Posts Tagged ‘time management’

Balancing urgent and important: How to be more effective

Have you ever wondered why it is that with all the advances in technology and communication in the workplace, we seem to get less done than before? And not only that, we seem to be more and more stressed about the things that we haven’t got round to doing. We get swept away by a torrent of emails and attachments, knocked off course by interruptions and phone calls, and bogged down in the daily scramble to achieve more with less resources.

Most time management gurus have tried to convince us that we can somehow shoehorn more into our day, so enabling us to take on that other project, attend that urgent meeting, digest that important report.

By contrast, management guru Stephen Covey asks us to look at things in a different way. His key work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1990, remains a bestseller and was voted the most influential business book of the 20th Century by Chief Executive magazine. Covey suggests that, instead of focusing on getting more done (being efficient), we should focus on getting more important things done (being effective). And therein lies the key to facing the challenges we all face in the not-for-profit sector of “producing champagne results with beer resources,” as the saying goes.

Urgent versus important

We can characterize any activity we do in our day in terms of its importance and urgency.

An important task simply means one whose completion would significantly contribute to an individual’s or organization’s key aims and objectives. An urgent task is defined by Covey as one that “appears to require immediate attention.” Note the word “appears.” Somebody interrupts you at your desk with a question. The phone rings. A little window pops up on your computer announcing the arrival of yet another email. All of these place an immediate demand on your time, but they may not actually require your attention straight away. They are urgent, but are they important?

Covey presents us with a two-by-two matrix showing all the combinations of urgent and important:

Fig 1. Covey’s time management quadrants.

Quadrant 1: The tasks outlined in this quadrant are both important and urgent, and typically this means panic or problems! This is the funding application that needs to be submitted today to meet the deadline, sorting out the server that’s just crashed or dealing with a complaint from a key partner. All these things appear to require immediate attention and really do require immediate attention!

Quadrant 2: These tasks are important but not urgent. Completing these tasks would make a significant contribution to your objectives, but you can easily get away with not doing them today (because they’re not urgent). Tomorrow will be fine. Or even next week … So, typically these tasks are about planning ahead, preventing problems before they happen, and building relationships with people (i.e. customers, colleagues, volunteers or partners).

Quadrant 3: These tasks are urgent but not important. To keep the “p” theme going, Covey characterizes them as being proximate or popular. These are all things that aren’t important but which come and get us, even if we’re hiding in an office. Phone calls, emails, interruptions, reports landing in your in-tray — anything which tries to grab your attention. And doing them often makes you popular, since people generally want you to give up your time just when it suits them. Conversely, saying “no” can be hard, and we fear it will make us unpopular.

Quadrant 4: These tasks are neither urgent nor important. In Quadrant 4 we are idly surfing the Web, flicking through magazines, chatting at the water cooler. It’s pleasant in Quadrant 4 … and the chance would be a fine thing!

How does all this help us?

Are we supposed to be spending all our time planning and making sure we never read any magazines? Not quite. Covey is a realistic kind of guy. He doubts whether most of us are spending much time at all in Quadrant 4. But, this is where those other time management gurus would have us focus, filling every bit of downtime with worthy endeavors. “Waiting for a train? Then you’ve got space to digest the strategic plan!” We need to be realistic about the time we spend in Quadrant 1. The world’s a messy place, and the world of nonprofits is no exception. So, with the best will in the world, we can expect to be putting out fires on a fairly regular basis.

What’s the key?

The key to personal effectiveness is cutting back on the time we devote to tasks in Quadrant 3 and shifting that time to Quadrant 2 activities. So, rather than saying “yes” to everything that comes along, challenge yourself to focus on the importance of what’s being asked. In other words, it’s all about “exercising integrity in the moment of choice.” That means taking just a second before you choose to start a task to ask yourself, “Is this the most important thing I can be doing right now? Or is it just the next thing?”

Think ahead

Covey argues that consistently spending even one percent more time in Quadrant 2 will start to have a significant impact on our lives. A bit more time thinking ahead and building relationships should help prevent crises from happening in Quadrant 1 and allow us more valuable time in Quadrant 2. And focusing on the important rather than just the urgent tasks can leave us with the lasting satisfaction that today we have made the biggest difference we could in our role. And isn’t that why we work in this sector?

See also:

Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done

Smarter, Faster, Better. Strategies for Effective, Enduring, and Fulfilled Leadership

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Improve collective decisions by overcoming “group grope”

Dick and Emily Axelrod waited until they had developed the perfect methodology for effective meetings before publishing Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done.

Rather than simply contribute to the “noise about meetings,” they waited until they had something new to say. They present what they call a “seismic shift (not a set of tweaks) in the way you view, use and participate in meetings.” Let’s Stop gives you a logical system that will help you restructure your meetings so that work gets done; everyone is engaged and respected; the meeting is energizing rather than draining; and time is valued, not wasted.

