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Saturday, January 20, 2018

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I fidget, you fidget, we all fidget.
Tom Ahern

May, 2010

I sometimes wonder if Americans are in danger of over-diagnosis. Will breathing one day be medically termed "oxygen shortage syndrome"? And Big Pharma has a pill for that.

So I hesitate to claim ADHD, a challenging disorder. I've seen the real thing. That's not me.

What I am is fidgety. Normal, garden-variety fidgety.

fidgeting and gardening go well together. I'll wander outside 10 times during a sunny, breezy workday to complete minor garden chores: weed a few feet of the stone front walk, bust off all the dried stems in a perennial bed, shovel some pails of overburden off my magma outcrop....)

Fidgety? You, too? Let's talk time management.

First rule: Attend fewer meetings.

In a typical year, aside from training gigs, I am physically in the presence of a client ... almost never. And that, as it turns out, is a good thing from a time-management standpoint.

This week, for instance, I'm working on projects for nonprofits in Vancouver, Seattle, San Diego, San Antonio, Houston, DC, Virginia, Hartford, San Francisco, New York state, and Rhode Island, my home for the past 45 years. Traveling to most clients is simply out of the question: my time and their budgets do not permit.

Which has had a surprising result, I recently realized: I am far more productive as a consultant than I ever was as an employee. And why? Well, a major cause is I attend almost no physical meetings.

I complete around 35 major projects per annum. Direct mail appeals. Case statements. Newsletter upgrades. Website overhauls. Audits. The work -- research, discussion, review -- is handled almost exclusively by phone, email, and marked-up PDFs. When we do talk, the clients and I, we have crisp, to-the-point exchanges.

I'm in the completion business. I'm paid to produce stuff. Organizations, I've observed, are often in the process business. They love their meetings. They love the intrigue around who gets invited to which meetings. It can be a horrible approach toward getting things done.

I recently watched a client try to get down to the essential work of exchanging the broken old ways it had used up to now for better ways, that will guarantee its future.

And what was the biggest obstacle to getting this change accomplished, in this 25-employee agency? Senior executives had literally no available room on their calendars. They absolutely, positively could not fit in one more meeting, no matter how crucial. They were already meetinged-out.

Stop laughing. It's true.

Here's my encouraging word: Go to half as many meetings this year. Next year, go to half as many again.

Post a note on your computer to remind yourself. Establish a personal MMA (monthly meeting allowance). Set it to five meetings a week at most. One a day. Like the vitamin.

Second rule: Buy yourself a timer.

My day advances in 30 minute increments.

Every 30 minutes, my timer goes off. It's an old and dirt-simple Timex kitchen timer. It's plastic, appliance white, runs on one AAA battery. It has just three buttons: minutes, seconds, stop/start.

It prevents me from having bad (okay, worse) habits. When the timer goes off, I can spend a few minutes checking my email. When the timer goes off, I can spend a few minutes checking the stock market. And so on. When I'm on a big project and need expanses of uninterrupted time, I set my trusty timer to 75 or 90 minutes. And apply my nose directly to the grindstone until I hear the beep-ity-beep.

At which point, Mr. Fidget dons his gardening gloves.

Third rule: Set daily goals.

I don't remember which guru drilled this into my noggin; probably all of them. It's a back-to-basics item.

Every day, get at least one worthwhile thing accomplished. When you approach your desk, know are far you are going to get that day.

Take the next step in an important project. Call a donor and chat. Schedule a key informant interview. Outline an appeal letter. Read a book in your field.

For me, a worthwhile thing is any small-to-medium-sized step in the right direction. In my work, writing the first draft of a direct mail appeal is a worthwhile thing. Writing a chapter for my next book is a worthwhile thing. Brainstorming the contents of a donor newsletter with a client is a worthwhile thing.

I try to complete at least three worthwhile work-related things every day. In a five-day week, I'll accomplish 15 worthwhile things. In a month, 60. In a year, 720. Collateral advantage? I never miss deadlines since I adopted this habit.

>>> Takeaway>>> A few simple time management practices can significantly improve productivity, especially for the fidgeters among us.

Tom Ahern can be found at


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