit worker and/or donor, doesn’t it?
Ask not what you can do for work, but what work can do for you.
I have a friend who often asks “Why is this happening?”
If your work and life feels like it’s happening to you, and you’re unsure why, take a step back.
- That busy work isn’t making you happy, is it?
- That procrastination isn’t making you feel productive, is it?
- That time management system isn’t making a significant dent towards improving matters, is it?
Consider what motivates you to do what you’re doing.
If nothing does, that tells you a lot.
If you figure out your why, that enables you to pay greater attention to what gets your juices flowing so you can do more of the things that are the means to the ends you want to achieve.
Stop being a busy victim.
Take charge by taking time to consider your motivating values, emotions and passions.
If you rely on will power to simply be ‘productive’ you’ll get some tasks done, but you’ll suffer through it.
If you draw from internal motivators you’ll enjoy the process, and be naturally productive.
Still worried about time?
That’s okay. The most effective attention managers are also good time managers. Just prioritize managing attention first, or the time part won’t really help you so much.
When it comes to time, it’s also good to know yourself.
Notice when and where you get the most done. And try to honor yourself, not conventional wisdom. If you’re a manager, try to honor your workers too; enable flexible scheduling to the extent possible.
[WHEN] I’m a night owl. I do my best creative work in the evening, even into the wee hours (I’m writing this now at 12:10 a.m.). If you ask me to get on a 6:00 a.m. call, I’ll be asleep. Breakfast meetings? I try not to schedule them.
[WHERE] When I was in college, I did my best work sitting cross-legged on my bed with all my books, notebooks and papers organized around me. Or in a cozy café where the white noise of people chatting was a perfect background that somehow focused me on the task at hand. I found the library too quiet, formal and, ultimately, distracting. I was constantly thinking about when I might get the heck out of there!
Your boss might not be accommodating, so give them Daniel Pink’s When to read. He cites evidence your circadian rhythm tells you when to do analytical work, creative work and routine tasks. Everyone is not the same, so trying to impose the same schedule/system on everyone is a recipe for failure. Even if your boss won’t help, don’t stay in victim mode.
Try to better understand, and tweak, your own approach to your work.
Do what you can. Take control over what you can. You’ll feel less overwhelmed, even if your workload doesn’t change a lot.
Have other tips? Please share in the comments below. Thanks!
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Great article. Running a nonprofit, I can certainly relate. Your suggestion of doing the work that matters most is a great place to mentally “check-in” throughout the day. At Society for Nonprofits, we’re doing our best to make nonprofit life easier by providing tools and resources to assist nonprofit workers at all aspects of running an organization. Here’s just one example – sample documents for everything from board minutes to strategic plans: https://www.snpo.org/resources/samples.php