Take Back Your Time. Here’s How

by Joan Garry

Do you arrive to work feeling as if you have been shot out of a cannon? Breathless? Feeling like you are playing catch-up from the moment you sit down?

What an amazing day.

The day The New York Times announced that it would now include same sex wedding announcements on its wedding pages in 2002. My staff at GLAAD had pulled it off.

Bad things happened that week. I’m sure of it. There were hateful voice mails. I know I debated angry members of the anti-gay opposition on national television.

But I can’t remember a single detail of that. It just didn’t matter. There are big things and small things.

And that’s what all of us need to remember when the days and weeks seem to spin out of control. When you stop feeling like your time is your own to manage.

There are days that you control and days that control you.

We all know how critical it is to focus on the important stuff and push aside the urgent, but unimportant. Or even just the less important. You must be able to manage your time.

It’s not so easy in practice.

Today, I want to share with you my process for how I manage my time so that I get to control of a lot more of my days.

My process is easily replicable by any leader. Let’s give it a go, shall we?


It actually begins the night before. You are responding to emails but avoiding your watch. It’s really late. “Ugh – my boss is sending emails at 1:15am. I can feel my blood pressure rise.” 

That’s how the day begins. The night before.

Alarm Goes Off at 7am: You roll over and check your email. You respond to a minimum of five. Before going to the bathroom. Before greeting / kissing the human or pet you sleep with. You kid yourself. “If I get this out of the way now, I’ll get a head start on the day and feel less stressed later.” Yeah, right.

8:30am: Breakfast with your board chair. At least you got a quick shower and you’re on time but you rushed. We all know the breathless feeling.

So you’re not as prepared as you would like. But the Board Chair is even more unprepared. She opens the meeting with, “So what’s going on?”

Do you tell her good news or unearth a relevant challenge you are having? “Oh, by the way, I have a hard stop at 9:15.” You didn’t know that. Not enough time to open a can of worms.

And while you are at breakfast, you get 10-15 more emails, each of which “demand” your attention immediately.

The Morning: You arrive at the office and feel as if you have been shot out of a canon. If you’re lucky enough to have an assistant, the assistant can’t control the line outside your door.

You spend your entire morning responding to everyone else’s questions and demands.

Fifteen minutes before lunch, you glance at the clock and realize you now have barely any time to get a deeper background on a certain lapsed donor.

Lunch: Breaking bread with said lapsed donor.

The lunch goes OK. It could have been an A. It was a B minus. No firm commitment and you wish you had more clarity about what specific actions the org could take to bring this donor back.

The Afternoon: More of the same.

Except now it includes a few board committee meetings that you have to lead because the committee chair is not prepared and the work from the last meeting is not completed.

You also need to fit in a performance issue with a staffer – should she stay or should she go?

The finance person needs a “quick” meeting to tell you that a few bills didn’t get paid last month.

The Evening: If you’re lucky enough not to have an evening event, you leave the office late (natch) and head home to pick out of the fridge (who has time to grocery shop?)

You look back on the day and realize some very big things didn’t get done. In a ten-hour day, you only spent about 45 minutes talking about the WORK!

And while you pick at your leftovers, you grab your laptop and begin to catch up from the day. Before you know it is 1:30am. You’ve played catch-up but not planned out your day.

Before you know it, your alarm is going off. Déjà vu all over again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum.


It all begins the Friday before the start of the following week.

The Friday Before: Door closed for 45 minutes before you leave the office. No one bothers you. You survey the landscape of that ridiculous email inbox and the piles on your desk. You then take a good old-fashioned piece of paper and you write down a list of your five big things.

It’s fine – there can be seven big things. But there can’t be ten. And there also can’t be fewer than five.

Your Five Big Things are the big things you MUST DO the following week. No matter what. These are not tasks found in the weeds. They could be things like:

  • First draft of event speech complete
  • All materials for the event to the printer
  • Meet with Policy Director to offer guidance and be sure that Lobby Day is on track
  • Review first pass of budget with Finance Director – must be to the Finance committee by Friday

This document should be sitting on your desk waiting for you on Monday morning and should guide your entire week. It will help keep you in control.

One more thing. Take a look at your calendar for the week full of days you control. Do some reconfiguring if you must – send a few emails to reschedule, to make a few prep appointments. What meetings need to be on the calendar to achieve your five must-do’s. What meetings can be booted? Send emails on Friday to get that calendar looking the way it needs to look.

So with your Five Big Things, it’s time for a look at a day you control.


The Night Before The Day You Control:Review your Five Big Things. Now it’s time to be sure there is time in your calendar, meetings scheduled with the appropriate folks who will help drive you to the completion of the five things.

Next, email. Go ahead and write to your heart’s content. Try to focus on emails that really require an immediate response and the important ones.

BUT DO NOT SEND THEM. Late night emails drive staff members crazy.

Save them in your drafts folder. Or use a service like Boomerang to schedule emails to go out later.

