Can You See Where You’re Going?

Last week, I took a couple of much-needed days off from work. It’s been an outrageously busy couple of months, and I needed a little “me time.” On my list one morning was to fix the cloudy headlights on my 11-year-old car — they’ve been getting so cloudy that it’s reducing the amount of light cast on the road ahead of me.

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Photo courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman on Flickr

As I sat in the driveway buffing my headlights, I asked myself, “Why has it taken me months to get to this? What was more important than seeing where I’m going?

As nonprofit leaders, we always feel stretched thin. We often say things like, “I could work 24 hours a day and still not get everything done.” And of course, we feel guilty when we aren’t hands-on advancing our organization’s mission every minute of the day and night, and we often fall victim to the false belief that people respect us more when they think we work all the time (see “3 Reasons to Stop Sending E-mail at Night“).

In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey explores “beginning with the end in mind.” His website summarizes, “Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.”

As leaders, we owe it to our missions, our constituents, our colleagues, and ourselves to take the time to know where we’re going. Your list of to-dos will never get so short that you will say, “Gosh, I have nothing else to do, so I guess I’ll envision, dream, and plan.” You have to move those things above other tasks to make sure that you and your organization are moving in the right direction.

Here are a couple of strategies to try:

1. Start by taking some time off.

The wear and tear of working all day and night is exhausting. Add to that the expectation that you’ll be at everyone else’s events, plus real life demands like laundry, cooking an actual dinner, and heaven forbid car trouble, and it can break you. Break. You.

So take a day off. Better yet, two in a row. Put an away message on your office phone, cell phone, and email, and ask your staff and board to contact you only in an emergency. Then spend the time doing anything but work. Don’t travel or tackle a major project. Just read, nap, exercise, do some chores, go shopping or to the movies.

I promise, your organization won’t fall apart in just two days. But you will be much more rejuvenated and ready to move forward when you return.

2. Schedule a half-day to do uninterrupted planning work.

Block a half day (I recommend the morning) at least once a month to work on the high-level planning you never get to. Do this somewhere other than your office, like home, a coffee shop, or the library.

But here’s the rule: if the work has a deadline, it’s off-limits. Covey also describes the distinction between urgent and important work. If you’re like me, it seems my schedule is dominated by Quadrant 1 (urgent and important) or Quadrant 2 (urgent, but not important) tasks. I rarely — ok, never — get around to Quadrant 3 work (important, but not urgent) if I don’t schedule concentrated time. Strategic planning, budgeting, and policy work are all the kind of things that are nearly impossible in an environment wrought with interruptions.

And what about your “you” plan? What are the things you feel you need to focus or improve on this year as a leader? I don’t mean “accomplish this event” or “complete this project.” I mean “I will do/improve/be ______ this year.” And what steps must you take to accomplish that?

So let’s get some clarity together. Because with a little more light, we can see more clearly what’s coming around the corner.

Question: How do you prioritize the important responsibility of looking ahead? Please leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Can You See Where You’re Going?

  1. Very thoughtful piece, Ryan! I agree that the one-two punch of taking time for yourself AND taking time to do uninterrupted planning is the not-so-surprise secret of keeping you and your agency not only alive but vibrant. And, yes, creating an environment away from the office is essential, both to keep yourself at a distance from staff, phone calls, etc., and also to create a space that is “special”–where one gives oneself permission to be imaginative.

    And, by the way, since this is in the middle of the Jewish High Holy Days, where forgiveness plays a central role, I would add that executives should, besides forgiving staff, forgive themselves for all the little transgressions: missing deadlines, not responding to an email, etc., etc., etc. Too much time and energy are spent in beating oneself up that can be better spent on creating space for making for an improved self and and an improved organization. Saying “sorry” is very important, but it is easy. But moving beyond contrition to improvement is harder and reduces the need to apologize so often next year.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and excellent work!