Today, we wanted to highlight the meaty part of every meeting: decision making. The entire group must be clear about the following items to make a decision: who is making the decision, how they will go about deciding and what they are deciding.

The group will bring different levels of engagement based on if it is giving ideas or collectively making the decision. Clarity of the process will prevent frustration caused by believing one way (e.g., the group will make the decision) and discovering the other (e.g., the leader is actually making the decision) is happening.

Do you want your group in the loop?

Leaders can either make the decision, seek advice from the group but maintain the final say, work as an equal with the group, or delegate the decision to the group and let the group decide. Victor Vroom, BearingPoint Professor of Management and a professor of psychology at the Yale School of Management, along with Phillip Yetton, suggests that if there is clearly one right answer and people will accept it, make the choice yourself. “If, however, you need a high-quality decision and you need everyone on board with the decision, then you should shift toward a group decision-making process” (Vroom and Yetton 1973).

Overcome “group grope”

Because a group decision requires each member to resolve his/her logic and emotions, the authors give four ways to combat group grope (when a group has trouble making a decision):

Thumbs-Up/Thumbs-Down: This is used to see if you have spent enough time discussing an issue. Majority rules to end or continue the discussion.

Voting: most effective after a high-quality discussion where all views are represented. The group can decide if it is majority/two-thirds, etc.

Put on your Thinking Hat to Answer these Questions: What are the facts that surround this proposal? What is your gut reaction to this proposal? What are your pessimistic thoughts about this proposal? Why won’t it work? What are your optimistic thoughts about this proposal? Why do you think it will work? How could you build on this proposal and make it even better? What conclusions can you draw from this discussion? All these questions cover the areas needed to resolve emotions/reason and optimism/pessimism.

Don’t try to eat the meal in one bite: Decide what you can agree to right now. Move ahead on some parts and create time for further discussion on the others.

Then, you need to identify the next steps and who is responsible for each step. The leader can appoint people, ask for volunteers, or appoint a task leader and ask for volunteers to join the task group.

When we asked the Axelrods what was most important about their meeting framework, they responded, “Clarity about the decision process is critical to success. In his review of Let’s Stop Meeting Like This in INC magazine, Ilan Mochari said it best when he said, “If you’re holding a meeting to canvas the opinions of your staff–but you know there’s a strong chance you’ll disregard those opinions–let them know early on. The deception of democracy bothers them more than the transparent absence of it.”

Ask yourself if your meeting topics genuinely merit group effort or if you’re better off simply updating the group about your decision and rationale. If you do enlist the group, enhance the process by enlisting the authors’ strategies for overcoming “group grope.” Learn more about all of the Axelrods’ effective methods for getting more done in meetings.

See also:

World Cafe: Shaping Our World Through Conversations That Matter

Death by Meeting

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Today’s leaders must adopt better habits to achieve work-life balance

As an executive director, consultant, board member, wife, friend or sister, I often felt there was never enough time in the day. When I felt pressed for time, the small voice in my head would spew negative self-talk about “not being organized enough, strategic enough or committed enough.” More recently, I learned a different perspective on time management and the lofty goal of feeling truly engaged in life and work, minus the exhaustion. I learned the issue is not really about time. We all have the same amount: 8,760 hours per year. No one has any more or less. It’s about our conscious or unconscious decisions, moment by moment, that determine the quality of life we have.

Experts tell us to get eight hours of sleep a day – that equals 2,920 hours per year – a full one-third of all time available. I know some nonprofit colleagues of mine would say it’s a waste of time to sleep that much. Yet when we lack enough sleep, our immune system suffers and we learn that pushing our physical limits isn’t sustainable. Sleeping less may seem like it creates more time, but in the end, it doesn’t.

This message isn’t about guilting you to get more sleep. It’s about you as a leader in your organization, your family or your community being as effective and joyful as possible. You have to make choices about how to spend those precious hours. Thoughtful investment of your time and energy is more important than ever because:

There are fewer resources available to do the work, and “doing more with less” requires you to be smart and strategic.

New research demonstrates how multitasking and overextending yourself negatively impacts your productivity and health.

Generational trends show that today’s emerging leaders expect a greater work/life balance.

But rather than focus on managing time, Tony Schwartz from The Energy Project identifies four core needs every leader should consider. When these four needs are met, you are fueled and inspired to bring more of yourself to life. These needs include:

1.       Physical Health – achieved through nutrition, sleep, daytime renewal and exercise.

2.    Emotional well-being – grows out of feeling appreciated and valued.

3.      Mental clarity – ability to focus intensely, prioritize and think creatively.

4.       Spiritual significance – comes from the feeling of serving a mission.

Considering these core needs, what practices or rituals can you adopt that will help you feel more energized, focused, productive and peaceful? Here are some examples of simple habits you can adopt throughout the day:


Upon waking, instead of thinking about your to do list, stretch your body, wiggling your toes, and think about what you are grateful for in your work and life.


