What does it mean, as a fundraiser, to be productive? Do you hear yourself saying, “I had a great day today – I got so many things done!” It’s so easy to be engulfed by our hustle culture where busyness is a sign of success. Notice how the badge of being a good worker many times is talking about how busy and overwhelmed you are.

But, I wonder, should it only be about how many tasks you complete? What happens to the tasks that require more thoughtful creative space? Are they getting lost in the shuffle? What if your answer to “How’s your day going?” was: “I had a great morning spending time thinking about strategies to connect with one of my top donors, reaching out to some colleagues to get ideas, and writing the donor a deeply meaningful email.” Sounds kind of like a lazy morning, but was it really? The reality is that it is time well spent, but rarely do we spend that time, or if we do, we don’t talk about it with pride.

Recently I’ve been reading Slow Productivity by Cal Newport. The book focuses on how as knowledge workers, where your output is dependent on your cognitive effort, productivity has become associated with the speed and number of tasks you complete. Think about how things have changed from looking busy shuffling papers when your boss walked past your desk to how quickly you respond to an ever-increasing influx of emails, Slack messages, LinkedIn messages, texts, and Asana tasks with late due dates crammed in between endless Zoom meetings. Newport calls all this kind of work “overhead.”

We are spending more and more time talking about work (which then creates more tasks) than actually doing meaningful work.

In a piece for The New Yorker, Newport says: “You now have almost total control of how you fill each minute. No one is asking you to clock in and clock out. They instead demand, in some ill-defined yet urgent sense, that you’re responsive and get things done. This autonomy has allowed modern knowledge work to evolve haphazardly toward an increasingly unsustainable configuration.”

The problem is that success is not defined, the list keeps growing, the speed of work keeps increasing, and you never quite feel like you are, or have done, enough. This leads to increased anxiety, frustration, and burnout. And frankly, spending your time responding to emails immediately and jumping from task to task is a great way to avoid doing some of the tasks that may feel harder because they take more concentration and time. So then you feel bad that some important things are not getting done, which only adds to your stress. Sound familiar?

So, what do we do about this reality? The goal is to strive for more meaningful work, and it starts with doing fewer things.

And yet, when talking about getting people’s work volume to a manageable level, there’s often a fear that by reducing how many tasks each person is getting done, it will make the organization less productive overall. But Newport urges people to consider the cost of high work volumes in terms of the accompanying overhead (work about work) and stress, which both take up time and lead to lower quality results. He explains: “If you instead enable the individual to work more sequentially, focusing on a small number of things at a time, waiting until she is done before bringing on new obligations, the rate at which she completes tasks might actually increase.”

Here’s how you can take these insights and put them into practice as a fundraiser:

  1. Be aware of hustle mentality and how it might be impacting your productivity and causing stress. Reflect on how much of this mentality is directly requested of you by your boss and how much is your own internal pressure to deliver on volume. Decide to take ownership of your time and how you approach your work.
  2. Take a look at your job responsibilities and identify what is donor-related and what is not and can be removed off your plate. Doing fewer things means having fewer areas you are responsible for, allowing you to focus on what is most important. Sit down with your boss and explain how much time all of your non donor related tasks are taking and how little time you actually have each month to focus on your donors. Come up with a plan together to limit non-essential work and allow for more donor-focused work.
  3. Block one or two times on your calendar each day for inter-office communication and let others know you will be responding during those times. This helps you focus on tasks at hand and not be constantly distracted by the influx of requests. You can even encourage colleagues to call you during those blocked times. Many times, a five-minute call can bring clarity that six emails back and forth cannot.
  4. Be clear on what you need to get done. Your job is to focus on your donors, and to do that, you need a system and structure. Working with fundraisers every day, we see success is guaranteed when they work with qualified group of 150 donors that they have a plan, tier, and goal for. Our Donor Engagement Plan will help you track your plan and see where you need to go with each donor and your whole caseload. This way you can be working on steps that you know build relationships of trust with donors every day instead of chasing the latest email in your inbox.
  5. Obsess over quality where you set aside time to do tasks that is realistic. When tasks require more thought and creativity, they need time to not only write the email or make the call but to think creatively about and prepare for the task prior to its completion. Make sure you schedule in the time you actually need.
  6. Work at a natural pace and take breaks in your day. Start your day clear on which one to three tasks are critical and schedule times for their completion. Then work at a natural pace for you and fill in the additional time with other tasks and office communication. And don’t forget to take those breaks that fill your cup back up. Think about your 10-minute walk or five minutes watching the birds out the window as just as important as responding to that email stream because it is, and I would argue more important.

I encourage you to make a decision to take charge of your time and what you focus on each day.

Share this blog with your boss and colleagues and work on a plan to refocus your time and energy on what is most critical. Get an accountability buddy, because you and I both know that the spinning wheel of “get more done faster” is hard to get off. You may feel a loss from the adrenaline of working furiously or fear that you will be seen as lazy.

Obviously, we all do need to get tasks done on a daily basis. The question is what is it you are focused on getting done? Is it to simply check off a long list and be a quick responder to inter-office communication? Or have you identified what is most critical to your success as a fundraiser and carved out time to do just that? With a clear goal and plan for each of your donors, you can be confident that the tasks you are doing will lead to more trust, deep partnerships, and more significant and meaningful giving from your donors.