New Year’s Resolutions?

I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions to be honest.

I have some friends and family who swear by them. I hear them planning in advance, shortlisting contenders, and then relishing January 1st and the challenges they’ve set themselves.

For me though they’ve never really been of interest. It was September (23rd, 2013 to be precise) when I finally stopped smoking (to my ongoing disappointment) and the idea of dry January or a gym membership really does leave me cold!

Nevertheless I was lucky enough to get a decent break over the festive period at the end of December and did take some time to reflect on what I might tune in 2022, to make things a little better, more effective, more rewarding.

So this is more of a lessons learnt, based on having some time to really digest thoughts I had in the run of last year, or conversations I was involved in, articles I read, insights I came across.

Lesson one is not to try to change everything

Even if that were achievable, don’t do it, primarily because you don’t need to. For me I’m confident that we’re relatively successful delivering a large number of projects for worthy organisations across the non-profit sector we serve. For you, while you are likely to always be seeking improvement, you’re almost certainly doing a good job already, even if you get frustrated with yourself and others sometimes. So tune yes, but complete overhaul no.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the past couple of years have been particularly intense; working largely remotely, way too much screen time, all video calls instead of phones or face-to-face meetings, little appreciation of the value of unbooked / unallocated time, minimal gaps given between meetings and so on. Among other things this means that I looked back on 2021 with a sense of frustration alongside the satisfaction of some jobs well done, some great clients supported and enabled, some amazing missions and causes furthered.

In part that’s our world, putting our clients and their strategies first, but it’s also really important that were effective and efficient internally. We do evolve and grow, we see and appreciate the new challenges our sector and our clients face, and we develop new ways of helping as many of them as possible.  That supports and enables us to be at our best, to share our knowledge – internally and externally – to broaden our reach, to achieve our mission.

So not a lot has to change, although we may choose to change more than that. When I reflected more on my frustration with 2021 I found it came down largely to two things, which are closely related, in fact they overlap: firstly trying to do too much at the same time, and secondly not closing enough initiatives out before embarking on new ones.

Do Less, Better

It’s important to be clear about what I’m saying here, the risk being that I’ll stray into W1A territory and recommend “identifying what we do best and finding more ways of doing less of it”! Luckily for all concerned that’s not what I have in mind…

The key point is that we tend to spread ourselves too thinly. I find that the majority of the people we work with in the non-profit sector tend to have lots of ideas, lots of plans, lots of enthusiasm – all of which is great. If we then try to take everything on at once we run out of the bandwidth we need to drive our initiatives as we need to. Successful projects require energy and focus, drive and leadership. It’s not easy to really succeed when driving change; for a start most people are naturally resistant to change. On top of that it takes time, money, effort.

Substantive change will usually involve leaving our comfort zones, taking some risks. All of that means that change leaders need to be beacons of energy and enthusiasm, to lead from the front, to never falter or show weakness. That can be exhausting so why do we think we can run at that pace across multiple initiatives for months on end? Realistically, we can’t so we need to prioritise, to set up fewer initiatives at any one time, and give them the concentration and drive they need.

Finish what you start

Which leads into the second aspect of the change we need to make, which is to finish (and I mean finish, completely) initiatives, projects and programme strands before embarking on new ones.  There are only so many significant initiatives you can run at any one time, and only so much change employees can engage with.

It’s always tempting to treat a project or initiative as done when “the end is in sight” but that’s not smart. There are often extensions to the final stages of projects, and you’ll also continue to need to give them focus and input in the early stages of their new business-as-usual state. So treat projects as active until they’ve been executed, embedded, reflected on (lessons learnt is a vital commitment for every project you undertake) and then signed off.

That doesn’t mean literally one project at a time, but it means seriously assessing your capacity to change, and your organisation’s ability to engage in change programmes. Then launch your priority work programme and don’t take on anything new until you’ve closed out active projects to make space.

Me, I’m applying this mantra at both small scale too

In the everyday tasks too, rather than trying to continually multi-task and move five things forward every hour, I’m finding it far more productive to concentrate on a specific task, get it done then move on to the next. This includes some mental decluttering, if we’re trying to juggle multiple tasks and decisions in our heads whilst also thinking about the next ten items in our in-trays then we don’t have the headspace to think and act clearly, which means we take longer to get anything done. As the backlog grows so the cycle goes on.

I park tasks into times when I can give them some attention, I prioritise heavily based on when something needs to be completed, not when someone asks the question or when the task drops. And I block out time to get stuff done…

Plan for yourself (or others will dictate your workload and priorities)

A final thought then, in support of the above intentions, is that if you want to achieve progress, to deliver, to succeed you have to take control of your own schedule. For sure others will have demands on you, that’s part of the role, part of the deal, but that doesn’t mean that everything is out of your control. If you leave it all up to others then they will (understandably) call on you when it suits them best, which is disruptive for you and prevents you from achieving what you have on the go.

If your day is full of back-to-back meetings in support of others then when do you get the space and time to focus on your own work? If your concentration is constantly disrupted by a new email notification or a beep from your messaging / collaboration app of choice then you’re wasting so much time.

You can’t slot your own priority work into small gaps which may appear, and you can’t continually sacrifice your time when others come asking. You have to value your time, and that includes locking some of it away for yourself, for your initiatives, for your priorities. That will help you to succeed, which will be rewarding for you, your team and your employer. You’ll be able to drive change, without breaking yourself or anyone else, and get satisfaction from doing so.

This is something I’ve embraced for the past 18 months or more now and it really helps me. I block out chunks of time to address my priority workstreams. I don’t accept every meeting request if the timing doesn’t work for me (it is only a request after all and I offer alternatives). I turned off all email notifications a long time back and I use “Focus Time” to block chat messages.  And you know what, I get stuff done and I feel good about that!

So Happy New Year; hopefully these words resonate in some way for you, give you some food for thought and spark some ideas for how you can succeed in 2022.