If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a consultant (and a former nonprofit communications director), it’s how incredibly busy nonprofit communicators are–-always. There don’t seem to be peaks and valleys, it’s all just climbing, climbing, climbing.
Nonprofit communications professionals are pulled in 17 different directions at any given moment, and it can feel like you don’t have much control over your day. Pretty soon you find yourself working at home in the evening just to stay afloat.
I encourage my clients who call me short-of-breath from work overload to make the time to rethink how they organize their days. You may not be able to incorporate every tip I’ve described below, but even using a few of them can have an impact. Keep in mind—when you’re waist-deep in project management—that it’s an important part of your job to stay attuned to news, trends, and larger environment. (I’ve aimed these tips at communications managers, but any communication staff member could find them useful.)
Tip #1: Don’t overload your plate
If you’ve got too much on your plate, acknowledge it and decide what has to go. You risk your own reputation and that of your organization when you take on too many activities to do each of them well.
To help you figure out what you should let go of, organize tasks/projects into a four-quadrant grid with the horizontal axis as URGENT and the vertical axis as IMPORTANT (this axis is where you measure the impact of a project). Your biggest priorities are probably in the quadrant where important and urgent coincide. (If anything falls in the least important, least urgent quadrant, why are you doing it?) Lean toward acting on what’s important first. But keep an eye open for urgent actions that can hold someone else up if they don’t get done—try to be as sensitive to others’ deadlines as you want them to be to yours.
Another skill you absolutely have to master is saying no. When someone pops into your office with a cool idea that’s either not strategic or impossible to add to your already full plate—be straight with them. If the idea’s worth considering at a later time, tell them you’ll do that. Be nice, thank them, but don’t leave them believing you’re going to undertake something you have no resources or time to undertake.
Tip #2: Sunday evening prep
I know this is off-the-clock time, but by spending 15-30 minutes doing this your Monday morning will be SO much easier. Take a look at new emails and emails from the past week that you’ve flagged for action but not acted on. Listen to new voicemails. Make a quickie online, chronological list (starting with what you need to do early in the week) of the things you have to do related to the content of these emails/voicemails. Flag top priorities.
Tip #3: Monday morning me-time
(Beg your ED not to schedule staff meetings on Monday mornings; Tuesday mornings are more productive. You’re all back into the swing of things and new questions will have arisen.)
Spend your first half- to full-hour figuring out your biggest strategic priorities for the week—this is your big picture thinking time. Your priorities shouldn’t be all implementation—there should be relationship building/management, evaluation, information gathering, budgetary, and planning activities as well. Understand how this week’s tasks fit into your goals for the month and year. This is one way to keep on track with the projects that matter most, without getting mired in the morass of tiny “emergencies” that inevitably crop up.
Tip #4: Be the first to know
Every workday morning (except Monday), spend your first 15 minutes to half-hour reviewing top news headlines and alerts related to your work in your online reader and on Tweetdeck. There may be developments that present opportunities or require response, and those need to be added to your weekly project grid too. Be the first to know, and share news with whomever in your organization needs to know. (Your colleagues will find this a valuable service.) At 4 pm, revisit these two sources again to keep up with relevant news. (If you tweet, this is a good time to share links of interest with your followers.)
Tip #5: Tame your tools
Your phone and computer are tools, don’t let them become bosses. If you’re at your desk, resist the temptation to answer the phone or look at emails throughout the day (there are obvious exceptions, if you’re expecting an important call and you see that number flash up, you answer it). This allows you to move on your priorities. At 11 am, review phone messages first and emails second…and act on what needs response right away. (A lot can wait until the end of the day). If an email response is only going to take a minute, do it then and get it off your to-do list. At 3 pm, do this same routine. Be sure to flag emails that are going to require later action. If you’re on the run a lot, use time between meetings to check emails and voicemails on your smart phone. Try to have gone through all your messages before your day ends.
Tip #6: Make meetings matter
Schedule meetings between 9:30-11 and 1-3, to give yourself time to catch up on emails, phone calls, and news beforehand. Be selective about scheduling your own or attending others’ meetings—80% of the time they aren’t necessary. Meetings are for making decisions and building relationships, not for sharing information. (There are great ways to do that through other channels.) If you’re not sure how important a meeting you’ve been asked to attend is, ask yourself this: If I don’t attend, what’s the worst that could happen? If the answer to that question isn’t compelling, if your priorities call you elsewhere, and if an important relationship isn’t at risk—consider sending apologies and not going. Be as concerned about not wasting other people’s time with your meetings as you are about wasting your time with theirs.
Always be prepared for and on-time to meetings. It’s a basic sign of professionalism and respect. It also helps speed things along.
Tip #7: Recognize trouble
It’s easy to get so absorbed in meeting deadlines that when a tiny red flag waves, you don’t see it or just dismiss it and hope it goes away. Always be vigilant for what can go wrong and when you see signs, take a deep breath and sit for a minute. Don’t panic, just let the right course of action come to you (it will). Smart actions are better than knee-jerk responses, they have a greater likelihood of forestalling further problems and will save you time later on. An ounce of prevention…
Tip #8: Keep chats short
Part of your role as a member of your organization is to contribute to a healthy, enjoyable culture. You can’t just close your door and bar chatty neighbors who may be less busy than you at the moment. But you do have the right to: 1) Tell them you’d love to catch up but you’re facing a deadline, or 2) Limit the chat to no more than a few minutes. Informal exchanges with your colleagues are important for team-building (and sometimes information gathering), so don’t cloister yourself away completely. If it works for you, use your lunch time for informal chats.
Tip #9: Take a break at least once a day
At times, it may be impossible to take a lunch break because a project needs to get done, but make those times exceptions. Walking away from your work for at least a half-hour a day can provide mental downtime that increases your clarity, creativity, and productivity. Get away from the office (and outside) during those breaks as much as possible.
Tip #10: Be kind
Just as you’re slammed with deadlines, others in your organization often face the same level of pressure. Watch the tone of your emails and your voice when dealing with unwelcome interruptions and requests. “Lean and mean” behavior may get a project out on time but lose you the long-term cooperation of colleagues. A nonprofit communicator’s success depends on good relationships on every side, internal and external. (Remember, you will need them at some point, just like they need you now.) So be kind and as helpful as you can.
Any time management tips of your own to add?
Creative Commons photo credit: Leo Reynolds