There’s no doubt: This is the busiest time of year for all U.S. nonprofits. As a solopreneur I feel a particular affinity for you fundraisers in smaller shops. You are head chef and bottle washer, too. The hamster wheel is spinning so fast, you feel like you’re floating on air. Right?
Running my own business forces me to think differently about how I balance my professional and personal priorities, especially as they have increased. Balance doesn’t come easily. Nor does the efficiency that could help get you there.
This year I’ve been reading and learning a lot about how to unplug, focus, and optimize my workday.Since you’re reading this, you’ve probably taken a momentary pause from your full inbox, your double-booked calendar, and the 14-page “to do” list on your desk. You deserve applause for the pause!
Let’s stop wearing the nonprofit sector’s Martyrdom Syndrome like a badge of honor. Real productivity and rewarding work doesn’t come from martyrdom.
Here’s how you can work more efficiently (and effectively) with less exhaustion, even in the year-end hustle:
1. Block time on your calendar every day to do what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” Hold that time sacred.
Our hyper-connected world creates big stress. The unintended consequence of the convenience of emails at your fingertips is the expectation you will be accessible all. the. time. Social media apps that refresh with a simple swipe are only fueling our addiction to our phones. And addiction to our phones affects every aspect of our fundraising lives and personal lives.
Even for me, I realized after reading Make Time (Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky), Unsubscribe (Jocelyn K. Glei), and Digital Minimalism (Cal Newport) that I wasn’t focusing on the most important work. Replying to every email as it came through my inbox felt productive. But really, it wasn’t. It was short-circuiting my brain’s attention span and preventing me from intentionally setting my schedule to block time for meaningful work. The meaningful work was getting done. But I was exhausted and overstretched by February.
Prioritizing the strategizing, planning, research, writing, brainstorming, even daydreaming and resting you need to do to advance your work – that’s what this is about.
If you look at my calendar today, you’ll see solid blocks marked out. Sometimes they’re back to back meetings. Often they’re a mix of meetings, time to follow-up or prepare for meetings, and other Windmill Hill Consulting priorities. I even block time to exercise, because that’s essential to managing stress.
As a fundraiser, what does this look like for you?
It might mean blocking time every day to call or write to a donor. Or to analyze your major donor portfolio and pipelines. Or to map out your strategy for the coming months. Or to work on the proposal or other donor communications piece due soon.
It may sounds easy-ish to do. But the lure of replying to emails or instant messaging (if you use an app like Basecamp or Slack) will be strong. If you work on site with your team, in-person distractions will try to wreak their own havoc.
Turn off your email, productivity apps, and push notifications. Our brains don’t know the difference between something that’s really important and the constant ding of new notifications.
If you share a calendar with a team, mark your periods of availability and stick to that. (Respectfully but firmly.)
If you’re in a shared work space, display a visible signifier that you are in the zone and it’s not an ideal time to chat. (Explain this signifier to your colleagues first. Let them know it’s an experiment to help you be more efficient and effective. Invite them to give it a try themselves.)
2. Take control of your email.
Are you in charge of your email, or is it in charge of you?
In Unsubscribe, Jocelyn K. Glei says,
“If writing a letter a hundred years ago was the equivalent of sitting down with someone in a quiet room and talking face-to-face, writing an email today is like yelling at someone across a noisy traffic intersection while they’re rushing to an appointment.”
It’s true. And it’s hurting us.
Emails are among the most common and default means of communication. But the overwhelm, studies tell us, has now predisposed us to view emails with a slightly negative attitude. Managing your inbox can easily consume an entire day.
Reduce your email time to just a few designated periods each day.
I know. As a fundraiser, you’re thinking this is bonkers.
What if a major donor is ready to make that transformational gift and you don’t respond to their question in time?
Create a standard automatic response that defines external expectations. You might say that you are focusing on end of year deadlines and will only be checking emails occasionally throughout the day. Leave an alternate contact person or mode for time-sensitive matters. Most importantly, give the sender a sense of when you will be able to respond to their email.
Just as I suggest blocking time in your calendar for your priority work, “email check” can be a time block to help you focus on only that activity.
Also try this:
Define your emails by what needs to happen with them.
Emails are constant “to dos.” I see my inbox and think, “how many more things do I need to focus on now?” Not every email requires an immediate response. Not every email requires any response. We have adopted the expectation that the receiver is waiting anxiously at their device for an instant reply. This is often false. And acting on it as an assumption scatters your energies and devalues your time.
Try grouping emails by action type. (A Jocelyn K. Glei suggestion.)
For example, don’t leave emails in your Inbox as a holding device. Every email requires some sort of action — a response, a “to do,” waiting, scheduling, filing away, etc. When you check emails (in just a couple of blocks of dedicated times each day!), move them from the inbox to the folder that makes the most sense. Don’t let them linger.
Then, during scheduled email blocks in your day, you might tackle the “action” folder first. You’ll start feeling like the fire hose has finally been turned off. Email won’t go away. But you can breathe and focus.
3. Evaluate everything on your “to do” list.
To quote author and educator Stephen Covey: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
In his book First Things First, Covey offers a time management matrix of four quadrants to help define what’s truly at the top of your list. Get honest and ruthless in marking your tasks: Must Do, Would-Be-Great-to-Do, and Not Now.
The Must Dos are the activities that will help you raise money immediately, in this final quarter of the year.
The Would-Be-Great-to-Dos are activities which may take longer to implement. They may not necessarily result in immediate funding, but are enhancements to your plan. Consider them again in January.
The Not Nows are ideas and activities which are not the best use of your bandwidth this fall, not the best ROI. And they may not fit into your strategic development plan anyway.
Once or twice a week, look at your calendar and “to do” list. Group them into these three categories. After a few times, you’ll be surprised how easy it will become to shape your days and weeks by priorities.
I do this religiously. And and I take it one step further, based on what I read in Make Time:
Each evening, I think about the one or two “highlights” that must get done the next day. How much time do I think I will need? Have I blocked the time? If not, I do. If I don’t have the flexibility in my schedule, I either restructure my planned meetings or my “highlights” to make it work. Between these two activities, I’ve become so much better at planning out my time to be more productive.
When you work efficiently, smartly, and sanely, you will be of greater service to your donors, your organization, and those you serve.
Burning out isn’t a badge of honor. It helps no one in the long run.
Intentionally and honestly identifying what comes first – and keeping it front and center – channels your limited time and energies most effectively. Commit to getting off the hamster wheel and out of a mindset that leads to burnout and compromised outcomes.
Here’s to you in the home stretch!