June 28

Nonprofit Time Management Misses the Point – Do This Instead

Time management can't stop you from running out of time.

The classic tools of prioritizing, scheduling, delegating, and the latest fad, time tracking, don't address what's really going on.

You can spend hours fiddling with time management apps and tools.

Your time will still leak away, right from under your nose.

As a busy nonprofit founder, you've spent all the time you can afford today, this evening, this weekend.

But your to-do list just grows longer.

If only you'd scheduled your time better!

If only you'd "time managed" better!

But no - it's not your fault.

It's those pesky time habits that undermine your best intentions.

Time habits overrule your schedule.

Time habits play havoc with your priorities.

And time tracking won't save you.

Time management tools can't deliver until you sort out your time habits.

And once you sort out your time habits, you won't need time management tools.

Too Much, Too Little

Man juggling nonprofit time management

Nonprofit startups have a long list of things to do.

And usually, not enough hands with enough hours to get it all done.

What makes it worse is that all these tasks were best done yesterday.

There's urgency in our mission.

We yearn to make an impact.

So much advice for starting a nonprofit says do this plan, that plan, and the other plan.

Strategy, marketing, operations, fundraising - plan, plan, plan!

Meanwhile, we're running out of money, energy, and time.

If we don't start DOING, instead of PLANNING, we'll drown.

Less planning, more doing

Woman with hands on the side of her head

All startups face a whirlwind of too many demands with too little time and other resources.

They need to make hard choices about what to do and, just as importantly, what NOT to do.

Ramping up the stakes is opportunity cost - if we're doing this thing, we're not doing the other things.

If we make the wrong choice about what we spend our time on, we don't get that time back later for a do-over.

Time spent is time gone.


What things should we concentrate on?

What can we drop?


Startup nonprofits don't need to plan nearly as much as they might think based on an internet search of How To guides.

Founders don't need a long-term big picture. They need a focus on what difference they can make right now.

They need to interact with the community they wish to help, with organizations already working to address the problem, and find what's missing.

Writing plan after plan is a waste of time.

Instead, they should listen to people experiencing the problem they want to fix, and work out simple ways to help which, through trial and error and several resets, will grow into programs.

There's still a ton of work to do.

Choices never disappear.

Project management proves the point

Woman's head, four hands in anguish

Project management confirms that you cannot achieve a goal or outcome with insufficient resources, including time.

Even the most basic apps and software help you clarify what you want to achieve, then lay out all the resources (time, money, skills, people, etc) to get it done. If you want to do something without the resources to do it, you'll see quickly on the Gantt chart or Trello board or whatever that it's just not going to happen.

Three people working an extended day may account for 30+ hours of work. If your goal needs 50 hours, it's not going to happen.

Nonprofits know this feeling well, not just at the startup stage.

Running on Empty

Woman asleep at her desk

The Scarcity Mindset has legendary status in nonprofits, and it's not just about money.

Founders' Fatigue is also legendary.

The nagging feeling of running out of time and energy (and money).

There are other costs, too.

Founders struggle to keep up with all the demands. They stress about bad choices, false economies, letting people down, letting themselves down, missing out on family and friends, and letting go of other personal goals.

Add on top the health consequences of not taking care of their eating, sleeping, and exercise.

Relying on self-medication, aka "just one more".

Constantly at risk of burnout, mental health problems, anxiety, depression.

The fear of failing this nonprofit endeavour to help others is powerful.

Frustration, self-doubt, confusion – it shouldn't be so hard to help people!

No one wants to resent the nonprofit they've founded.

They just want to get the most out of their time.

Time tracking can't help

Woman on her phone checks her watch

Time tracking is trendy.

The new "fitbit" at work.

Easy-to-use software - click, click.

I hear you wince.

"Now we're supposed to track our time?"

"Yet another app?"

"Is that a sick joke?"

On the surface, time tracking seems simple enough. Record the hours and minutes we spend in various categories of task (meetings, emails, phone calls, social media content, etc) and we can make better choices about how to allocate our energy.

The promise of time tracking is that you'll get everything done by adopting the ideal schedule. All it can really tell you is how much time you're spending on various activities (assuming you record everything correctly - yes, you must set it all up to work properly).

What do we really get from quantifying minutes against various categories?

We can plan to spend more time on some things and less time on others.

More (or less) email, less (or more) social media.

Valuable, but not a game-changer to use your time to best effect.

Time tracking isn't bad.

But it goes only so far.

Underneath it all is behaviour, and our brains love to follow familiar patterns.

There's no nonprofit time equivalent to walking 10,000 steps each day.

Because what matters more than time is Energy.

Our use of time is not a scheduling problem.

It's an Energy problem.

It's not time, it's energy

Young woman concentrating

When we're out of energy, how much time we have no longer matters.

Time flies when we're having fun because fun doesn't take as much energy and attention as work.

When work is also difficult, time drags to a halt.

We don't feel in hours and minutes.

We feel ourselves spending energy.

Quickly, as in exercise.

Or slowly, as in meetings.

How you experience time either sustains you or deflates you, regardless of the task you're working on.

Time management techniques and apps don't work for people struggling to fix their energy.

Time management – scheduling and prioritizing – are not the real culprits.

What's undermining your energy, keeping you rushing around tired all the time, are your time habits.

Time habits are the automatic and semi-automatic decisions you make about who and what deserves your attention.

As habits, they're almost invisible.

Things like setting and keeping boundaries.

Managing distractions.

Resisting the desire to be always available.

Saying "no".

Looking after yourself, not just with regular breaks during the workday, but how you sleep, eat, drink, exercise, and reflect.

