Meet our Expert

David_SaintDavid Saint – Chairman, Action Planning

David established Action Planning in 1990 after a 16 year fundraising career, and is recognised as one of the not-for-profit sector’s leading authorities on strategy, management and fundraising. David is a member of the Institute of Fundraising, former Chairman of EU Consult, a trustee of Andrews Charitable Trust and the Christian Initiative Trust, and Chair of Advantage Africa. 

“Life is very pressured at the moment. It is so hard to prioritise – or even see the wood for the trees. How can we break out of this cycle?”

The answer

This is such a common problem, at almost every level in almost every organisation. Here are a few practical and common-sense tips for getting on top of things rather than letting things get on top of you! The first set is at an individual level, the second set at an organisational one.

Individually

1. Not taking time to plan and prioritise is a false economy. You may believe you are too busy to stop doing things and plan instead, but it is the only way to break out of the cycle.

2. Set aside a regular time to plan – whenever suits you best. Good times are first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, every Monday morning or every Friday evening.

3. Keep a list of things to do – just one list, not several! Keep it on Excel, or in Outlook, so it is quick and easy to update, and sort by priority.

4. Diarise time for big tasks, as well as for appointments

5. Whether your diary is managed by you or a PA, make deliberate choices about what goes in to it, and when. Look back at your diary for the past 3 months. What fixtures were a waste of time?

6. Why do ‘regular’ meetings have to happen every week, or every month? Could they be held every 2 weeks, or every 6 weeks?

7. Think carefully about travel implications of out of office appointments – batch them where possible. Book them at beginning or end of day to reduce journeys. Is the journey really necessary at all?

8. Plan and prepare what you will do on journeys – Reading? Planning? Work on documents on laptop or iPad?

9. Develop good e-mail habits: Keep your In-box empty – Delete what doesn’t need action, action then delete what does. Or add to your To Do list, then delete

10. Unsubscribe from stuff you don’t want. Don’t cc or Reply All unnecessarily, and ask others not to, too! Don’t reply too quickly. It only invites a quick response!

11. To avoid being distracted from a big or complex task, turn off Outlook

12. Keep a timesheet, even if only for a week to see where the time goes

13. Batch similar tasks (eg phone calls, e mails) so your brain doesn’t have to keep changing gear

14. Promise yourself treats for completing big or difficult tasks – eg a couple of simple tasks, or chocolate!

Organisationally

1. Develop a clear strategic plan. Start with Values, Mission and Vision. Cascade down through Strategic Objectives to operational plans, support functions, budgets, action plans and KPIs.

2. Plan to plan. Most strategic planning processes run into the sand because no timetable or deadline was set. Define a clear process with start and finish dates, and milestones along the way. It can be very helpful to use an external consultant to design and facilitate the process to make sure it stays on track, and covers all the bases.

3. Once you are clear about organisational priorities and objectives, be ruthless about stopping doing the things that once had meaning, but that now add no value whatever. Some of these may be deeply engrained and even deeply loved, so a careful process may be needed to achieve closure. It is much easier to start things than stop them, which is one of the main reasons we are all so busy!

4. Make sure all staff (and all committees, volunteers etc) are fully aligned with the Plan. Are its priorities reflected in Job Descriptions, personal objectives, appraisals, Terms of Reference etc?

5. Individuals can be very good (i.e. bad!) at ignoring strategic plans and just ‘getting on with the job’ – as they see it. With leadership by the Chief Executive flowing down through all levels of management, everyone should look critically at the things that fill their working day and be clear about whether and how they contribute to achieving organisational priorities. Even the best-intentioned individual can find it hard to apply this discipline to themselves, which is why external input from their manager, or from right outside the organisation in the form of a consultant or facilitator, may be necessary to bring about deep and lasting change.