Help, I suck at time management!


time-mngmtHi everyone. This is not going to be a high-quality post, because I spent many, many hours this weekend watching House of Cards on Netflix. Darn you, Frank Underwood, you creepy, effective bastard and your ruthlessly efficient wife! Now it is 12:30am and I am only beginning to work on this post, which is really more like a cry for help. I was going to skip writing this week, but I want to set a good example for my son, who is now 10-months-old. “Son,” I told him today while he was snuggled up on my lap, “always be consistent, sometimes even at the cost of quali—what…what is that in your mouth?! Is that a paperclip?! Ack! Where did you get this paperclip?! Spit that out! Spit it out right now! Stop squirming! Open your mouth! No! You can’t eat this paperclip! Stop biting Daddy! OW!”

So let’s talk about time management. We are all incredibly busy people. Helping make the world better takes a lot of time. I am always amazed at the people who can manage their time well. They tend to be morning people, and they wake up at 5am to do some yoga and drink a green smoothie made from wheatgrass and hemp oil or something before heading to the office by 7am and they’re all like “I feel so good because I exercised this morning, and wheatgrass is soooo good for you.” If you are one of these people, I admire and hate you in equal measures.

I am not one of these people. Before the baby came along, I woke up at 9:30am and got to the office at 10am. Then I’d work until whenever, coming home anywhere from 6pm to 10pm. That seems like a solid 8 to 12 hours per day, except those hours are not efficient. Maybe 5 hours was spent doing actual work. The rest would be filled with reading the news, arguing with various people about the Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, and looking at pictures of cute baby animals. Then, at home, feeling awful that I didn’t get much accomplished, I would put in several hours at night—unless TBS has a marathon of The Golden Girls, because, come on, those girls, Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia are hilarious!

Now that the baby is here, time is even scarcer. My emails are going crazy, I have way too many meetings, and I haven’t been sleeping enough. I must get a handle on things. A while ago I wrote about the four different work styles. Some of us are Dragons, some are Unicorns, others are Phoenix, and others are Lion-Turtles. Reading that post again, I realized that they each handle time management differently:

Dragons are probably the best time managers, since they are action-oriented and are hard set on deadlines. They don’t like excuses. If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it, or a Dragon will set your hair on fire. Quality may sometimes be debatable, but stuff will get done.

Phoenixes will commit to just about anything because they get bored easily and need to work on a billion things all at once. But then they get distracted by shiny new projects and drop balls left and right. They are poor time managers but because they’re usually charismatic, the rest of us tend to let it slide.

Lion-Turtles take forever to think about things because they need everything to be absolutely perfect. They are systematic and organized with their time. They, like the Dragons, are deadline-driven and high-quality, but they need plenty of lead time in order to analyze and think about everything.

Unicorns are considerate and want to be helpful, so they’ll often spend time on other people’s projects even at the cost of doing their own work. They put people before time, and they overcommit. So if a coworker is feeling down, they’ll drop their own work to cheer that person up. In other words, they also suck at time management.

Crap, I think I am a Phoenix-Unicorn hybrid, the two worst time-managers among the four styles. Dragons are awesome this area, followed by Lion-Turtles (I think Frank and Claire in House of Cards are these two styles respectively). I had planned to write a post called “10 Time Management Tips for Busy Nonprofit Peeps,” but I don’t think I am qualified to dish advice on something I pretty much suck at.

So, I need your help. What strategies do you use to manage your time? There are tons of time-management tips out there. They all make sense. “Tip 1: Make a To-Do list. Tip 2: Prioritize your list. Tip 3: Do the stuff on your list.” But it’s not that simple! To-do lists work for some people. Plus, we nonprofits are all understaffed, so we default to the Competency Paradox, which states that the more competent you are, the more work you get. Things are getting out of control! It’s 1:45am and the baby wakes up in 5 hours!

Let me know what works for you, and what style you are. You can type it in the comment section. Or if you’re free this week, I’d be glad to get coffee or a drink to talk about it for several hours.


33 thoughts on “Help, I suck at time management!

