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10 ways to work smarter in 2017

New year, new opportunities. A chance for a fresh start. Here are 10 ideas from the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Rebecca Koenig about working smarter in 2017.

by Rebecca Koenig

As a new year dawns, many of us think about how to improve our efficiency and productivity at work. This may be especially true for nonprofit professionals who often have to do more with less. This year, uncertainty and big challenges loom on the horizon, so we asked several nonprofit leaders to suggest ways to manage a demanding workload. Here is their collective wisdom.

1. Think about the big picture, then make a short list of top priorities.

It’s easy to come up with a long to-do list of every conceivable goal you have at work. But it’s important to prioritize those goals so you accomplish what’s most important, nonprofit leaders say.

To do that, stop and consider your organization’s mission, says Julia Rhodes Davis, managing director at DataKind, a nonprofit that connects data scientists with social-change organizations.

"It’s not just about this year or the next big event or project that we’re doing," she says. "What is the big picture and what is the North Star? Every step of the way toward that horizon is in service of the bigger vision. It’s a discipline and sometimes a luxury … but taking the long view more often is something I am personally committed to doing this year."

Once you’ve considered the long view, identify just a few essential goals and pursue them with "relentless execution," says Tanyella Evans, chief executive of Library for All, a nonprofit that develops and delivers digital reading material across the world.

"Be really strict and prioritize one to three key things you need to achieve in quarter one and quarter two, and put all your energy into those," she says. "Map out how to achieve them in detail. Stay focused."

Working with that kind of laserlike concentration should help you feel more productive and therefore more satisfied, Ms. Evans says.

"Try to just do one more thing toward your goal each day," she advises. "Try to be a little better than the day before. Those are habits I’m looking to cultivate personally and need to work on."

2. Reserve time to work without meetings.

Your time is precious. Make sure to "take charge of your calendar" in 2017, and don’t let others decide for you how to spend your time, says Kivi Leroux Miller, founder of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide.

For the past few years, Ms. Leroux Miller has tried to keep Mondays and Fridays free from meetings, conference calls, and webinars.

"Those open blocks of time let me focus on my priorities and really dig into work that takes several hours at a time to do well, like writing," she says. "It’s worked so well for me that I am thinking about adding some half days, too, like no meetings on Wednesday and Thursday mornings."

If that sounds hard to do, try to reserve four hours once a week and perhaps encourage coworkers to pick the same time frame so no one tries to schedule a meeting during that period, Ms. Leroux Miller suggests.

3. Seek and provide mentorship.

"We need the best and brightest in our sector now more than ever, and that means we all need to be noticing and developing talent around us," says Asha Curran, chief innovation officer at 92nd Street Y.

Mentorship is a good way to do that. The label "mentor" can be intimidating, Ms. Curran admits, but developing a rewarding relationship that provides feedback about your work doesn’t have to be.

If you’re looking for a mentor, you can start by simply asking someone to talk to you by phone once a month to check on your progress, Ms. Evans says.

"It should just be someone invested in your achieving your full potential," she explains, and adds, "It’s energizing to have someone coaching me and keeping me accountable."

Two people can mentor each other ­— two peers or a junior and senior staff member — by giving each other constructive feedback, editing each other’s writing, and providing checks and balances for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

4. Take time to assess performance

With so many goals to accomplish, it can be difficult to remember to stop and assess past efforts. But it’s critical to look for "hiccups" in your workflow to improve processes, Ms. Rhodes Davis says.

"It’s important to actually take a step back and identify the places in one’s organization where [things] are consistently getting slowed down," she says. "Look for those places. Actually spend a bit of time and invest staff resources in diagnosing where those areas are."

Once you’ve done that, you can develop and test hypotheses about how those areas can be improved to increase efficiency.

5. Try some experiments to challenge yourself

Improving your work doesn’t have to be painful or tedious. At 92nd Street Y, staff members try "small, fun experiments" to challenge themselves in new ways, Ms. Curran says.

For example, the nonprofit has eliminated email for a day to require employees to have in-person conversations. On another occasion, it banned buzzwords. Staff members who said them had to donate a dollar to a communal jar, and the money was used for an office happy hour.

In addition to being fun, these experiments served a purpose. Regarding the buzzwords, Ms. Curran explains, "When you meet with people from a different industry, you’re moved to use just normal human words. So it’s good to go without industry jargon."

Best of all, this tactic rarely requires much money or time.

"There’s no reason not to have some fun at work," she says. "I’m a fan of trying new things. At an organizational level, that kind of experimentation is so important to staying relevant."

6. Stop overusing social media at work

Unless it’s your job to run the nonprofit Twitter account, social media can distract you from your work and have a negative effect on office culture. For example, while people are assembling for a meeting, many employees check Facebook instead of talking to their coworkers.

"That used to be the time where you’d ask, ‘How was your weekend?’ " Ms. Evans says. "Those little moments are so important."

7. Build strong relationships outside of your office

With all you have to accomplish each day, it can be hard to pull yourself away from your desk. But it’s important to spend time "outside of the walls of your building meeting with people, including people outside of the nonprofit world," Ms. Curran says.

You’ll learn a lot, but you’ll also stumble on opportunities for collaboration and build the relationships necessary for those partnerships to succeed.

"Great collaborations, in my experience, start between people, not organizations," Ms. Curran says.

8. Add meditation to your routine

You’ve probably heard about the importance of mindfulness, the state of paying attention to your own thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. Many nonprofit leaders believe you need mindfulness to improve both your work and how you feel about it.

"What are your emotions? How do they show up? What are the things that create stress for you? How do you manage that stress?" says Monisha Kapila, chief executive and founder of ProInspire.

Meditation is one way to increase your self-awareness. Several nonprofit leaders recommend adding meditation or "quiet time" to your list of goals for the new year to "improve your mental clarity and focus," Ms. Evans says.

"It can just be clearing your mind and allowing yourself to be more creative," she explains. "It makes you more flexible, more able to deal with things as they come up."

9. Care for your physical needs

Looking after your physical well-being is especially important in a world where some people try to "prove their worth" by overdoing it at work, Ms. Curran says.

"I’ve felt increasingly strongly about the importance of self-care," she says. "I honestly believe you’re a better worker when you’re prioritizing exercise."

She takes her own advice, using her office gym or talking walks around the reservoir near her office.

"If I take an hour’s break in the middle of the day, I’m 10 times more productive after lunch," she says.

Leaders have to support this priority and exemplify it to convince employees to take a break, Ms. Curran says.

10. Accept imperfection

You’re not going to live up to your resolutions all the time. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

In fact, accepting yourself and the work you do can be a healthy resolution in and of itself.

Says Ms. Kapila: "I’m going to use this year to appreciate how I am."

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