How to prune your ‘to do’ list

26 November 2020
Art, Heritage and CulturalStrategy
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Ticking off a to do list

Moira Lambert sits on the RAISE Steering Committee. She talks through her top tips for working under pressure and how to ensure your to do list doesn’t overwhelm you.

Around this time two years ago I wrote about the feelings of pressure I was experiencing, despite being well ahead of target for the financial year. I was suffering from task list overwhelm in a big way, and I described my attempts to tame my task list beast.

I have been fortunate enough to be working throughout lockdown (as Director of Development, leading a small team of fundraisers for a disability arts charity), but my job has expanded by about two thirds. The demands of participating in a senior leadership team during a pandemic, having to rip up well thought through plans and adapt and innovate in a new fundraising environment, and an explosion of email as a result of every team member working from home, mean that task list overwhelm is truly back, and with it the sense of pressure.

I know that I am not alone in this, and so I am revisiting my top tips to see if I can adapt them for fundraising in a coronavirus environment.

The first thing I did was commit to “ruthlessly” pruning my “to do” list – at the time it had five weeks’ worth of overdue tasks on it, now it is about three weeks’ worth.

This is what I did:

1.     Any important but not urgent tasks were moved into next year.

2.     Reassigning some tasks to other members of the team – although I did keep a reminder on my list to check that these had been done.

3.     Deleting a small number of tasks that were on there from a sense of obligation.

That leaves me with the same question as I had two years ago: “How can I control my spiralling workload and prioritise the really key work – driving our fundraising strategy and maintain relationships with our key donors?”

The Eisenhower Principle

At the time I used the “Eisenhower Principle”. To apply the principle you rate each task as important/unimportant and urgent/non urgent. You then prioritise the important/urgent tasks, and important/non urgent. Reassign the unimportant/urgent tasks or just say “no” and bin the unimportant/non urgent tasks as these are simply a distraction.

I realised that because when I look at my task list it is not immediately obvious which ones are important/urgent – I had to evaluate as I go along, that takes up a lot of head space. Outlook (where I keep my task list) has a function that enables you to colour code your tasks and mark them as urgent/non urgent. Marking tasks as urgent/ non urgent and assigning them as red for important and green for unimportant means I no longer waste time evaluating them as I go along and can just cherry pick the important/urgent tasks followed by the important non urgent tasks – I found a load of unimportant/non urgent tasks as I did this too and deleted them.

I have added to this colour coding yellow for any important tasks that relate to events/meetings etc that cannot take place under current coronavirus-related rules. This includes things like donor tours of the college and live performances by our students. I have left them on the task list, and will review them every quarter, but now I can identify them at a glance.

At the time I had another criterion that I used when prioritising work – will this lead to a better relationship with our supporters, generate income or achieve specific marketing objectives (“raising awareness" does not count!)? It was very easy, pre lockdown, to get sucked into planning events, for example, that did none (or little) of the above.

In the spring, facing the large hole where our community and special events income used to be, I made a conscious decision to say “yes” to trialling many new fundraising ideas. It was exhausting and energizing at the same time. My team enjoyed their new creative freedom, and we certainly discovered some new strategies that worked for us. Six months down the road we are taking a more reflective approach – evaluating the success of those early weeks and applying the lessons learned, so that we can be more strategic about where we all spend our time.

Delegating tasks

Two years ago, as I said, one of my first strategies was to delegate some tasks to free up my time to get to the urgent/important tasks. What I realised, looking at my task list, is that even when I did this it stayed on my task list as a “check it has been done” item. I created a 121 list for each team member and added those tasks to it, which meant they were in one easily accessible place to bring to our regular meetings, plus removed a load of distracting entries from my task list. Since then we have changed this system slightly – individual team members are responsible for listing agreed actions on their 121 notes, which further reduces my workload.

Finally, I noticed that a lot of items in my task list were things that people have asked me to do and then have failed to provide me with the information I need in order to do them. My new rule was that if I had asked them twice for the information and they failed to respond they went into the “no deadline” list and would not go back onto the task list unless and until the originator finally responds. This has worked so well and has removed a lot of unnecessary emails from me “chasing”.

I mentioned the explosion of email caused by many team members working remotely. As well as addressing my task list I have also been brutal in unsubscribing from sales, marketing and “news” emails. I do worry that I will miss something useful, but have kept some of the key ones and plan to be more intentional in horizon scanning etc.

Did I solve my task list problem? It’s heartening to see that, even with the difficulties of the current challenging times, I’m still far less behind than I was two years ago and it is much easier to see where I should be prioritising my time. I don’t think there is an easy solution to this problem, but things are slowly easing. Today we welcomed our young disabled students back to college – I might need to take a look at some of those yellow tasks sometime soon!

Moira Lambert
Moira Lambert
Director of Development at The Orpheus Centre
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