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Effective strategies for small to mid-size nonprofits
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Time Management
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Time Management Strategies


Do you often feel like there’s not enough time in the day to get everything done?  Managing our time to be as effective as possible not only makes us better at our work, but relieves us of the stress of feeling overwhelmed.  Following are strategies to help you get a handle on your work load.  These are proven, general strategies that you should use as guidelines.  As you put them into practice, you will begin to find ways that work best for you, taking into account your natural rhythms.  For example, some people work best jumping into an activity and finishing it with no breaks.  Another person might find that working on something for 30 minutes and then taking a 5 minute breather refreshes them to continue an activity.  Bottom line, being aware of your time and planning how to use it will bring many benefits to your work life.


1.      Audit how you are currently using your time


The first thing to think about when you feel the need to better manage your time, is where your time is going now. 


For one week, keep a simple chart, showing your day in 15 minute chunks.  Set your watch or cell phone alarm so that it goes off every 15 minutes.  When you hear the alarm, stop and fill in the blank on your chart with the activity or activities you worked on for the past 15 minutes.  Make your entries quickly and with enough detail to remind yourself later what you were doing.  For example, you might enter
“Wrote event thank you letter, took 2 donor calls” or “Coffee break.”  (Be sure to turn the alarm off if you will be in a meeting.  When you finish, fill in the chart with the information about the meeting and re-set the alarm.)


2.       Analyze your time use


At the end of the week, look back to see if there are any surprises about how you used your time.  For example, did the thank you letter end up taking two hours?  If so, what else was happening during that time?  Were you interrupted by phone calls?  Did you stop to check emails?  Were you stuck on how to phrase a sentence?


Determine if there are any trends that you might change.  For example, do phone calls or contact from other staff continuously interrupt your time?  Do your breaks stretch past the time you want to spend on them because you are filling them with activities that really take longer than planned?


Finally, assess the tasks to make sure they are activities you should be doing in the first place.  Did you spend time making calls, when a bulk email would have sufficed?  Did you write a report just because you’ve always written a report, when no one actually benefits from it?


3.       Plan your time for the next week


There are many things that drive how we spend our time.  We may have a work plan that reminds us of key activities that need to happen in a given week (if you don’t have one, creating one for the year will help make sure you’re on the right track).  There may be weekly tasks that we have responsibility for.  And there are always unexpected calls, visits and emails. 


In planning for the week, first create a list of everything that you need to accomplish, in priority order.  Then look at your calendar and schedule in blocks of time to accomplish these tasks.  Schedule these blocks for times you know you have the most creative mental energy and be sure to include your top priorities early in the week.  For example, are you a morning person?  Schedule blocks first thing in the day. 


On your calendar, include time scheduled for breaks, time to check emails, time to return calls, or time for any other activities that might otherwise interrupt the time you have blocked off.  For example, you might save the time after your lunch break for email responses, if that’s a time when your mental energy is lower.  Or you might block 30 minutes for an activity, followed by a 10 minute break to check emails, and then 30 more minutes for the activity.


Breaking activities down to their task components is another way to make sure you are budgeting time appropriately.  For example, if you are writing an appeal letter, you might block time to research the recipients, another block to write the actual letter, and a third block to print and mail the letters. 


Finally, plan to keep 25% to 50% of your time unscheduled to respond to the unexpected.  If you find that you have so many tasks on your calendar that you are unable to leave time open, go back and re-assess the activities.  Can something be moved to another week?  Can something be assigned to someone else?  Most importantly, does every task on your calendar really need to be done?


4.       Create an environment free from distractions


Let your colleagues know when you are working on a project so that you will not be interrupted.  You might, for example, ask them not to interrupt you when your door is closed.  If you work in an open office environment (cubicles) create a barrier that lets people know not to interrupt you.  For example, hang a sign or put flaggers tape across the entrance to your space.


If you find that office activities are distracting, look for an alternate work space.  For example, is there a conference room you can use? 


Ask that your calls be held or put your phone on voicemail so you are not interrupted by the ring.  During these blocks of time, do not open your email or respond to cell phone calls. 


5.      Organize your work space


If you are surrounded by clutter, don’t have the right tools at hand, or don’t know what’s filed where, you will inevitably waste time looking for things.  On your calendar, periodically schedule time to organize your space.  Maybe you need an hour a month or a half-day per quarter to put things away, clean out old files that you no longer need in your space, and make sure you have sufficient office supplies.

      Identify needed resources


Who and what will you need to accomplish your tasks?  Think through the process for accomplishing tasks and schedule time on your calendar to get them.  Breaking activities into steps like this will help you get started.


7.      Get started!


You are organized!  You know what needs to be done!  The coming week is laid out so that you know when you will be working on what.  Don’t let that planning go to waste.  Follow your plan and take a moment to celebrate the successful completion of an activity by congratulating yourself or giving yourself a little treat.  Good time management is a matter of habit.  If you find yourself falling into old ways (it’s Thursday and I still have so much to do this week!) go back and look at the steps outlined above.  Maybe you need to do another audit.  Look at what happened during your blocked time.  Keep at it and your life will become more manageable and successful!