Alarm Goes Off:

  • Do not touch that smart phone without greeting any living thing you may be sleeping with. In fact, do not look at your phone except to look at the weather.
  • Get showered and dressed and leave 20 minutes to sit and have coffee in your house or apartment.
  • Only then, look at your phone. But at first, only to review your schedule for the day and make a list of the things you need to make the schedule successful.
  • Write emails to appropriate folks for the materials / information / context you need to be successful in those meetings
  • Finally, send the emails in your draft folder so they are awaiting folks when they arrive at the office.

The Day:

  • Work to follow the schedule with limited interruptions. Interruptions must be in the service of a successful completion of your own to-do list (which is connected to your Five Big Things)
  • Practice saying “no.” You’ve got to keep you eye on the ball of YOUR priorities. Try this: “I can’t focus on this now. Let’s set up time to meet on this in the next few days.”
  • Hone Your Skills on Understanding the 5-Alarm Blaze. Staff members filled with mission-passion have a tendency to turn “problem” into “5-Alarm Blaze.” Leaders can tell the difference and guide staff accordingly.
  • It’s OK To Close Your Door. Just when you need to focus. Encourage others to do the same. If it was good business practice, companies would have installed revolving doors as part of office design. They didn’t. There’s a reason.
  • Figure out your way to stay calm (ish). Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. What can you do every day to get just a moment or two for yourself? A walk around the block with headphones and good music? There are a million apps for calming people down (if you are calm enough to look for them). What about a Jambox in your office with your favorite music. Or spend a few minutes texting with a BFF that makes you laugh.

I can’t give you the perfect calendarized day. In the nonprofit space, there is no perfect day. Even the “New York Times wedding announcement day” wasn’t perfect. I think that’s part of what makes the work exhilarating.

But control belongs to you. Not to anyone else. And control begins with understanding what is important. Your constituents, donors, and clients are not interested in how many things came up during the day that got in the way of your work.

They are interested in leadership. They are interested in results.

And the only way to take back control is with a strong process.

Do you have your own process for managing your time that helps you control the chaos of a day as a nonprofit leader? Please share with my tribe members — all of us can get better.

11 thoughts on “Take Back Your Time. Here’s How”

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I got a bit teary-eyed reading the description of the “day that controls you.” I was saying in my head, “That’s me!” and I immediately felt stressed but also comforted in knowing that it’s not just me who is going through the week like this! There was comfort in knowing that I’m not alone. As a new ED, I am so hard on myself and push myself so much…even though everyone keeps thanking me for all the work I do and telling me how great I’m doing. The nonprofit was a mess when I got here and have been addressing major compliance, program improvement, and other fires for the last year. I have no assistant, Dev Director, accountant, IT, or HR support so it’s all me. Most days I just want to play with our kids and forget all the tasks for a moment. So much to learn and do! I keep thinking when will it die down? When will there be some free time or why do I feel like I’m always facing an important deadline? This post is a huge help and a reminder that some dedicated time to prep, plan, and some schedule adjustments (especially rescheduling) can make a huge difference! Thank you Joan 🙂

  2. Dear Rookie. Can I make a suggestion? I’m assuming that the kids you reference are at your school or organization? if so, you should make time EVERY day to go play with the kids. it will be like putting premium gas in your tank. I’m very glad that it was a helpful piece for you and yes, ‘the day that controls you’ is a day EVERY nonprofit leader experiences. you are most definitely not alone 🙂

  3. This is great advice, Joan. A very interesting read. I especially love ‘The Friday Before’ tip. I started listing down my to-dos for the next day a while back, and it actually helps me have a more-productive-than-before first half of the day. Thanks!
    Niraj (Founder at grexit.com)

  4. Niraj. First off, being a nosy blogger I went to grexit.com. Looks really interesting! Secondly, I’m delighted you found the advice to be of value. AND that you took the time to tell me. Thanks for reading!

  5. Just found you and cannot stop reading. Love the “Five Things”. I am not an ED – I serve on a Board, but this would be great for any busy professional. I am the Director of an Honors Program (about 250 students) in a multi-campus urban community college (with no staff, but a fabulous advisory board). So I teach and I direct the program. Seeing a student rise from being a high school dropout to an honor student, it is my fuel. I love the idea in the comments about fueling by being with the kids and suggest that be an article. Thanks for your good work.

  6. Susan. I’m delighted you found me and that you are now an enthusiastic member of the tribe. And you are clearly a member in good standing of the nonprofit world. I totally get your “fuel.” I get it from emails like these 🙂 and from writing each week and also from teaching undergrads (when i get emails saying they have secured a rewarding job in the nonprofit sector, i get goosebumps!!!) and of course from working with clients. Welcome to the tribe!!!!

  7. I serve on a board for a nonprofit and work in communications for a nonprofit so I see both sides of what works and what doesn’t. Your posts are outstanding, Joan! I’ve shared so many with my fellow board members and with our ED, who is a rock star leader. Thanks for helping keep us all working together as a team and for you insightful advice to always be better.

  8. Colleen. I love writing this blog for exactly this reason. It appears that my advice is valuable to people and that subscribers often share my posts with fellow board members and fellow staff. And btw, great to hear that you have a rock star leader. I do hope he/she knows that the board feels that way!

  9. I have yet to read one of your posts that was not helpful in some way. Thanks for sharing the wisdom.

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