How to Get Things Done
As a former dancer, I spent much of my life in a dance studio honing my skills. My job was to show up and be prepared to practice. I had to make sure my body and mind were ready for the day, no matter what was thrown at me. During this time, I didn’t give much thought to what was happening behind the scenes. I didn’t think about all that administrators were doing to make sure there was a place for the rehearsal, a pianist to play, a choreographer to create, not to mention an entire production team. I simply knew what my part was—to show up and be ready to practice.
I entered the nonprofit world as an administrator because I had woken up to the reality of what was happening behind the scenes. It wasn’t easy, and I wanted to support the administrative work that made everything else possible. I wanted to do what was necessary to make sure a nonprofit’s mission would be a reality. And as I dug into nonprofit work, I quickly realized that what was happening behind the scenes was its own elaborate dance.
At times, it seems nearly impossible that nonprofits are able to get anything done. So many obstacles stand in the way—from lack of funding and personnel shortages to space issues, and of course there’s never enough time. And because resources are scarce, the only way anything gets done is because of the endless extra hours (and heart) nonprofit workers give to their jobs. Due to the norm of running on empty, the most fundamental work can be brushed aside—as in the behind the scenes infrastructure. For fundraising, this includes creating a thoughtful development plan, having a major gift pipeline that you work through weekly, developing an acknowledgement and retention plan, and maintaining a working database. Many nonprofits just don’t seem to have the capacity to put all of these vital plans and processes in place. But without them, it’s really hard to grow and thrive.
So as a consultant, I work on infrastructure and processes with organizations first and foremost. We figure out what is missing and create it. Then we work on implementation. Whether it is the latest project management software, a simple spreadsheet, or constant nagging from me, I help my clients focus on the tasks at hand and keep the important, and sometimes boring, stuff from falling to the wayside.
For many nonprofit organizations, this strategy works brilliantly. But not always, which made me wonder, what do I need to do differently? How do I get people to change their habits to get things done? How do I get an executive director with 10,000 things on their plate (seriously 10,000 things) to stop and look at their prospect list and make phone calls? And why are some directors able to do this but others aren’t?
Then I remembered my dancer self in the studio. Practice. I practiced. I didn’t become a successful dancer because of the infrastructure and processes surrounding me. I became a dancer because there were processes in place to support me, and I practiced.
All of the processes and project management tools in the world are useless—unless you have a practice in place to do the work.
It’s like any new thing in your life. You have to make it a habit, which takes time. We can’t change everything overnight. But you need to take the time to think about your practice. Take a step back, look at your day, and think about what you wish you had accomplished and didn’t. Think about how you are using your time and where you might be able to create some space. And then, take a deep breath, and commit to doing it the next day, and then the next day, and then the next.
A commonly cited 2009 study published by the European Journal of Social Psychology found that “it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. The study also concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.” (healthline.com)
I started 2022 with a commitment to changing a number of habits in my own life (including writing my blog!). I’m on day 24 and feeling positive. I am remembering my dancer self, and practicing my way to day 66. Because once you have both the practice and processes in place, your work will be successful, rewarding and meaningful to those you serve—which is ultimately what every nonprofit advocate is trying to achieve.
Keep up the practice.