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Work Burnout | You Don’t Have to Work 100+ Hours a Week to Be a Great Leader

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Last week, I was talking to a new coaching client about how I have recently gone through a dramatic shift schedule-wise since starting to home-school my three kids. In January, I was working 40 + hours/week, and then just like that in February, I was working 20 hours max.

In less than four weeks, I cut 20 hours of work out of my schedule without my life falling in pieces around me. She asked me how in the world I could do that on such short notice, and whether I thought it would be possible for her to do the same thing. My response? Absolutely.

If you’re a nonprofit leader working more than 40 hours per week, I want to stake a very bold claim—you’re working harder than you have to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of working hard at something you believe in, but I’m not a fan of amazing, talented leaders wasting their time on tasks that don’t help move their organizations toward their ultimate goals.

With that in mind, if you've been battling work burnout and are exhausted, here are five things you can do right now to begin getting your life back under control.

1. Simplify your schedule

Imagine that you started a work schedule where you could literally work only half the hours that you’re working now. What would you cut from your routine? I think a lot of us end up working crazy hours because we’re just used to filling every hour with tasks and never really stop to think whether said items are really paying off.

Examples of how this might look in your life:

  • Work from home instead of commuting 45 minutes to and from work each day.
  • Pre-schedule meetings with your staff and volunteers instead of using the pop-in-and-sit-down-anything-goes meeting system.
  • Decide on an “end” time for your day. Knowing that the clock stops at 6:00 pm (for example) will help you work smarter and make better time management choices.

2. Work “Lean”

At the Lean Impact conference this year, I was introduced to a leadership philosophy that is revolutionizing the social-impact sector—being “Lean.” If you haven’t heard of this approach before, it is simply a growth strategy centered around helping you and your organization reduce wasted time, money, and effort while simultaneously increasing value to your clients and stakeholders. Learn more about Lean Impact here.

Examples of what being “lean” might look like in your organization:

  • Let go of some projects. Gradually eliminate campaigns and programs that have little to no ROI (but take up a lot of your time).
  • Test before you commit. Test the viability of your ideas using a segment of your marketing target before doing a full-out launch.
  • Focus on feedback. Set up systems whereby you are continuously getting feedback from your stakeholders and are then able to adjust your approach as you grow.

3. Use technology effectively

Technology is one of those things that will make or break you as your organization’s leader. We are inundated with information and it will drown us (and our productivity) if we let it. Ultimately, technology is a tool and shouldn’t rule your life or contribute to your work burnout.

Examples of how to use technology effectively:

  • Upgrade as needed. For example, instead of using Excel spreadsheets to track your potential donors, research free online contact management tools that will help you track your relationships with these individuals with much more ease and professionalism.
  • Let go of technology. Turn your phone notifications OFF and then only check your email twice/day at pre-determined times.
  • Schedule your time online. Have people book 1:1 time with you via an online scheduling/appointment program that syncs to your Google calendar across all your devices. Personally I love Calendly.

4. Strengthen your volunteer program

I think because effective volunteer management is very time intensive, a lot of nonprofit leaders avoid strategic volunteer development and ultimately leave recruitment, retention, and recognition to chance. You cannot do it alone and you will kill yourself trying. Period.

You may not be able to afford to hire the team you need but probably have people you know who would be willing to put some time in to help advance your cause. Without knowing what talent you need, what you want them to do, and what outcome you’re looking for from their time investment, a lot of everyone’s time will be wasted. 

Simple ways to strengthen your volunteer program:

  • Meet 1:1 with your key volunteers. Find out what they want out of volunteering for your organization. You may find out that they have a unique talent you need and that they have more hours they could commit to the cause.
  • Set up a simple communication system. This will help everyone feel involved and heard. Facebook groups work well and email newsletters are also great.
  • Recruit strategically. Know what talent you need and then actively pursue finding someone to fill that role instead of just leaving it to chance that you find someone.

5. Stay focused on sustainability

I know it’s a cliché, but building your organization is a marathon (not a sprint). Mentally allow at least three years for you to figure out who you want to help, what problem you want them to help you solve, how they can do it, and how to market your idea to others. If you're experiencing work burnout, you are not good to anyone, and your vision for your cause will flame-out right along with you. You owe it to your vision to take care of yourself and work at a realistic pace.

 Examples of how to work sustainably:

  • Sleep 8+ hours/night. Don’t be a hero. Set yourself up for success every day by being well rested and positive.
  • Say “no” more than you say “yes.” Be very picky about the projects you invest your time in while you’re getting yourself organized. Stay true to your core mission and keep things simple.
  • Take weekends off and have some fun (even if you don’t want to). To stay in the leadership game, you gotta keep things in perspective and get outside of yourself sometimes.

Combating work burnout requires a proactive approach centered around making necessary and strategic changes to your work schedule. By acknowledging the signs of burnout and taking deliberate steps to address them, your can regain control over your professional life and cultivate a healthier work-life balance.

Not only will you start to feel a noticeable shift in how you think about your organization's goals, but you'll also find yourself achieving them more concretely! It's a win-win.


About the Author | Natasha Golinsky is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits – an online training company dedicated to equipping new nonprofit executive directors with the skills and support they need to enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers.

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