  1. Hawkeye

    WORD on the Golden Girls marathons. You can learn anything from that show.

    My (and I emphasize my, because these might not work for everyone) tips for staying organized are:

    1. Don’t spend time cleaning your desk up if you thrive in disorder. My desk is covered in stacks of files, notebooks and other paperwork. It looks a mess, but I know where everything is. Once I’ve filed and drawered everything, I feel great, but the moment I need something I’ve just organized, I panic. I can’t remember where stuff is and waste time tearing through filing cabinets and drawers.

    2. Expectation management! Admit that you have a type and own it. Don’t make commitments you can’t keep; either you let yourself or someone else down, or someone else is bailing you out. Conversely, accept that other people also have types, so if you’re a Dragon asking a Phoenix for something and s/he doesn’t exactly follow through, chewing someone out or unleashing passive-aggression makes you a jerk.

    3. If you need a break, take it. I cannot structure a day with four work hours, followed by an hour lunch, followed by four work hours. Firstly because I can wolf down my lunch in ten minutes, and I usually snack at my desk. Second, I can’t concentrate for those lengths. I’m fortunate enough to be able to structure my day with smaller, more frequent breaks. So after I’ve downed a sandwich and a bag of gummi bears, you bet I’m browsing this blog or Buzzfeed for ten minutes, and I’m pulling up Dlisted at 3 pm (and I start my day with the news). After a small break, I feel more refreshed, I’ve read something funny and had a laugh, gotten up to get a coffee or tea, and I can open a can of focus on my work. But caution! A break is meant to be small and consistent, so if you suddenly find that you’ve been bidding on a lamp on eBay for over an hour, that’s not a break, that’s deadline-denial.

    4. Step away from the computer and grab a pen. One of my university profs said that writing, as opposed to typing, is much better for concentration and memory retention, and I believe him. Try this next time you must extra-focus on that grant report: print out the forms, grab a pen, sit away from your desk and make notes in point form. When you’re done, fire up that computer and get typing.

    1. Vu Le

      Hawkeye, thanks for all the great tips. Thanks to you, today I didn’t even bother to clean my messy desk. And, inspired by point 4, I went on eBay to buy the perfect pen to take notes with!

      Also, so sweet that you occasionally surf NWB during break.

      1. Leah Lee

        Your role as ED and father makes your life and time management issues infinitely more complex than mine.

        1. Vu Le

          Leah, a baby and a nonprofit are similar: You watch them grow, you worry about them, they keep you up at night, and there are occasional messes to clean up. It’s fun!

  2. Lorraine Thomas

    I make to do lists like a dragon but they sometimes go missing under piles of other things. So I’ve got a bulletin board over my desk with headings for stuff ( ‘donors’, ‘admin’, like that) and I put single ‘to-dos’ on post it notes. I have phoenix tendencies so having stuff literally right in front of me instead of buried under the minutes from the last development committee meeting helps me get back on track. Plus, it’s an excuse to buy cool push pins.

  3. lindenchariot

    Vu, I eagerly await “10 Lessons Nonprofits Can Learn from House of Cards.” To begin with, Claire Underwood: good or bad as executive director of the Clean Water Initiative?

    1. Vu Le

      Was actually working on that exact post…then I got caught up and started watching the show instead of writing. Only on episode 7 so far, but it seems like Claire is even scarier than Frank. I’m terrified of her. So I think that means she’s a good ED.

  4. Susan Detwiler

    I’m a dragon-unicorn hybrid, which makes for way too many deadline commitments to my clients and to the people I offer to help. So what works for me (your mileage may vary) is to set a timer on my computer. I will work for 1 hour. I will not allow myself to distract myself until the timer dings. I CANNOT go read the NWB blog if it has not dinged. When it dings, I set it again for 10 or 15 minutes. During that time I can do whatever I want, read and answer NWB blog, play scrabble on Facebook, get a cup of coffee. But when that 15 minutes is up, set it for another hour of uninterrupted work. Again, YMMV. Good luck!

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Susan. This is brilliant. I actually tried that today, inspired by you, and it was very helpful. Well, I started with 30-minute increments. Baby steps!