All the above determine how much energy you have available for the hard stuff.

Get these habits right, and the nonprofit tasks you loathe will breeze by. You may not enjoy doing them any more than previously, but you'll find getting them done sustains you.

You'll give the right amount of attention and spend the right amount of energy on all the tasks for fundraising, boards, programs, and marketing.

The New Time Management - Time Habits

Woman smiling about nonprofit time habits

Learning good time habits, the second of five breakthrough skills for nonprofit entrepreneurs, determines how you show up for all your activities.

I don't mean showing up on time.

I mean, how you show up, as in with what energy.

Your energy determines how you experience time.

Time habits determine how much energy you have.

Time habits are decisions

Young man smiling about nonprofit time habits

Time habits are habits about time (duh) - but let's break down what that means.

We think of habits as actions - waking up at a set time, putting on the right shoe before the left, parking in the same spot.

There are three parts to a habit:

  1. cue
  2. action
  3. reward

A cue is anything that reminds your brain that there's a pre-existing pattern for the current situation.

When your alarm blares in the morning, you switch it off without thinking. The noise is gone and you're awake (assuming you're not taking advantage of the snooze button).

The noise is the cue for the action of turning the alarm off. The noise ending and you being awake is the "reward". Even if you feel being awake is no fun at all, you've trained your brain to recognize "awake, alarm silent" as the intended outcome of turning the alarm off.

When the cue happened, your brain recognized the pattern and made an instantaneous decision to turn off the alarm.

You didn't need to decide consciously to turn the alarm off. Your arm was probably already in motion before you were consciously aware of the alarm.

The same thing happens when you arrive in the same parking spot without thinking about it.

Time habits are the automatic and semi-automatic decisions that affect your time and energy.

Let's consider the most important - boundaries and distractions.

Managing boundaries

Young woman managing boundaries

Setting boundaries is easy, but keeping them can be a challenge.

Surprises and interruptions play havoc with your well-structured schedule.

Certain people expect to have your attention when they appear before you.

As a skill, setting and enforcing boundaries is vital for nonprofit founders to be self-directed entrepreneurs.

Weak boundaries drain your energy in ways you don't control, because you've given control away.

The result is that you don't have enough energy for your own purposes.

There are two main types of boundary regarding time habits: time boundaries and task boundaries. Time boundaries are how well we keep to our schedule. Do meetings and calls routinely run over? Start late? Task boundaries are how well we finish what we've started before moving on to something else. Newsletter half-done? Board agenda still in limbo?

These look like scheduling and priority problems, but they're automatic and semi-automatic decisions. Our self-talk, conscious or not, processes a decision that yields a reward.

The meeting runs over because (we tell ourselves) the discussion must reach a conclusion, and a few minutes won't matter.

It'll be too difficult to get folks together again, so let's just continue.

The reward is reminding ourselves how busy and important we are.

We may even get a decision, but that's less important.

Our brains recognize this pattern as safe and sensible, and it flows smoothly.

We stop midway through a task with self-talk like, "I'm not feeling this right now," or "I should get more information first," and "I'll just think this over while I sort some laundry," all patterns that our brains recognize as safe and sensible.

We set boundaries around time and tasks but don't enforce them because we revert to undermining patterns of self-talk that have become habitual.

As habits, we don't challenge these decisions consciously.

And that's how to fix them.

We need to bring these decisions back into conscious awareness so that we can disrupt the pattern.

I coach nonprofit founders to use the acronym NAH - notice, acknowledge, halt.

Notice the decision, by recognizing the risk to the boundary, and listening out for your self-talk.

Acknowledge the decision by how familiar and automatic it feels.

Halt it in its tracks.

Make a different decision.

Finish the meeting without a decision.

Finish the Newsletter's first draft.

Managing distractions

Young woman with crown managing distractions

Distractions steal our attention before we know it.

Then they drain your energy because of the brain's power to switch your attention back and forth.

Like task boundaries, distractions pop up even when we're (trying to be) focused.

There are two ways to manage distractions - an easier way and a harder way.

The harder way is to use the NAH method above to challenge your self-talk.

When a distraction threatens your attention, your self-talk automatically decides, "Ooh, this shiny thing is important! I must look."

Relying only on this method is hard because you are still vulnerable to the attention-seeking pings and pop-ups that bombard us every day.

The easier way is to block as many of these distractions as possible.

Turn off your notifications.

Close your browser.

Shut the door.

Train the people around you when it's okay to interrupt, and when it's not.

Combined with enforcing task boundaries, managing distractions will get more work done with a lot less energy.

Tracking Habits, Not Minutes

Young working woman relaxed about nonprofit time habits

Having choice is a having power.

You have the power (choice) to choose to control your energy through your time habits or not.

You have the power to give yourself the power over your energy.

You have the choice to choose.

Most of us do not choose to choose.

That's not semantics.

We follow the path of least resistance.

We yield.

We squander ownership of this choice, this power, by focusing on external factors like schedules and what people around us say and do.

If we do so only a few times, our brains recognize the pattern and start laying down the habit.

Your brain wants to keep you safe. The brain reckons that if it can decide faster, it can preserve space for the vital decisions that keep you alive.

Like recognizing and responding to danger.

Nonprofit entrepreneurs are self-directed. They set their own intentions, rather than rely on supervisors, job descriptions, and quarterly targets. Their intentions will go only as far as their time habits permit.

They feel like they're running out of time and energy, but they have the power to release themselves from the treadmill by resetting their time habits. It shouldn't be so hard to help people!

That's why good time habits are a core skill for nonprofit entrepreneurs.

Do your time habits give you the energy you need to fulfill your purpose?

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