Want to find time for what matters? The 21 Day Timehacker Project matches readers with coaches who help them find time for their most important goals.

DAY ONE:

Erin Marteal wants to move her busy, overworked staff to a four-day work week. “I want to make time for dreaming, exploration, rejuvenation, reflection — all the things we know are so important for productivity but always get pushed to the side because of the urgency of the moment,” she said.

Marteal is the executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Garden in Ithaca, N.Y., a three-acre play and outdoor education space. In the past five years, she has overseen its rapid growth from a one-person, $40,000-budget operation to a 25-person shop in the summer operating on a $400,000 budget.

Nonprofits are notorious for employing passionate people willing to put countless hours in long after they’ve clocked out. As a staff member who almost worked myself to burnout — at 70 to 80-plus hours a week on average — I have learned the value of stepping back and allowing time for other important areas of life, like family, friends, health and pursuit of recreation and learning new things,” Marteal said. “This balance rejuvenates me as a person and adds considerably to what I can put into my work.”

She wants not only to improve her and her harried staff’s quality of life, but to also serve as a role model to other overworking nonprofits. “I’d like to think that our success in this could demonstrate that exhausting hours are not beneficial for longevity and sustained productivity… And to really do that, I need to become extremely proficient with time management, and be able to bring those skills to my staff.”

THE TIMEHACKS:

[Related: This young recruiter learned that his lack of focus masked a deeper problem: He’d outgrown his job. Here’s what he did]

Marteal worked with Washington, D.C.,-based Terry Monaghan, of Time Triage. After the first conversation, Marteal realized that what she needed was much more than just a few time management tips. Here’s what she and Monaghan worked on:

1. RIGHT-SIZE YOUR SPACE: When Monaghan worked with Marteal to get a handle on the volume of work coming in, Monaghan suggested the team map out their annual plan month by month and put big sheets up around the office for everyone to see, the better to keep the plan constantly in mind as new projects came in, to better gauge whether the team could take on more work.

When Marteal said there was no wall space to put up even one such sheet, she realized the operation had outgrown its space, and that was a big part of the problem of feeling overloaded. People were digging around in piles to find stuff. There were constant distractions. Marteal realized they needed a bigger office.

“Sometimes what looks like a time problem is actually more of a space problem,” Monaghan said.

2. BLOCK TIME FOR THE BIG STUFF: Marteal felt that, though the team is passionate about the work they do, their days often fill up with a cascade of urgent items on their To Do lists. Monaghan suggested blocking time to work on big projects and proposals with far-off deadlines, putting it on team calendars and signaling that people were unavailable.

“They’re working on so many projects, with so many moving parts that they are always rushing around, with no time to think strategically or reflectively,” Monaghan said. “You end up spinning your wheels, running from fire to fire, and having people work on tasks that are not the highest priority.”

3. MINIMIZE DISTRACTIONS: Monaghan suggested that, until they moved to a bigger space, the team get headphones, both to stay focused in the cramped office and to let others know — “Headphones on means ‘I’m uninterruptible.'”

4. STICK TO THE PLAN: With the annual plan mapped out and on display, realize that if you take on more work, unless you find more people, another project has to go, or the volume of work will continue to ratchet up.

5. HAVE HONEST CONVERSATIONS: Like at most nonprofits, staff and board members are passionate about what they do and are always coming up with ideas for new projects and ambitious growth. Monaghan suggested they have honest conversations about what was realistic for an organization of their size.

DAY 21:

By the time I caught up with Marteal, she had set aside quiet time on a work retreat to create a proposal for new office space right on the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, within walking distance of the garden, instead of a 20- to 30-minute drive through traffic. The bigger office will give them space  to hang up their annual plan to manage their work flow, and the proximity to the garden means they can begin offering after-school programs, which will help bring in more revenue.

She’s begun blocking time on her own calendar to work on big projects and has stopped responding immediately to texts. “I’m seeing that when I don’t respond right away, people are solving their own problems,” Marteal said.

In fact, she agreed to talk to me during a rare meeting on a four-day work retreat. When I had e-mailed her, this was the response she sent:

In the midst of a wonderful, event-filled month, I have escaped Ithaca on a mini retreat to work on catching up on some important grant reports, as well as to move a couple of new projects forward. I will be checking email intermittently, and may not respond until I return at week’s end.  If you need a more timely reply, please mark “urgent” in subject line.

Thank you for your patience.

Erin

She’s already begun telling staff that she is no longer available for meetings on Fridays. And, beginning in the fall, she’s planning what she calls “Fire Fridays,” giving the fifth day of the week a little structure, to give her staff the “permission” they’ll need NOT to come into the office to work or to spend the day trying to get ahead. She got the idea from reading a poem about how a fire burns brightest when there’s space and air between the logs.

The First Friday: Do nothing work-related.

Second Friday: Focus on professional development.

Third Friday: Reading and writing. Get inspired, learn something new, and reflect.

Fourth Friday: Community service, or collaboration on a project with another nonprofit. “We would go in with the idea that it would be a team-building activity,” Marteal said. “Something that would serve to get us up and out of our To Do list and gazing at our own navel all the time.”

“I knew we wouldn’t shift to a four-day work week in 21 days, but I can see the road map toward getting there,” she said. “The time hacks are already having a profound impact on the staff. I’m realizing that if we spend our days feeling busy and overwhelmed, our whole life feels that way. But if we spend our time doing things that are important, we can look back at the end of our lives and feel really good about how we spent our time.”

TERRY MONAGHAN’S TOP TIP: Put everything up on a BIG wall calendar so you can always see the big picture. We spend too much time focusing very narrowly on whatever the crisis du jour is, and can lose sight of the big picture. Have the whole team present to the bigger picture.

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