      1. Susan Detwiler

        Glad it helped! Don’t get discouraged if you occasionally ignore the timer, or even forget to use it. I go whole weeks without using it. But when I’m hit with massive numbers of deadlines (3 grants for 3 different clients to 3 different foundations due the same week) I go back to it and wonder why stopped.

        Oh yeah — on my to-do list I keep a bunch of little things that should get done but that I put off, like follow-up emails, call my Aunt, stuff like that. So if the timer hasn’t dinged, but it’s a natural stopping point for my work, I STILL don’t go play. I go to that to-do list and do one or two of them.

  5. Tim Schottman

    1. Just say “No” (that’s Nancy Reagan for you under 30 crowd) – Having the courage and the thick skin to say “No” to all those people trying to divert you from your main priorities, results in some amazing time savings. Even better accept “C” priority engagements and then cancel last minute! Opens the calendar right up. Don’t tell your friends, if they are on this list.
    2. “One Touch” – Back in the day of paper time management experts would advise you to only touch a piece of paper once (toss/respond/file). Organize your life with sub-folders and attack all emails that enter your Inbox. If you can’t do everything one touch, put it in a “to do” sub-folder. Then don’t forget to go there!

    You are now deleted. Back to my “A” priorities!

    1. Vu Le

      Tim, you are probably one of the most balanced people I know. One-touch sounds great. I’m going to try it, at least on the papers that come in. With emails, it might be impossible. I could probably spend all day just answering emails. Saying no to stuff, that I can do.

  6. Stacy Ashton

    “Time Management for Unmanageable People” is my favourite and really only helpful book I’ve read on the subject, and I am pretty much 100% Phoenix. In fact, I only skimmed parts of “Time Management for Unmanageable People” because I kept flipping pages and seeing another funny illustration that led me to read another section.

    First off, I learned it’s okay and necessary to spend a bunch of time devising a new time management routine that I will get bored of and change completely within a month. That’s actually an effective way of re-ordering my work so I can see it differently and re-engage in the important and most interesting bits.

    Actually, that’s all I really remember, but I did find that super-validating.

    Also, I love the 10am to 6pm or so workday and after many attempts to self-flagellate into working mornings, I now embrace my lazing in bed time as that’s when the solutions to my most vexing problems float to the top of my mind. But then again I have no kids, only cats, and cats are total enablers of lazing around.

    Another helpful thing I did when I was feeling guilty for not working hard enough: instead of writing a to-do list, I wrote down every task I did all day as I did it. Returned x phone call. Approved x expenses. Organized x, y, and z for the big Festival. Talked y into facilitating a workshop for me. Developed a strategy to approach a new funder. At the end of my “unproductive” day I had actually completed 17 separate things, some on my “I have to do this but really don’t want to” list, so I give myself bonus points for that. Some took a few minutes, some a half hour, some longer, but all of them needed to be done, even if they weren’t actually on my to-do list.

    That made me feel much better, and feeling better saves tons of time that gets wasted trying to cheer myself up for not being productive enough.

    So I guess my big take away is, shut up brain, I am too working very, very hard.

    1. Vu Le

      Stacy, you definitely sound like a Phoenix (“I only skimmed parts of ‘Time Management for Unmanageable People.'”) This is very helpful. I think people assume that whatever works for them, such as to-do lists, will work for other people. But we’re all different, and you manage to make it work for your style. Awesome.

  7. Elyn Blandon

    Vu, your bound to make changes because you can’t continue going like you are. However, what works for some doesn’t work for others, so it is very important to truthfully assess yourself, the circumstances and priorities between work and personal life. Then, you will try different tips, techniques and tools to help you better manage your time which will be a bit of a challenge since you’re running “behind” right now. However, you will let go of some of those and get to a level of maintaining your new balance of effectively using and managing your time. We definitely can talk on this topic 🙂

  8. Voice of Reason

    Hey Vu —
    I think I have three of the four (all but the unicorn) types in my style. My life is stressful. So I like to complain openly. So your post is a good step in that direction.

