Every now and then, I feel like I’m caught in a human hamster wheel – racing from meeting to meeting, but wondering afterward – what did I really accomplish? When this happens, I pick up one of of my favorite, well-worn books, The Time Trap by R. Alec Mackenzie. We use it in the office not only as a skill-building tool on time management, but also a touchstone to remind us to use our time wisely. As Mackenzie notes, “Each of us already has all the time there is.” It is a great book that discusses how to manage yourself and others, get organized, block interruptions and delegate. This is also an instructive book for anyone who finds time management challenging. [Spoiler Alert: Mackenzie believes that the biggest culprit is your own behavior, not the behavior of others.]

How many of you can relate? We get to the end of the day and, though we felt we were “busy,” we realize we didn’t really accomplish anything? We get caught in what I call the “activity trap,” where, judging by your calendar, you can be really busy, but you aren’t accomplishing what you need or want to achieve. To make good time management even harder, being busy has become a status symbol in our culture. At one of my old jobs, people actually competed over who was busier. Now, busy is my new four-letter word. I just don’t say it anymore. In fact, its meaning has changed from “busy = I have lots of things going on” to “busy = I have lots of things going on and don’t have time for anything/anybody else.” This activity trap keeps you so “busy” that you fail to evaluate whether you are doing the right things.

The Time Trap got us thinking – what behavior is trapping the social sector? Building on Mackenzie’s foundation, we uncovered something simple, yet profound. Much of the social sector is driven by activities (e.g., meetings, reports, counseling sessions, case management, trainings). Activities are even a crucial component of logic models. But, believing that every activity is equally important spreads us too thin and limits our effectiveness. Likewise, believing that every activity leads to impact limits our success.

To combat this trap, we need to ask ourselves: Which activities drive our impact as professionals and organizations? Professionally, activity traps impair our ability to lead our teams effectively. For example, I have a client who struggles to find time to meet with her direct reports. I reminded her that these interactions are her MOST important activities and should be prioritized to discuss ideas, make decisions and assist with supervision. These meetings are the tasks on her calendar that should never be neglected.

Programmatically, we need to weigh activities against each other to determine which is most important. For example, if you are conducting a leadership academy for at-risk teenagers that has two components – classroom education on leadership and adult mentoring – ask yourself which component is more important. Although the components dovetail together, to maximize the impact of the academy you must decide which is more important, so that you can place more emphasis on that component.

In the same way that time can trap us, producing a lot of activities for our organizations to implement can lead us to falsely believe that we are making an impact. To combat the activity trap, we must take an honest look at our activities as professionals and simply experiment. If an activity within a program is not getting results, either improve it or subtract it from the program. If an activity is making a difference, consider how you can enhance its impact and get even greater results. We must monitor the whole program but also analyze each activity to ensure the greatest impact for the social sector. Additionally, if your organization’s meetings are part of the problem, consider whether they’re really needed or what you can do to improve them. As John Wooden said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” We think this is great advice. What do you do to stay on track? We would love to hear from you about your ideas on how to avoid the activity trap.

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