January 22, 2016

5 Pitfalls That Ruin Your Productivity (and Sanity)

This post is part of January’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival: What are you doing to be happier and healthier in 2016?, hosted by Beth Kanter.

So, those New Year’s resolutions of mine. Oh, things started off with great promise! I was going to sleep more, be on time, meditate every day, and spend less unproductive time online. Despite a few early successes, my resolutions have thus far been fleeting at best. Case in point: this post is a week late, but guess how many times I’ve casually checked Facebook on my phone (even just today)?

Clearly I still have a lot to learn when it comes to being a happy, healthy nonprofit employee. While I’m still far from being an expert on the subject, I have learned a lot through trial and many errors about the seductive traps that can keep you from your productivity and well-being goals.

5 Pitfalls That Ruin Your Productivity (and Sanity)

Trying to take on a change without letting go of something else
Think about when you’ve ever tried something new, whether it was learning a new skill or taking on a new job. It takes a lot of time in the beginning to get into a new habit, be it doing or not doing a particular behavior. You have to give yourself space for the new habit. I realized I would never consistently meditate unless I specifically carved out space in my day that didn’t depend on my waking up earlier. Midday or early evening when I’m generally low-energy or in need of a mental break is a much better time. I discovered I am often late because I don’t plan enough buffer time into my schedule. That means letting go of cramming as much into my day as possible and being more realistic about how long things take.

Measuring productivity by your to-do list
My home and purse are scattered with scratch paper to-do lists. I love to-do lists and think they can be tremendously helpful with keeping track of tasks and storing them outside your head. But the to-do list is never done. You can easily spend your days in quest of inbox zero and crossing items off your list, but how are you being in the world? Are you so focused on tactical tasks that you’re missing the big picture and losing sight of your mission? Are you present in your life or do you feel perpetually distracted and anxious to get on to the next thing?

For me, it’s been helpful to write a “don’t-do” list. After I write down a long to-do list, I pick the top 3-5 tasks that are the highest priority and most important to get done that day, and decide what tasks on the list can be moved to my don’t-do list. That way important project work doesn’t get bumped by the email that doesn’t need an immediate response. One of our meeting rules at NTEN is “no devices,” unless it’s a laptop or notebook that’s being used to take notes or project information. I strive to take this meeting rule into other parts of my life and keep my phone tucked away when I’m spending time with my niece or having dinner with a friend.

leavesPromising yourself you’ll do it “once you catch up on everything”

You probably have that project you want to start—that idea you want to develop, that drawer you’re going to clean out “once things slow down,” “when you come up for air,” or “when you finally catch up.” Guess what? You’ll never completely catch up. There’s always going to be something, but are all of those somethings worth more of your attention than your other aspirations?

Schedule some non-negotiable time on your calendar to work on those big ideas or projects. My colleague, Bethany, and I have started having periodic working meetings where we block out a few hours to work on a specific program. We set the agenda in advance, link to any necessary documents, and set some realistic goals for the meeting. Then we close email and any other distractions not related to the task at hand and work together. Not only did we talk through a lot of problems and collectively make decisions, but we also had clear steps for how we could could move each task forward to completion post-meeting. Plus, we left energized with a new excitement about our work. We’ve decided to make this a regular occurrence on our calendars, despite what other tasks we might have to temporarily set aside. I’m learning that sometimes you can let the leaves pile up and trust you’ll have time to rake up enough of them later on.

Pushing through a busy day without taking breaks
When things get busy, your instinct might be to buckle down and keep working. Even as a yoga instructor, it’s easy for me to forgo a yoga practice or a walk outside in favor of long hours in front of the computer screen. It seems counterproductive to take a break when there’s so much to do. However, time and again, I find that buckling down never makes me more productive. If anything, it takes me longer to do tasks despite spending a longer time working, and before long I’m feeling exhausted, depleted, and far less likely to keep up with new behaviors.

One strategy I use to avoid this trap is to incorporate small breaks into my day. I might not have time for an hour yoga class, but even taking just five minutes to stretch and breath can make a big difference in my energy and focus. Another tactic that’s worked well for me is planned breaks. I have frequent walking phone dates with a good friend who lives across the country. This helps keep me accountable to take that time away from my computer screen and get outside. Plus, it’s a big energy boost to my day and life to keep in close touch with my friend. Now that’s multi-tasking put to good purpose!

gopherTrying to keep a work/life balance
We hear it all the time—the need for “work/life balance.” As anyone who’s had a grant deadline or a sudden sick relative knows, life is perpetually unbalanced. There are times when work is going to be tipping the scale (the conference, the major campaign, etc.), and other times life situations will demand more of your time and attention. I used to always try to keep every area of my life in perfect balance: career, family, friends, health, etc. The result was feeling like I was playing a never-ending game of Whack-A-Mole—once I felt like I had it all aligned, another gopher would pop up.

Instead of work/life balance, I now strive for staying graceful when life is off-balance and keeping my expectations more realistic. I accept that the housework might pile up when I’m doing a lot of travel. When I have a long dental appointment in the afternoon, I don’t try to tackle a complicated project afterwards. During NTC when my days are long and start early, I do two yoga poses when I wake up and that is my yoga practice for the day. When I can let go of trying to stay on top of everything, I find I can find more joy and humor during those busy times, and appreciate when I do have time to re-charge, even if it’s just a moment or two.

I’m eager to read more about how others are endeavoring to make 2016 a healthier, happier, and productive year. How are your New Year’s resolutions going? What strategies are you finding helpful to create change?

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Megan Keane
Megan is a long-time San Francisco bay area resident with an extensive nonprofit background in community management, social media, and volunteer management. She's a problem solver and network builder passionate about connecting with people both on and offline. As NTEN's Membership Director, Megan supports the NTEN community, helping others connect, learn, and make the most of technology, and has spoken internationally on nonprofit technology. While she's not online, Megan can be found teaching or practicing yoga, hiking, or curling up with a good book. She's also a self-professed penguin nutcase, er, enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter: @penguinasana
Interest Categories: Strategy
Tags: nptech, productivity