    Otherwise, here are some things I have learned about time management:
    1) Writing requires ramp up time. I can’t do writing projects in 1 hour time chunks. I need big stretches (3-4 hours at least) of time to write. I start off by wasting time, or clearing my mind of stuff that’s annoying me. Like paying bills or getting little email errands/appointment scheduling taken care of. 30 minutes of that. Then I read the stuff that reminds me what the heck I am supposed to be writing about. That takes about 30 minutes. Then I start writing. Once I get going I try to keep going for as long as possible to get the most out of my ramp up time. I like to do writing projects somewhere other than the office where I will be interrupted by people. I work away from the office on writing. No email, no phone calls. Just writing.
    2) I write my to do’s on a task list, but then I actually assign myself my tasks on a particular day on my google calendar by writing them in at the top of a particular day. I am careful to assign myself tasks that have to be done on or about that day so I don’t get unfocused and blow them off. As I do my tasks for that day, I delete them from my calendar and/or check them off my big list. This makes me feel like super woman. If I did not get something done on a day that I assigned it to myself, I move that task to the next day and look at my day to figure out when in the heck I am going to get that done during the day. Sometimes I create an appointment on my day to work on something so I don’t think I’m “free.”

    3) I need one day a week to catch up. Like Monday. Monday is a a day when I feel overwhelmed that the weekend is over and I have to remember my name and what I am supposed to do. So I started blocking it off from appointments and I just get caught up. If that is not possible, I don’t take any appointments before lunch on Monday. Meetings can chop up the day and make me feel like a lazy loser so one day a week NO MEETINGS.
    4) Visiting with people: You are probably going to hate me for this, but I have started doing “coffee dates” with people not over coffee, but walking so I can get some exercise. It seems to be a very popular idea with my coffee dates too. Walking and talking go together. Everyone feels better afterward.
    5) Make sure you have time to day dream or you will feel bad and have no creativity. Watching House of Cards is good. Blowing off steam talking about pop culture is important and should not be viewed as time wasting. People need this time to just be and do WHATEVER or everything just goes to crazy town. This is not wasteful but VALUABLE to your ability to make the world better for the long haul. Slightly different but similar, you need time (I like Fridays) to talk to people you admire and get inspired by, read books that refill your tank, or surf the internet to research an idea that you’ve been thinking about.
    5) Try NOT TO WORK after dinner. Just rest. Same with weekends. If you can just rest all weekend long or at least for one whole day each weekend you will be much more productive when you’re back working.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Andrea. These are helpful, concrete advice. No meetings on Thursdays has been really great. And I appreciate number 5, the first number 5. The second number 5 may be a lot harder to do!

  9. Amanda Del Sontro

    Great post! Personally, I like to set alarms for deadlines and ends of the hour. Although the time is always glaring at me from the bottom right corner of my screen, if I get immersed in a conversation or watch a video on full screen it doesn’t do me much good. An alarm draws my attention to the time, and when I realize how long I’ve been distracted, it’s a lot easier to bounce back. Good luck!

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Amanda. It seems from a whole bunch of people that setting blocks of time aside to do work, and then taking breaks, is effective. I’m going to try that.

  10. Stacy Nguyen

    Vu, I think you need a Time Turner.

    But dude, I’m posting because I marathon’ed House of Cards, too. Frank and Claire Underwood are sexy/efficient/terrifying beasts. I felt like I liked the first season better though, because there was the novelty factor and Frank didn’t seem so godlike. This season it seemed like he was hard-pressed to find a worthy adversary, I mean, besides HIMSELF MESSING UP A LITTLE.

    I feel empty now, because I have to wait like, a year for season 3. I hope in that one, his protege stabs in him the heart at some point.

      1. Vu Le

        OMG, yes,. The president is such a doormat, and Tusk is just annoying. Really, the only person who is anywhere near Frank’s level is Claire.

