April 25, 2014

April Nonprofit Blog Carnival: The Work Behind the Work – Finding Productivity and Balance

I was invited by Nancy Schwartz to participate in this month’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival: The Word Behind the Work. Stay tuned to Nancy’s blog for a round-up of all nonprofit blog contributors on this month’s important topic.

As a yoga instructor in my “other” life outside of NTEN, being productive without burning out on a busy schedule is a topic I think about often. It’s much easier to be mindful and focused when you’re on a yoga mat than when you’re behind your desk with a daunting to-do list, overflowing inbox, and a day full of meetings. Finding the balance between being productive and self-care is well, just that: a balancing act.

I’ve eagerly read productivity book after productivity book and poured over countless blog posts about getting things done (while not actually getting things done in the process). While these have helped me with a lot of great tips and suggestions, at a certain point I needed to stop reading about productivity, and start putting techniques into action.

Everyone is going to find certain methods that work for them and is an ongoing process of fine-tuning what works and translating that into habits that help. In my experimenting, I found three consistent, but persistent pitfalls to finding balance:

Skipping breaks or self-care activities because there’s too much work to do. When the task list is long, it’s really easy to convince myself that I don’t have time to take a walk or go to a yoga class, and instead I’ll go right on working to get everything done. But again and again I don’t actually get more accomplished, other than feeling more burned out. When I’ve forced myself to close my laptop and take a self-care activity, the work is still there when I get back, but I feel far more focused and get more done in less time than I would if I’d stayed glued to my computer screen.

Making walking or coffee dates with friends and colleagues helps keep me accountable to taking a scheduled break. Also, never underestimate the power of short breaks. Even if there isn’t an hour to take lunch, you can take fifteen minutes to take a walk and recharge.

Putting together a long to-do list on days where you have several meetings scheduled. This is a sure-fire way of making yourself feel discouraged. I’ve learned to pare down my expectations and make sure the meetings I do spend my time on are useful ones (no agenda-less meetings!), and break down larger tasks into smaller pieces I can do in shorter chunks of time in-between conference calls. I save the tasks requiring longer periods of concentration for days or chunks of the day where I won’t have the interruptions of meetings. If needed, I schedule and block this time in my calendar.

Putting off strategic planning or long-term goals. Too often I think I “don’t have time” to take time out from my tasks to do long-term planning. It can be all too easy to get caught up in the weeds of the day-to-day and lose sight of your mission. When I take the time (again, usually putting it on my calendar) to sit down to re-examine strategy and goals, it gives me a better gauge to assess my work: Am I doing the tasks that are moving me towards my goals? If not, what do I need to do instead? Where do I need to shift what I spend my time on? It also has the added bonus of re-connecting why it is I do what I do and that motivates me to roll up my sleeves with an eye on my objectives.

I also find it helpful is having my top goals (no more than three) written down and posted up near my desk so I have a daily visual reminder of my long-term vision. Another way to keep goals in mind is to looking at your task list on a daily basis and ask, “What’s one thing I can do today that will help me move towards my goal(s)?”

Here’s a few productivity tools (all free) that have helped me with finding balance:

  • Evernote: This is where I keep track of important information, whether it’s for work or my personal life. I use it for everything from notetaking, technical how-tos, and templates to grocery lists, brainstorming, and storing travel confirmations. Evernote will sync across all of your devices and has both a desktop and web version for handy access to your notes.
  • Mindful Interrupters: Sign up for these handy reminders and you’ll get an email no more than one to two times a week with a helpful mindfulness suggestion. If you’re compulsively checking email, seeing one of these in your inbox can help remind you to take a breath and re-focus.
  • Pocket: Pocket is a handy solution for not going down the internet rabbit hole when you find all sorts of links and interesting articles to check out. Save the content you want to read with the press of a button in your web browser, and peruse your reading list on your mobile device or computer when you have downtime for reading.
  • Pen and paper: When I’m overwhelmed, the act of moving away from my computer screen and writing my to-do list helps me get them out of my head and onto paper. Then with a less crowded brain, I can sit down and start tackling tasks on my list.

Look out for my yoga session at next year’s NTC where we’ll stretch and explore more ways to find balance in busy nonprofit work life.

How are you finding productivity and balance?

Megan Keane