This time of year nonprofit professionals are putting together a certain kind of to-do list: their New Year’s resolutions. They would better serve themselves and their organizations with just one resolution: Creating and sticking to a Not-to-Do List in 2013.
Here’s the big idea: Just 20% of what you do produces 80% of your results, for yourself and the people you serve. So there’s lots of room to cut out the inessential, to excise all that stuff you do where you’re not operating from your strengths. Shall we get to it, then? Yes, let’s!
In this article I show you:
- Why a No-to-Do List matters.
- An easy process for making your Not-to-Do List.
- Suggested not-to-dos that can help anyone be happier and produce more mission impact for the people they serve.
- Specific not-to-dos for executive directors, development directors, and board members.
Why a not-to-do list matters
Good to Great author Jim Collins found people who built successful companies “made as much use of stop-doing lists as to-do lists. They displayed a remarkable discipline to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk.” (Savvy readers know Collins’ solid research applies well to the nonprofit sector, with some caveats highlighted in his monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors.)
Collins also found that budgeting time—not just money—was key in taking organizations from good to great. “In other words, the budget process is not about figuring out how much each activity gets, but about determining which activities best support [your goal] and should be fully strengthened and which should be eliminated entirely.”
How to make your not-to-do list
To make your not-to-do list, all you need do is look at a sample of past calendar appointments and rate them according to how they used your energy, time, and strengths. You should look at a minimum of a week’s appointments; for best results, go for a full month. Here are the rating criteria:
- Energy: Did the activity energize or drain you? At the end, was your mind spinning as you contemplated possibilities and next steps, or did you just want to collapse on the couch and forget all about it?
- Time: Was the time invested worth the value generated? (Hint: Odds are, it wasn’t. Just 20% of the time we spend, and the things we do, generate 80% of the value, according to the well-established Pareto Principle.)
- Strengths: Were you operating from your strengths, or struggling against your weaknesses? Donald Clifton’s strengths psychology holds that people are “able to gain far more when they expend effort to build on their greatest talents than when they spend a comparable amount of effort to remediate their weaknesses.”
Got that? So go through each activity and make one X for an energy-drain, a second X for a poor use of time, and a third X for operating from a weakness. As you might guess, three-X activities are prime candidates for X-cision (ba dum bum CHING!) from your regular professional and personal practices.
Not-to-dos that can help anyone
Looking at your own calendar you’ll identify things you alone should stop doing. That said, there are things pretty much everyone should stop doing. Here are a few:
- Multiple instances of the same task, at different times (e.g. signing checks, preparing mailings to donors, or checking email). Identical tasks done multiple times should be batched—completed all at once, without interruption. That’s because it takes time and effort to get all the necessary materials and resources ready, and multitasking sucks 15-20 minutes out of your life every time you try it.
- Checking email more than twice a day. Worried about missing a funder email? Well, program your email client to send you a text message when you get mail from a very, very short list of truly important people. Let everyone else wait while you work on your priorities, not theirs. Here’s a how-to guide for setting this up: Check e-mail twice daily, still respond quickly.
- Working more hours to fix overwhelm. Instead, the incomparable life-design expert Tim Ferriss advises, prioritize. “If you don’t prioritize, everything seems urgent and important. If you define the single most important task for each day, almost nothing seems urgent or important. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of letting little bad things happen (return a phone call late and apologize, pay a small late fee, lose an unreasonable customer, etc.) to get the big important things done. The answer to overwhelm is not spinning more plates‚ or doing more‚ it’s defining the few things that can really fundamentally change your business and life.” (Ferriss has listed eight more things to stop doing here: The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now.)
Specific not-to-dos for nonprofit leaders
You get one each. Here we go!
- CEOs/executive directors: Go another year depending on unsustainable revenue sources‚ like grants‚ with high carrying costs.
- Development directors: Say, “Well, we sort of do that,” to justify chasing funding for programs not directly tied to your mission.
- Board members: Attend (without protest) another meeting featuring all reports and no strategic thinking.
What will you put on your not-to-do list? Is there something every nonprofit professional should stop doing?