  11. BarbChamberlain

    When I worked and had babies I had the same feeling of being overwhelmed. One night I lay awake giving myself a mental beating for everything I hadn’t gotten done that day. Then, similar to what Stacy Ashton described in her comment, I got up and wrote in my journal, listing everything I did that day–not just work, but also the things I’d accomplished as a parent, from making healthy lunches with love notes for my school-aged kids to reading to them before bedtime, and things I did for my own health like going to yoga.

    Turns out I did a hell of a lot that day. Just think–you saved your baby from that paperclip, and that totally makes the whole day worthwhile.

    Some brain research I read somewhere (in one of those random rounds of Web-induced ADD) said you can’t be truly productive or concentrate for more than 90 minutes and still do your best work. Flogging yourself past that fools you into thinking you’re productive because your butt is still in your chair, when really you should get up and go walk around the block or something. Or have coffee with me. Or have a walking coffee meeting.

    I read this article a long time ago on the difference between the “maker’s schedule” and the “manager’s schedule” ( and find I keep sharing it with people who have moved from the role of doer to that of director–essentially a move from being a maker to being a meeting person.

    I used to feel incredibly guilty that I had a hard time digging into a complex project between meetings, believing I should be able to ramp right up and make productive use of that 45-60 minutes or whatever I had, because after all I’m “good at juggling multiple time-sensitive tasks and priorities” (as we all say during the interview).

    The reality is that my brain doesn’t work that way for the really big things. I need maker time to settle into the groove when I’m creating something, like the most amazing grant application ever except for yours, or something with a zillion interconnections like the annual budget.

    Even though I’m good at switching gears quickly it doesn’t mean that’s the best way to approach everything. Thinking of some time blocks as maker time and others as meeting time might help.

    As for tracking and organizing, I could never finish reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People because it seemed to involve a lot of homework and I figured I could use that time to actually do things instead. I do remember the “big rocks” metaphor, but the problem is that we can have the most perfectly planned day ever and life will throw big rocks at us that we have to fit into the jar, or else we have to get a second jar.

    I’ve tried various systems over the years, from color-coded stickums (love those) to using my Outlook task list (which I rarely keep up to date with actual notes so it’s only good for reminding me of recurring tasks).

    Basically now I write things down, put stars next to action items, and put stick-ums on pages with things I haven’t done yet. I have an amazing burst of productivity when I reach the last page of a book because I have to finish up those stick-ums before I start the new book. I bet my staff hates End-of-Book Day…. That’s also where I record phone calls, keep a printed copy of my calendar, and make notes of things I want to remember. It’s like a work diary.

    Most recently I’ve started blocking specific appointments with myself for follow-up time on Monday afternoons, which are usually meeting-free, because so much of my day takes me from meeting to meeting with no time to execute the action items. I’m also trying to schedule meetings for 30-45 minutes, not a full hour, to create some buffer time. This way if one runs long it doesn’t make me (as) late for the next one and ideally I have a few minutes between to knock out a couple of emails. Otherwise all meetings expand to fill the time allotted.

    I highly recommend creating fake meetings that you delete at the last minute to create a time block when you know you’ll need one, or just put time on your calendar that’s a meeting with yourself with specific projects in that time slot. Funny how no one questions a meeting. My own mind makes those big time blocks look “empty” instead of “full of work” or “time to be productive” if I’m not careful and then little crap pushes aside the big-think work, so I’m better off making that calendar commitment to myself.

    Now if you’ll do a post on killing the e-mail beast and get another round of comments as good as these ones, that will take care of the rest of my time management problems.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Barb, for the great response, with actionable suggestions. I love the appointment with yourself idea. I need to do that.
      And yes, emails are killing me!!

  12. Buckup Duck

    From a fellow Phoenix-Unicorn: my solution, marry a dragon and make sure you work with a dragon. They are just bossy enough that they help drive my deadlines. The best part; I can fully appreciate my own nature in the face of the dragon, knowing that I have my priorities right (people really are more important), but I still make my deadlines (to keep my dragons happy).

    1. Vu Le

      Buckup Duck, first off, awesome sign-in name. Second off, thanks for the great advice. I am married to a Lion-turtle, and she analyzes everything. We surprising get little done around the house!

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