Getting Work Done

It’s always been said—truthfully I think—that if you want something done, ask the busiest person you know.  I know in my own life, the busier I truly am, the more productive I tend to be.  Yes, there is a point where I can cross the line from busy to frantic, but in all honesty, that doesn’t happen in reality as often as we say it does. The winter holidays are slower times for me and yet they are often the times when it is hardest for me to get things done.

A lot of that is because I think I have lots of time to do things, I procrastinate and leave stuff to the last possible minute.  And sometimes I have underestimated how long that thing will actually take.  Oftentimes it takes longer because the less I am doing, the less I am thinking about things, the slower I am at firing up my brain.  I’m not making the connections that I tend to make on a regular day.

Sometimes, slowing down is a good thing.  By not making those connections, I can actually see things that have been too long buried beneath the rest of my thoughts.   I can see things that I’ve missed.  But oftentimes I note that the less real work we have, the more work-like stuff we fill our time with, and the more we insist we are too busy to get real work done.

I was with a client the other day who spent most of our hour together deflecting everything—“I can’t focus on that, I’ve got this”—but this was something not germane to her job.  If she had stopped telling me how busy she was and simply focused on the task we needed to accomplish, we could have finished in 20 minutes.  In fact, it took us three times that long to get it done.  Sort of.

I say sort of because I have no confidence that she followed up on her tasks once I left.  I am pretty sure she tossed it aside muttering, “I’m too busy to do this,” and then spent more time trying to figure out just what she should have been doing (ignoring the fact that she had just tossed it aside).

“Idleness,” goes another old saying “is the devil’s playground.”  Certainly that can be true when it comes to work.  When I was a Vice President most of my time was booked with back to back meetings and I used to wish for an unscheduled hour so I could get some of my other work done.  But in those rare times when a meeting was cancelled, I spent most of that freed up hour trying to figure out what work I should tackle. On the other hand, the few un-meeting-ed hours I did have and scheduled to do something specific were always, without fail, productive.  I got done what I needed to get done and that felt really good.

Knowing this, on my better weeks, I actually calendar in things I would like to accomplish.  So my co-author, Bo Morton and I are writing a new version of our grants book.  We have no real deadline for this, so the updating has dragged.  This week we meet, defined what is left to do, and make a schedule.  We both know we can fudge on this so we promised each other that we would keep the other one on track.

In other words, to become the queen of clichés with yet another old saying, “Plan your work, and then work your plan.”  I know it works for me.  But first you have to acknowledge that, really, you are not too busy to sit down and figure out what you really have to do and identify what is work and what is work-like busy stuff that simply takes up your all too precious time.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and build stronger, more committed Boards.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for her free monthly newsletter.