Whether it’s a seasonal trend or part of everyday life, we all know what it means to be busy. Tasks have this magical way of coming together all at once, threatening to bring our work worlds crashing down the moment we’re off our game.
So naturally, this is the time when everyone needs something from us.
Don’t get me wrong: I love helping my team. If I’m the best person to handle a task that moves our mission forward, that’s great! But being human, I can’t do all the things all at once. And you can’t either.
But we can take steps to set better boundaries, optimize and reclaim some of our time. Try these tips next time you start to feel the weight of everyone else’s needs.
1. Go into hiding.
Yup. Sometimes the only way to get stuff done is to disappear. If you can work remotely or from a conference room (or you can apparate), then make yourself scarce during those crunch times. It’s true what they say: out of sight, out of mind!
That won’t stop people from emailing you though. Even apparating has its flaws.
2. Block time in your calendar.
For tasks that need 100% of your focus, it’s reasonable to hope that you won’t be disturbed. So plan ahead! Put holds on your calendar to show colleagues that you’re preoccupied & unavailable (even if you keep the calendar deets to a minimum).
Tip*: If you have the luxury of escaping your desk but need to prevent a panic, let your boss know where you’ll be hiding out.
3. Ask for deadlines.
Whenever there’s a high-priority request (I’m looking at you, Executive Directors!), the first step is to nail down your deadline. Whether you ask flat-out or propose one yourself, clarifying that date allows you to coordinate your schedule so that you deliver on time. It also sets expectations, that way no one is emailing you a dozen times to ask if something is ready.
But the key here is “high-priority”. For less urgent matters, don’t always ask for deadlines. Instead, do #4.
4. Set deadlines yourself.
Everything in nonprofit is urgent, especially when your org does life-saving work. So it’s on you to take charge of your schedule. If you sense that a request isn’t time-sensitive, or doesn’t have a due date at all (!!!), then assign one yourself. Figure out how much time it will take, add some buffer for the unexpected, and confirm the date works for your colleague.
Tip*: Use your best judgment here. How urgent is this request to the team’s overall functioning? What about your org? Don’t be rigid on a date that’s too far off, but don’t drive yourself into the ground either if a request can wait. (Want to play this game on a regular basis? Consider a career as your org’s nonprofit database admin.)
5. Develop a process for the same types of requests.
Once you’ve got a sense of your org’s needs and your own capacity, it’s time to systematize. What do you need to fulfill a request? How far in advance should people ask, and what communication method works best – email, Google Form, messenger pigeon??
A smart process sets us up to do our jobs right, well and on time. It also serves our colleagues, who are crystal clear on their role any time they need something.
Tip*: The trick to enforcing this is to be kind, firm and strategic. Of cooouuurrsseee we’ll bend occasionally. Just be careful not to set a precedent that every incomplete request gets filled on time (even if we are unicorns and can make that kind of magic happen.)
6. Set a meeting.
By now, you’re probably thinking “ummmm I thought we were trying to save time here, Dee. What gives?” That’s because we all know one of the BIGGEST time killers at work is the dreaded this-could’ve-been-an-email meeting.
But I”m just going to say it…the digital age is ruining us, and some email threads would’ve been more productive as actual conversations! (Meetings also help you build rapport with colleagues in a way that emails alone can’t.) So for meaty requests, put something on the calendar to get all the details in one sitting.
Tip*: An agenda can keep this short. Clarify what needs to be covered in advance, and prep your questions (or share them out beforehand, so that colleagues come with some of the answers to your meeting).
7. When priorities become unclear, ask your boss.
Sometimes, when all the burners are on and I know I’m about to burn something, I ask the boss what to save first.
8. The “D” word.
Even if you could do it all, you shouldn’t. If you have teammates that share your responsibilities, or
like-minded minions direct reports to pick up the slack, then delegate. Don’t fall victim to nobody-can-do-this-but-me-because-they-don’t-have-my-knowledge-or-sense-of-perfection syndrome. At best, you conquer a professional skill that makes most of us go…
…and at worst, everything falls apart. When you’re swamped, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take!
9. Keep track of what you are getting done.
I struggle with this one. When it feels like you’re literally racing against the clock, the last thing on your mind is spending time outlining your work day! But frankly, this is the only way to remember it all. Just 1 week is a long time in the work world, and if anyone asks how you’re spending your days, you ought to be able to give a good/data-backed answer.
Tip*: I currently do this using blocks on my calendar, but even a written list/word doc is better than nothing! And if you can keep it up, this habit will serve you well come annual review time.
10. Get perspective.
It’s easy to hear a request, take it at face value and get to work. But sometimes, this can slows us down.! Try to glean the context behind a request before diving in, because that will unearth needs or requirements that might not have come up otherwise.
For technical roles, this is critical. I’ve saved (and lost) sooo many hours fulfilling data requests, because I realized after sitting with someone that their ask didn’t get to the heart of what they needed to know.
Tip*: Start by asking about the goals behind a request, how it will be used, and by whom. That will impact what you bring to the table and how you put it together.
11. Leave when you’re supposed to.
There are times when you should not do this. Please don’t pack up to leave early the day before an event and say “Well, Dee told me to!” O_o
I’m talking to the people who work late every day. To those people, I tenderly say:
If the consequence of finishing a task tomorrow is the same as finishing today, can’t it wait the extra 12 hours? The work may be endless, but our capacity is not. In order to do good for our orgs, we really need to do good for ourselves first. Otherwise, we risk burning out. Seriously.
As long as we work with other humans, people will always need something from us. Just be sure to take care of your own needs too!