Get up from your desk and emails and go talk to a staff person with whom you don’t interact often. I developed this practice regularly as an executive director, but the first few times, my staff wasn’t quite sure why I just wanted to “chat.” Making those personal connections outside of task delegation helped build the bonds we needed for all the work coming down the road. I was sincere in wanting to know more about my staff and their work. It energized me to hear what they were doing on the ground with our clients.


Take yourself out to lunch once a week. Get some fresh air, take a book or magazine that has great leadership or management information and give your mind a chance to think creatively.


In parts of Europe, Latin America and other regions, a resting time is a normal cultural practice. Maybe a power nap of 10-15 minutes in a quiet place is just what you need to go into your Board meeting refreshed and focused.

End of day

Jot down three key results that make you proud of your accomplishments for the day. Maybe it is completing a report or following through on a difficult conversation with a peer. And before you forget, write down what the most important thing you need to do the next day is. It’s fresh in your mind now and you can focus on it first thing in the morning. Writing it down at the end of your day allows your mind to relax for a good night’s sleep.

Find whatever motivates you to be conscious about how you spend your precious 8,760 hours. For me, it was being diagnosed with cancer and realizing that I had to make better choices about how I spent my time. Ask anyone who has endured a life-threatening illness or event how his/her experience has changed his/her perspective. Then ask what lessons you could apply to your own life.

Our society, more than ever, needs everyone to function in that energized state, contributing and renewing him/herself. You can be a more effective leader and serve your mission and your clients when you consider a commitment to daily practices that reenergize you, bring you peace of mind and inspire a joie de vivre.

See also:

The Charismatic Organization: 8 Ways to Grow a Nonrpofit that Builds Buzz, Delights Donors, and Energizes Employees

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work


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This article was originally posted at CausePlanet on 5/23/11.

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Three ways to avoid a social media time sink

Last week, while blogging on vacation, I reflected on the 24/7 pace of social media.  One of my tips for time management was to let your community take some ownership over your efforts. In that spirit, I invited guest posts on this topic. One volunteer was Dana Ziolkowski, Marketing Coordinator/AmeriCorps VISTA for the Oregon Volunteers Commission for Voluntary Action and Service.  Here is her input on avoiding the time suck that social media can be.

Although it’s vital to dedicate time to social media, your social media efforts don’t need to consume your entire day. I thought I’d share a few tips I use to save time, while also delivering strong, comprehensive social media efforts.

Develop your social media plan ahead of time and keep it handy.

I’ve found it both efficient and effective to develop a plan dedicated to social media efforts. Establish social media goals that align with your organization’s strategic goals. Develop the plan with upcoming messages you can anticipate, but allow it to be organic enough to accommodate unexpected but newsworthy content or trends that might arise during the life of the plan. Doing a little planning ahead, and having this map at my fingertips, I’ve found it’s easy to be time-efficient with my social media efforts.

Align your networks on a social media platform

I use a social media dashboard that allows me to monitor and update my networks in one spot. There are free and paid subscriptions depending on your needs. Explore some of the dashboards available—each one varies in cost, which networks they connect, analytics available, and functionality.  Choose the best fit for you. I chose Hootsuite because it best fits my needs. I’ve connected my organization’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, along with my own professional accounts. Depending on my post, I choose the best networks through which to distribute my message. This saves me half the time! Thanks to for compiling this great top ten list of social media dashboards.  (Katya’s note: I also recommend Thrive, which Network for Good will be offering soon!)

Threadsy: Unify your email, social networks
Myweboo: Organize your information streams
Hootsuite: Integrate all your platforms
Spredfast: For teams of social marketers
MediaFunnel: Collaborative, permission-based system
CoTweet: Advanced features for Enterprise users
Seesmic: Free, clean and credible
Netvibes: Share your widgets with the world
TweetDeck: Connect with your contacts
Brizzly, Simplify your updating

Empower your organization’s staff to develop social media content.

Attention-grabbing, relevant content is vital for a successful social media campaign, and it’s hard to gather it all on your own. Empower staff at your organization to send you content suggestions. Be sure to express to them the type of content you’re looking for and emphasize this content should align with your organization and social media goals. For Oregon Volunteers, it’s often funding opportunities, program success stories, event photos or professional development and training opportunities. Qualify the content suggestions you collect and incorporate into your social media plan. Recruiting a team of content developers from within your organization can save you time. Plus, this practice engages the whole organization to feel more connected to your social media efforts.

See also:

Content Marketing for Nonprofits

The Networked Nonprofit

Measuring the Networked Nonprofit

Social Change Anytime Everywhere

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