Planning to Plan for the Important Work

A visual year planner is a great helpA board member said this to me: ?Your problem will always be that the urgent outshouts the important.? How totally true, and how can a good director both decide which is which and then, know what to do with each?

There is a grading of work that must ebb and flow throughout your days and weeks that acts as the filter for your focus. This grading system needs to inform what you allow yourself to do and not do throughout your week and your day. Yes, for sure when there is a screaming customer on the phone, your strategic planning may have to wait, but with the vast amount of stuff on your desk each morning, how to choose what to do first?

You can only focus on so many things and if you are to move your business forward in a way that doesn?t feel like treading water, you?ve got to figure out which are the right, important, things. But it is really tough to figure out what is urgent, what is important and how to make the distinction. Then how do you satisfy two masters (or mistresses?)

Blue Sky

At the top of the pyramid is what you want your blue sky to be – the biggest, furthest out there goal you can have. It?s the big thing you know you want your business to become, even if you?re not really sure today how you?ll get there. This is what you want to be, eventually. Maybe this is your vision statement, maybe it is the ultimate goal toward which you are working, but it is the magnet that draws you to work every day. Define, it, draw it, see it. All whales live to a ripe old age; all shelters are no kill; certain diseases are easily cured; everyone learns to read; pollution into lakes is prohibited forever.

If you can?t see this goal, even in the distance, it is hard to put up with the other stuff you have to deal with along the way. Keep it in mind. As a nonprofit Executive I kept a picture that I felt represented my ultimate goal above my desk.

Priorities: Must Do This Year

Break your planning down using this pyramidThere is always just so much to do- where to start. Start with being clear on the 3 or 4 things you would like to see that you have done come December. Sometimes looking back is a little easier than looking ahead. Don?t start with the global,that is for the step above. What are 4 things, one each quarter, that you NEED to do to advance your purpose and mission? Be realistic, you can?t really do more than that and have a true hope to getting where you want. Be sure to include mistake time, sick time, review time. Setting up too many goals will only frustrate you. Really accomplishing fewer things well is better than attempting many not well.

One barometer that is useful when considering what to commit to do and what to wait and reconsider, is to measure the effort and outcome alongside those very ideals you have listed. Is the event going to get you closer? Does it reflect what you want it to say about who you are and what you do? If so, answer easy. If not, maybe put off for the next planning session.


Everyone is familiar with the idea of using goals and objectives, but few know really how to use them as a way to track progress; take stock of the status periodically throughout the life of the project. For instance, if one of your goals is to produce a brochure, when do you want it to be distributed, which means when it needs to go to the printer, which means when the copy needs to be proofed and images prepared. This backwards process will also help to create a timeline which will help you schedule.

As you list each goal, list the time you think it will take to accomplish the intermediate steps. Suddenly you have a calendar!

A good way to use this calendar is to create stops along the way to let you assess just how on track you are: are the projects getting done:

  • Is the next step ready to go, is the response you seek coming in?
  • Assess: do we keep going, do we need to tweak something, and if so, what?
  • Do we need to pull the plug?

If you allow yourself the time to check on your progress, you allow yourself the opportunity for making the best decisions for the project AND its goal. The mark of good leadership is having the vision to see what needs to be done, even if change or cancellation is one of those options. Leadership requires courage and courage requires good information.


To complete each priority: the fundraiser, the brochure, the new website, the annual fund goal, you need to have the actual work, the basic project designed to achieve each goal. And within each of those projects are more subprojects. The clearer you can be about identifying the elements of the project and who will do what by when, the better overall grasp you can maintain.

I find it very helpful to have one of those big calendars that allows you to see the year overall and then breaks the year into quarters. Adding due dates here will show quite clearly how work can pile up and better, how it may be more manageably planned.

For me, the big visual picture can frighten me into a sense of urgency a series of dates will not.

Jobs / Tasks / To Do List

Within each project is its elemental work. If the project is a brochure, the tasks maybe images, texts or proofreading. If the project is an event, the tasks may include venue determination, budget creation, invitations, and so on. Tasks and jobs create the to-do list, and these need to point toward the endpoint, delivering the project. As this list is created, a simultaneous timeline is created. How long it will take to accomplish each part, assure quality, fix if necessary!, and sign off. When any project is broken down this way, the element of time is included, and where necessary, compression can be applied. It?s better to plan rather than pull an all-nighter!

By categorizing your work it is easier to see what fits where and when that decision of urgent vs. important can be addressed. Unless you plan with your ultimate conceptual goal, your practical do-able goals and how the whole shooting match is going to work, progress is tough to achieve. The hideout for this problem is often busywork, which passes the time but at the end of the day, offers you little to show in terms of true accomplishment and progress.

It can be challenging to figure out what is realistic and what is not, why not let us help you chart your own course for this year? Contact us or call me on 310 828 6979 and we will help you organize your goals, projects and calendar- we can even help figure in the budget.

Cindy Lauren - Lauren Associates - non profit consultingCindy Lauren is the Principal of Lauren Associates – non profit consulting

As well as advising Executives and Boards on all aspects of nonprofit management, the firm specializes in developing fundraising solutions for all sizes of organizations.

Connect with Cindy: Twitter, Linkedin, Quora

Image Credits:
9.24.08 by Suz Grace on Flickr