Nonprofit professionals are a hard-charging bunch. It didn’t take me long in my first nonprofit job to figure out that most of them are overworked and underpaid.

Motivated by dedication to their organization’s mission, many seem to accept being perpetually in over their head as just part of the territory.

A common side effect to this intense work culture, other than the obvious fatigue and burnout, is to task-binge without an overarching strategy for maximizing the return on investment of your time.

One of the core problems with this tendency is that productivity (the actual output of one’s labor) gets mistaken for inputs like the number of hours you work, how many times per day you check your email, the number of nights you spend burning the midnight oil to clean up spreadsheets of data, or my favorite – how many staff meetings you schedule.

These things may of course be necessary, but they should not be the sole measures of one’s devotion to their nonprofit’s important mission. And this gung-ho work culture, while it has good intentions, is not a sustainable strategy for getting the most bang for your buck out of your most scarce resource – your time.

Stop spinning your wheels with the mindless multitasking. Here are three antidotes to the nonprofit task-binging habits that may be killing your real productivity:

#1: Don’t be a servant to your inbox

Email is a powerful tool, but also a productivity killer when it’s managed poorly. Two of the worst email habits that drain your productivity are checking your inbox too frequently and not replying to easily-resolved emails the first time you open them.

Checking your inbox too frequently is a bad habit which, over the course of week, can draw precious hours from your calendar. Tim Ferriss, the entrepreneur and best-selling author of the work-hacks book The 4-Hour Work Week, recommends only checking your email twice a day. That might mean checking your email once in the morning (but not first thing in the morning – instead, use this time to work out your day’s goals and to-do list before delving into the inbox) and a second time in the afternoon.

If checking your inbox this seldom worries you, you can always set an auto-responder that tells your contacts that you’ll only be checking email at certain times, and if something’s crucially important that they reach you by phone.

The second facet of streamlining your email is to respond immediately to those emails which will take 2 minutes or less to resolve, rather than saying “I’ll do that later” and forgetting about it, or having to find the message a second time. For emails that will take longer to resolve, flag the message and create a calendar deadline so that you don’t forget it.

Of course, these email strategies don’t work for everyone and in all cases. Some jobs, such as customer support, require the person to almost constantly monitor their email.

#2: Get some fresh air

“Your best ideas seldom come when you’re juggling emails, rushing to meet the 5 P.M. deadline or straining to make your voice heard in a high-stress meeting. They come when you’re walking the dog, soaking in the bath or swinging in a hammock.”   – Carl Honore

How does going outside to stretch and get some fresh air pertain to being more productive at work?

Try it, and see how it lowers your stress and boosts your creative thinking. Great thinkers and writers from Steve Jobs to Charles Dickens knew that long walks had the power to clear the mind and generate new ideas. But even taking a break to get outside for a few moments can be huge.

Since there’s a limit to how long most humans can focus on a task in one sitting, taking a break to stretch and get some fresh air can renew that focus and allow you to recharge, all while doing something healthy for your mind and body. If you’re an overworked and stressed-out nonprofit professional, taking time to clear your mind might be key to boosting your productivity.

Can’t find the time to get out of the office? Schedule a check-in meeting as a walking meeting, and take the check-in for walk around the block.

#3: Just say no to unnecessary meetings

“Anyone who likes meetings should be banned from attending meetings.” – Nassim Taleb

Anyone looking to free up time to get more done at work should tally up how much time they spend in staff meetings. Does your organization’s culture have an affinity toward holding too many meetings, or meetings that seem to go on forever?

If your organization schedules meetings unnecessarily without an agenda, or regularly allows meetings to get off track without sticking to the agenda at hand, you are probably getting distracted from pursuing your real productivity.

Fixing the problem of meetings isn’t overly complicated. Here at thedatabank, we recently adopted some ground rules around meetings that have helped us be more productive by spending less time in meetings.

First, consider enforcing a rule in your office that meetings cannot be scheduled without an agreed upon agenda. Second, the meetings should have a fairly strictly enforced time limit so that the agenda gets taken care of without getting off track.

Whenever you have the urge to call for a meeting on some issue, ask whether it can resolved over email or some other mode of communication without an in person meeting.

If your organization holds weekly status update meetings, consider making it a short, informal gathering in some place other than the conference room. Sit or stand in a circle, and set a time limit so that everyone will be reminded to finish up quickly.


Under the weight of their organization’s mission and a never ending to-do list, most nonprofit professionals feel like they don’t have enough time in the day to get everything done. So they don’t bother to slow down and rethink how they might be able to work smarter. The reality is that the overwork of the nonstop nonprofit calendar is a great way to get burned out, and your number of hours worked may not pay out equal sums of productivity.

Instead of mindless multitasking and putting out fires right and left, try focusing on a few actionable ways to manage the onslaught of it all a little better. Spend less time hovering over your inbox. Rethink whether you might be spending too much time in meetings that aren’t always necessary. And when you hit a wall in the workday, take a break and go outside to stretch and get some fresh air. You’ll be glad you did.

Have you already adopted some of these strategies for being more productive? How did they work? What are your tips or hacks for increasing your productivity, or preventing burnout at work?

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