Spring Clean your Schedule

i-has-a-systemAre you busy all the time?  Rushing from one task to the next with no time to breathe?  Despite all that activity, do you feel as behind at the end of the day as you did when you woke up?  It may seem you just need to work harder, become more efficient, or work longer days.

I suggest an alternate path:  Do less.

Spend less time perfecting the meeting minutes.  Forget the $1500 grant with a 14 page application.  Skip your blog post on the weeks you have nothing to say.  Take a walk after lunch.

I’m not suggesting you clear your schedule completely and sit in your office waiting for inspiration to strike, but there is only so much of you to go around.  When your day is filled with  minutia and busywork, there is no space left to think about what’s next.

What can you stop doing?

Use your mission as a guide here.  It is why your nonprofit exists. Without it, the rest of your work, no matter how well executed, is pointless. I’m not saying you should fire the development director (please, don’t fire the development director), but when the marketing, development and administrative work takes over the life of your organization,  you are no longer doing what you set out to do.

So how do you decide what should stay and what should go?  The key is to connect each piece of work back to your mission.  Think of it like stepping stones.  For example:

The mission of Low Hanging Fruit is to help nonprofits be heard.  The work of writing this blog post breaks down like this:

  1. I’m writing a blog post about prioritization so
  2. the nonprofit leaders who read it will spend their best time on the core of their work so
  3. what they do will have a greater impact.
  4. That impact will strengthen their voice in the community. (i.e. help them be heard).

Since writing new content is close to the core of my purpose, (only working directly with organizations is closer), there are just a few steps between my work and my mission.  For administrative tasks, the link will take longer.  For example, one night last month, I developed a time-tracking system.  The breakdown of that work looks like this:

  1. I’m creating a spreadsheet to track my hours so
  2. I can evaluate how I divide my time between working with clients, writing good content, finding my right people, and growing my experience so
  3. I can ensure I’ve got the right mix of activities to grow my business so
  4. more of the right people visit my website at the right time and find what they need so
  5. when they need help they will contact me to work directly with their organization to
  6. help them be heard.

Both activities can legitimately be tied back to my goal.  Some of your current work will not tie back–or if it does, it’s only because you are very creative.  If you have to work especially hard on this exercise, or the linkage takes more than 10 steps, consider dropping that activity from your work–even just for a little while, and see what happens.

Prioritizing what remains

Even after removing activities not directly related to your mission, your schedule will likely be full.  The next step is to prioritize the rest.  This is usually where you’d see advice like “start with what’s most important” or “what is most unpleasant”, or even, “the easiest thing”.

The problem with this advice is it has nothing to do with what will work for you.  Try this instead:  sync your work with the natural ebb and flow of your productivity by doing the work most closely tied to your mission during your most fruitful hours.  If you like to work from a schedule, spend time at the beginning of each day, or each week, sketching out a plan to budget minutes for each activity.  Schedule the “mission critical” work for the times when you are fresh and unlikely to be interrupted and the less critical work during the times that remain.

If you know a weekly plan just isn’t going to happen for you, set a timer to chime (way better than buzz — but do what you have to do) every fifty minutes during your most productive hours. When you hear the sound, evaluate the work you are doing in the moment–is it the most mission centered thing on your plate right now? If not, switch to work closer to the center.

What’s the point?

Now that you have an extra hour or two in your schedule each day, enjoy it!  Rather than tick off the next thing on your list, take time to dream about what’s possible, learn about something new, connect with people who see the world differently.  By taking your nose off the grindstone, you have time to look up and see what is around you– it’s this time to look “outward” that will give you the experience and perspective you need to serve your community in whole new ways.  (Plus you are less likely to burn out, but that’s another post. . . .)

Your Turn

What are you ready to stop doing?

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Impact & Capacity, Revisited
What’s so great about mission?

Your mission is why your nonprofit exists.  Without it, the rest of your work, no matter how well executed is completely pointless.  I’m not saying you should fire the development director (please, don’t fire the development director)  but when the marketing, development and administration work you do gets in the way of what you were organized to do, there is a problem.The concept is very obvious in theory, but it does get a bit tricky in real life–especially for people with administrative or leadership responsibilities.  When your day involves balancing the budget, approving the marketing plan and wondering where you will get the money to do what needs doing, it’s very easy to start giving those activities all of your focus.  When that happens, it’s easy to become an organization that is about raising money, or about perpetuating itself–not about making the world better.I am in no way suggesting that the leadership and management of nonprofits is unimportant–quite the opposite.  Without the right people in these roles, it is impossible for  those closer to the mission to do their work.  Without nonprofit leaders and administrators, growth and in some cases achieving the mission at all is impossible.  What I am suggesting is that everyone connected with your organization, from board members to the custodial staff should know in their bones why you do what you do and focus their efforts on doing their work in a way that best supports that mission.

How do I do that?
The best way to stay linked to your mission is to make sure the work most important to your mission is done at your most productive time of day.

For example.  The mission of Low Hanging Fruit is to help nonprofits be heard.  Right now I’m writing a blog post so my linkage looks like this:

1) I’m writing a blog post about the value of mission so
2) the nonprofit leaders who read it will spend their best time on the core of their work so
3) what they do will be more powerful–making it easier for them to be heard.

One night last week I decided I wanted to know how I was spending my time.  The breakdown of that work looks like this:

1)I’m creating a spreadsheet to track my hours so
2)I’ll know how I spend my time so
3) I can evaluate how I divide my time between writing good content, finding my right people, and growing my experience so
4) more of the right people  visit my website at the right time and find what they need so
5) when they have a communications problem they will think of me as someone who can help them be heard.

So, for my work, writing content is much more important to my mission than tracking my time

What this doesn’t  mean
Spreadsheets and time tracking is totally pointless.

What it does mean
My most productive and creative hours should be spent writing.  The less productive parts of my day should be spent on the spreadsheets.

If planning your day makes you happy
Prioritize your daily tasks and schedule each one in order of how closely aligned with your mission it is.  Put the most mission diriven parts at your most productive time of day

If planning your day is never going to happen
Set a timer to chime (way better than buzz, but do what you have to do) every 50 minutes during your most productive hours.  When you hear the sound evaluate the work you are doing in the moment–is it the most mission centered thing on your plate right now?  If not, switch to something that is.

5 thoughts on “Spring Clean your Schedule

  1. Right on target! I hope your next post will build on this to encourage organizations to also make careful consideration of not just the distance of work to the mission but also the impact.

    As you eluded to, it’s nearly impossible for organizations to accept that not every grant/donor/marketing opportunity is worth the time. Some things to consider:

    1) Often the time it takes to create and manage a broad-based campaigns (in both marketing and fundraising) can’t possibly pay off.

    2) Small grants are nothing to shake a stick at BUT the bigger question is do you/your staff focus on the grants you can win AND nurture. So often I see organizations lose long term relationships because they don’t have the time for anything more than sloppy follow up work–and I do mean work.

    Finally, I wish all of the “social responsible corporations” out there take your advice. Voting campaigns seem great but often hurt the grant-seeker by killing their time! On one hand, I don’t blame them for wanting the community engagement (after all that’s what I do) but unfortunately the process is often unwieldy. I’m sure you have great advice on this as well.

    • Thanks Daryn for such a thoughtful comment. Your point about impact is an important one. I touched on it briefly in my post about the impact/capacity grid, but a full post on how to measure impact is certainly in order.

      I also wholeheartedly agree with your point about giant voting campaigns. The excitement and opportunity such events produce do provide a new way for organizations to build support in their communities–but on the whole they require great amounts of effort, for very little pay off.

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