Time Management Tips to Master Your Schedule

By Lara Tewes, assistant director of prospect development and research, Northwell Health

As prospect development professionals — whether in research, prospect management, analytics or department heads — our lives and work have changed significantly over the last several months. The challenge of meeting deadlines, leading our teams, collaborating with colleagues and guiding our organizations remains constant. The question of how some people accomplish more than others often comes down to having good time and energy management skills. Below are some tools and tricks I used to get myself back on track.

Tame the Inbox Jabberwock 

With the shift to remote working, we are no longer able to “pop over” to colleagues’ desks. If we are lucky, we may have tools to informally and securely message colleagues or even video chat to aid collaboration. Even still, emails and other digital communications have grown increasingly vital but at times, overwhelming. Luckily, email servers such as Outlook offer a number of methods to help improve efficiency and turn you into a master of your inbox rather than allowing it to terrorize you.

In the endless barrage of messages, meeting requests, projects, listserv emails, et. al., important messages can get lost in the shuffle.

  1. Organize folders
    1. By creating a series of inbox folders, you can organize communications by project, creating a quick reference system for providing project updates or answering questions.
  2. Inbox rules
    1. You can set inbox rules that route emails to a designated folder or cause the email to appear in a particular color. An intuitive folder system combined with inbox rules can automate the organization process.
  3. Calendar and scheduling
    1. You can leverage your calendar by scheduling tasks or projects into your calendar as reoccurring blocks of time. This can be daily, bi-weekly, weekly, monthly, et. al. Leveraging your calendar also allows you to be certain that time is set aside for a project.
  4. Tasks and Reminders
    1. Combining reminders and task scheduling can function similarly to a timer, scheduling out your day for how long you allow yourself to spend on a task or project. To use a task scheduling system correctly, you must commit yourself to the work of timing how long it takes to complete a task uninterrupted.
    2. TIP: If you do not know how long a project should take, your schedule will fall apart and create additional stress.

Energy Management — Aloe for Burn-Out

Another key to being more productive is to understand productivity patterns. We all have specific times of day that are more productive than others. Recognizing our energy patterns can help us to know when to schedule the most challenging and important tasks into the day, to ensure they get done on time and with the greatest efficiency.

That said, there are also energy fluctuations within those time blocks. These shifts are known as ultradian rhythms and generally have 90-minute peaks and 20-minute lows. These become noticeable when work starts feeling like walking through mud. Being aware of these changes will enable you to schedule mentally intensive work for peak times — such as capacity analysis, reporting, deep research or project planning — and less strenuous tasks around lows — such as checking emails, data integrity updates or simply organizing your desk/calendar. By working with these rhythms, you will need to power through less work and find your day has a better flow and energy to it.

Source: Rossi, Ernest Lawrence. The 20 Minute Break. Tarcher Putnam, NY. 1991 (page 12). https://www.asianefficiency.com/productivity/ultradian-rhythms/


Timers and Alarms — Your Safety Net for Rabbit Holes

Setting alarms and timers helps keep us accountable and aware of how much time passes. To do this successfully, you need to know how long a task should take. For example, my rule of thumb for working through verifying ratings is to limit each verification to 15 minutes, or 20 minutes for high net worth and ultra-high net worth individuals. Set a time-limit and stick to it with an alarm. 

If you are working on a longer project, set an hourly alarm to ensure you know how much time is passing as you work. I often set an hourly alarm when working on cultivation and solicitation level profiles. This prevents me from going down the proverbial rabbit hole, only to find myself assessing the value of alpacas and wholesale prices for products made from their fleece. At this point either my lunch break has passed or the security guard in the building is telling me to go home. Obviously, neither of these are desired outcomes, so alarms help.

Looking for more professional development resources that relate to your specific work? Check out "What's On Your Shelf? Apra Members Review Their Recent Reads" for peer recommendations on professional development books. 

Task and Project Management — Break It Down

As prospect development professionals, we tend to wear many hats, take on myriad projects that affect teams foundation-wide and face competing deadlines. We are often told that multitasking is the answer. Yet when we try to work on multiple projects or tasks simultaneously, it feels like nothing gets done or we must power through a project all at once. However, there are three interconnected keys to project and task management:

1) Maintain a long-term and daily to-do list

2) Divide the project into digestible pieces with natural breaks

3) Focus on single tasks to ensure quality

Whether you have gone fully digital or remain a papyrophile, the to-do list is alive and well — and for good reason. Aside from the sheer joy we derive from crossing things off a list, this ancient tool keeps us organized as we move from one task to another. A long-term to-do list helps categorize and prioritize tasks, ensuring the critical ones are completed in a timely manner. If you are lucky enough to track your projects, profiles and other requests via your database, you could easily build a request and project queue there. If you use Raiser’s Edge, you can designate specific actions for your prospect development team to use for everything from profile and relationship mapping requests, to tracking screenings and proactive rating verifications. I use forward-dated actions to plan out my year of portfolio reviews and link the actions to all applicable calendars. This tool can become your long-term to-do list that you check in with to plan your days and weeks.

Break a Project Into Digestible Pieces

To maximize your energy and time, segmenting projects into digestible pieces will help prevent feeling overwhelmed and prevent frustration from an apparent lack of accomplishments. I often find myself needing to schedule work around meetings, phone calls, webinars, et. al. and structuring projects in a way that allows them to be completed in chunks greatly helps. This segmentation may be as simple as easily defined steps in a process, such as running a wealth screening on donors, or as complex as migrating to a new database platform. To maximize your energy and time, consider segmenting projects into digestible pieces that prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Consider splitting your project up into four parts:

  1. Pull the data and format it
  2. Have the data screened and returned
  3. Review the ratings and import them into the database
  4. Distribute the screening with an overview and summary


Focus on Single Tasks

Despite popular belief, multitasking does not always make you more efficient. It is useful when engaging in multiple low-stake monotonous tasks. However, when you try to apply multitasking to high-stakes tasks or those requiring higher-level cognition, you run the risk of errors and all projects taking longer than if you had simply focused on each individually.

A 2001 study by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer found that as heavy multitaskers switched tasks through the day and the work became increasingly complex, they lost as much as 40% of productivity due to the brain’s need to both shift its purpose and task goal. I have encountered this multiple times when trying to review a solicitation profile and run a screening. The executive functions needed and purpose for each task is very different and require a researcher to repeatedly assess where she left off with one task and what the next step should be. A later article from Harvard Business Review in 2015 reported that in certain situations, multitasking shifts can cause a temporary 10% drop in IQ. And given the high-level judgement calls researchers are tasked with, any decrease of cognitive function is undesirable. What I have found successful is by grouping similar tasks together so that when you get into your “groove” or “zone” you can leverage that efficiency for those similar tasks.

Find What Works for You

The last year has been one of the most challenging for everyone in fundraising. Regardless of which challenges you’re facing, testing different methods will help you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. It will take time to adjust but the frontloaded efforts to reclaim your time will benefit you, your team and the organization in the long run.


Learn more about the author of this article on the Connections Thought Leaders Page.

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