There comes a day when you have no choice. You are going at full speed ahead and you are doing a great job, but there’s something wrong. You can’t quite pinpoint it – but something isn’t quite right – you can just feel it.
Chaotic days. Been there – done that – and I don’t choose to do it anymore. Running like crazy trying to get everything done each day without a great plan is way too tough…. and unfortunately the story of many a nonprofit!
Here’s my story, and what I did to fix the situation. I bet many of you have similar ones. I was solo here at TXNP for years doing everything from planning the newsletters and getting them ready for the home page/newsletter; serving our members with any help I could throw their way; communicating with foundation execs; designing new pages for the site; meetings, and the so on. My days began anywhere from 3AM to 5AM and I kept going as late as 10pm. I took tiny breaks to greet my wonderful husband Ben at night and would sit briefly while I inhaled dinner and then ran back to work. I could down and entire meal in about 3 minutes flat! My conversation of course was focused on TXNP, but I always tried to remember to ask a brief “How was your day dear? Good? Oh that’s great – ok –back to work for me – love you – later gater!” And friends – they would have to wait…did they understand? And exercise? Ha! There was no time! I came last.
Reacting was what I did every single day – 24/7. I responded to every single person who emailed TXNP – answering every question – answering each phone call, and learning to thrive on this limitless work. I was a machine and I was going great guns, feeling exhilarated by all I was doing and having the opportunity to meet all the interesting people who are making a difference in Texas. No one could have any idea how thrilling my days are!
But, if you looked closely, I was only keeping things status quo, just holding on, and because I had limited time in one 24 hour day, I couldn’t find any more time to think of creative new ideas to teach nonprofits, or come up with new ways to help our Texas constituency innovate or run more efficiently. The creative part of me was very sad because coming up with startling new ideas is my passion….I was stuck in a vicious cycle that was not focused. I was in a state of confusion…and I was tired.
Doing a Dump
And then, a magical moment happened. My daughter Emily visited with my husband Ben, and the two of them knowing that I was in a proverbial rut made a great plan for me. Emily traveled home from Los Angeles to save me, my sanity and breathe new life into TXNP. She knew that the project she had helped me start years ago had grown into something much greater than either of us had ever imagined. The potential for Texans was huge. But one small person trying to connect every Texan to help them succeed is not an easy task. I have always felt that nothing – absolutely nothing is impossible – and so I decided that although it was a hard task, it was very important to me. I continued on and waited excitedly for Emily to arrive to show me what I should do
Emily had learned the attributes of mind dumping in her Los Angeles office. The plan was that she would help me empty my brain of everything, and then my husband Ben, a strategic planner, would put all the pieces that Emily collected together and make some sense out of it.
The highly organized person she is, she watched me for a couple of days doing the things I normally did and finally when she couldn’t bear to watch me anymore, she sat me down in a very comfortable place and told me that we were going to do a dump session. Gratefully I nodded YES! Whatever! Let’s go! One major caveat was, “Just do not answer the phone and pay attention Mom!” she said. That was a tough order but I did what she said….painfully aware I might miss something or someone I should meet!
And then she asked these questions:
What do you need to do?
What you think you need to do?
What have you done?
And the big one…… Anything else? Oh come on!!!
We started and I was slow. I started panicking realizing that I was so ‘on overload’ that I couldn’t even remember what I did yesterday, much less what I needed to do today. Sensing this, Em encouraged me and said “Don’t limit yourself – just go with it – let it flow.” She continued encouraging me with simple questions and soon she didn’t have to ask me anything, I was on a roll – and everything I had ever done, needed to do, follow up on, every thought I had ever dreamed of, spoken of, heard and so on came flowing out.
Pages and pages of information later (I think over 25 pages!) she took the list and organized it into an orderly fashion. She advised me that I should update my dump list every single morning – removing what I had finished and adding all new items.
She gave a copy to me and a copy to Ben. He studied the list and then began to ask me more painfully good questions. I thought whoa – are Em & Ben in conspiracy to drive me crazy? So I quickly remembered this is my darling daughter and my precious husband …they do love me. And their goal is to help me and therefore spend more time with me.
Now that I had completely dumped my brain onto the table and put it in some sort of order – what came next? Where would we go with this information?
The Places We Will Go
So it was Ben’s turn to try to make some sense out of what I had created. He took Em’s notes and then started asking very difficult questions. I got very frustrated at times – but he patiently walked me through the maze.
He told us that in order to get somewhere you first have to know where you are going, and then you have to know how to get there. But, I argued that I had no idea exactly where we were going, so how could we do that? He said we would go through a process, but we would get there. So, we did one of his incredible strategic planning sessions.
We started out with the dump list that Emily had created and we created arbitrary priorities. Through this process we identified what the real priorities were and where we should focus our time to become the entity we dreamed of becoming.
Sampling of questions:
What is TXNP?
What is it’s mission?
Are you focusing on your mission?
Who do we serve?
What do we hope to accomplish?
What are our key services?
Are we good at what we do?
What are the daily things I do and why?
Could someone else do these things?
What do I actually really get accomplished at the end of the day?
Do these things that I do contribute to the betterment of TXNP and it’s members?
What do the people that TXNP serves need from us?
Why are we unique?
What services would we like to provide in the future?
How can we improve the services we already have?
What are the realities of every idea and what are the natural boundaries?
What are my dreams for the future?
After a while, we started to make sense of things – it took two full days – but we made a plan. Slowly but surely we are implementing our changes to better serve the nonprofit community of Texas.
We narrowed our scope and when Ben said, “Here is your list of things to do. Now, everyday I want you to organize your day around where you want to go.” And every year – or maybe twice, we will repeat this activity to make sure you have clarity about your goals, your mission, your target market. Voila! A strategic plan that is actually viable.
To Do List!
I am now at work by 7 or 8AM. I stop at 6PM. I am thrilled to hug my husband hello when he comes home. I stop for lunch with friends many times. And I am playing in the kitchen again cooking delicious meals – I always wanted to be a chef anyway. I get to talk to my children every day. I read and watch neat movies when I want. I have dinner with interesting friends. I still like to answer the phone at TXNP every single time I am available because I do not want to miss “touching” a single person who needs any assistance. And, I have the biggest smile on my face you have ever seen! I have joy and I know where I am going. I know where TXNP will be going as well. And you will not believe how cool it will be…hang on for a truly exciting ride!
I think I have just about reached Nirvana. And it’s all because I did a brain dump which led to a truly great plan of action. Take a deep breath! And now exhale……..you can do it too.