Often when I’m coaching non-profit sector leaders and fundraisers, they use words such as ‘overwhelm’, ‘never-ending’ and ‘relentless’ when reflecting on the sheer volume of work they’re wading through. I’m always curious to know what the answer to this is. Do we simply accept that feeling like we’re drowning under the workload is all part and parcel of working for a charity? Personally, I don’t think that should be the case and have found a different way.

Here are 10 practical tips to help you to manage your large workload without it taking a negative toll on your well-being. These suggestions can help you create working habits that allow you to thrive in your role.

When you read through these suggestions, each one individually may seem like it will not make much of a difference. However, it’s the positive impact they can have when you start to apply several of them in your day-to-day work; a powerful cumulative effect occurs.

So, take a look and see which ones you are tempted to try first. Enjoy experimenting with them and observe the impact they have on your mindset and approach to your to-do list:

1. Do one thing at a time: Often when we’re busy, the temptation is to juggle several things at once. Sometimes that might be the only way – when we’re trying to work and home-school the kids, for example. But when it comes to managing your large workload, the most efficient and effective approach is to move through each task, one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is the biggest drain on our energy and inner resources. Our brain gets tired and tasks start taking much longer to complete. So, take a deep breath, and move calmly and efficiently through each thing. Your brain will thank you for it.

2. Avoid distractions: The notifications on our phone, emails and other sources feed into the multi-tasking problem. Just as we get stuck into work, our attention gets caught by something else. Before we know what’s happened, we’ve disappeared down a rabbit warren of distractions. Turn your phone over, stick on some noise cancelling headphones and enjoy getting in the zone.

3. Eat your frog: You’ll find more info in this short book by Brian Tracey. My good friend and colleague, Rob Woods from Bright Spot, talks about this technique and I have to say it has revolutionised how I structure my day. This is a quick summary of how to Eat Your Frog:

  • Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.
  • Before you begin work, always ask yourself, ‘Is this task in the top 20 percent of my priorities or in the bottom 80 percent?’
  • Resist the temptation to clear up small things first
  • Gather everything you need at hand before you begin.
  • Get your mind off the huge task in front of you and focus on a single action that you can take.
  • Take action and keep going

4. Manage your energy: Once you’ve eaten your frog, sandwich the tasks that you don’t enjoy between the tasks that you do enjoy. This creative diary management will help you to sustain your energy and inner resources throughout the day and week.

5. Magic 20 minutes: It’s easy to under-estimate how much we can get done in 15 or 20 minutes. If we find we have a short gap between meetings, often the temptation is to look at our phones or drift into reading emails without actioning anything. However, if we can get into the habit of recognising when we have a ‘magic 20 minutes’ appear in our day and grab the opportunity to get one or two tasks done, we often feel better for it.

6. 45 minute meetings – Re-shape your diary and schedule meetings for 45 minutes rather than a full hour. It’s often enough time to achieve what is needed in the meeting, leaving you with time to take action on anything that came out of the meeting or re-charge your batteries before your next meeting. Here’s a two minute tutorial on how to change your settings in Outlook.

7. Protect your time: If you find that you are being invited to lots of meetings that essentially help colleagues with their projects, it’s probably because you’re a very helpful person with lots of value to add. However, this can also mean that you may find yourself in the frustrating position of your work being de-prioritised and only getting to it later on in the day. This is demoralising and demotivating. Experiment with saying ‘no, thank you’ to some of these meetings and instead offer to have a quick chat to feed-in your ideas beforehand. That way you are still helping your colleagues and contributing, yet it will only take a short amount of your time. I talk a bit more about this approach to diary management in this short video.

8. Take quality breaks: Often we may think that we’re having a break, but in fact we’re slurping down some soup whilst reading the BBC News app and glancing at the emails piling into our inbox. To truly recharge our batteries so that we can work efficiently and enjoy what we’re doing, we need to have QUALITY breaks. This means stepping away from any screens, eating mindfully, and relaxing our bodies and mind. Quite a few people I coach have forgotten how to truly relax, and this inevitably takes a toll on their well-being. So, identify what a quality break looks and feels like for you, and schedule it into your day as you would an important meeting.

9. Learn to say ‘No’: This is a vital skill to learn if we want to thrive in demanding roles. To help you find the motivation to say ‘no’, it may help to be aware of what can happen when a request comes our way to which we want to say no but don’t:

  • We chip away at our own integrity by subliminally telling ourselves that our own priorities don’t matter. 
  • We find ourselves being inauthentic. We fake it, spending valuable time on something to which our heart is not committed.
  • By our actions, we teach people how to treat us. By being afraid to stand up to our boundaries, inadvertently we teach people that we’re pushovers and that they can disrespect our time. 
  • Or, because we know this pattern in ourselves, we translate it to assume that others will feel similarly when we place a request on their time, so we refrain from asking at all (people who find it hard to say ‘no’ also often find it hard to delegate!).

Not convinced? See what The Mayo Clinic has to say about the importance of saying no to reduce stress and live a happier life.

10. Ask for support: In this Third Sector article about stress in the charity sector, they mention how hard it can be to reach out and ask for support from managers, especially when they’re busy too. However, your manager cannot help you if they’re unaware of the fact that your workload is too big. So I suppose this is about taking responsibility for your well-being and giving your manager the tools they need to be able to line manage you well.

I appreciate though that for some of you reading this, having a conversation with your manager about your workload will feel insurmountable, especially if you’re already worn out from working too hard. In this situation, the best advice I can give you is to reach out to anyone you trust and can speak openly with. Sometimes simply talking out loud about what we’re facing can help ease the burden and suddenly we see a way forward that wasn’t clear to us before. 

If you’d like to have a chat with me in confidence about any of the topics discussed here, feel free to get in touch anytime: charly@vividleadership.co.uk