Fundraisers would be wise to make a conscious choice to prioritize deep work—then follow that up with a concrete plan for doing so.
Deep work isn't a luxury to be engaged in when you have lots of free time. Instead, it's a necessity for getting important things done in a busy advancement office. Before you write me off as a Cal Newport junky, let me relate my own experience.
At one point in my career, I faced a looming deadline and a massive list of tasks. To tackle this situation, my first step was to find a paper desk calendar and block out the eight weeks remaining before the deadline. Each day got a square, and every week a row. I started by scheduling the projects with firm due dates. Next came high-priority items, followed by everything else. Each project was written down on a specific day or week, depending on how long it would take to complete. The visual timeline made it obvious when a particular week was full, and it was time to move on to the following week.
After scheduling my work for the next eight weeks, there were some tasks left over. But now I had the clarity—and the concrete evidence—to realize that they wouldn't all fit. Armed with this information, I presented the situation to my superior. My supervisor looked over my calendar plan, agreed with my assessment of the situation, and gave me permission to focus on the most high-priority items. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when she removed me from some daily time-consuming assignments (shallow work) that had been impeding my progress towards other, more important scheduled projects (deep work).
I now had the breathing room to focus on major writing projects and say "no" to additional assignments. My supervisor reviewed my progress on a weekly basis (I gave her a copy of the plan), which motivated me to avoid distractions and show that she was right to reduce my workload.
The plan paid off. Day by day and week by week, I made steady progress through my scheduled assignments. Not every day or week went perfectly according to plan, but there was enough flexibility to catch up after a slow week or work ahead when some projects moved faster than expected. What’s more, when I finished scheduled projects on time or even early, I was able to take on a few additional tasks authorized by my supervisor. At the end of those eight weeks, I had actually accomplished more than anticipated. Deep work had delivered in a big way.
Admittedly, that shallow work didn't disappear. It still had to be done, but someone else was doing it. Having devoted a lot of time to that work myself, I could appreciate their work more empathetically, which I did my best to express to them. And instead of attempting to do more but accomplishing less because I was overloaded, I could focus on completing my scheduled assignments, which helped my colleagues do the same. Specialization can be good for the entire team.
Here's a humbling fact: I could have—should have—done this assessment of my workload earlier. Instead, I'd spent months slogging through an endless list of projects, perpetually hopeful (or perhaps delusional) that next week I would definitely get to that difficult assignment that required more focus. But it was always easier to get mired in the "urgent but unimportant" quadrant made famous by Stephen Covey.
The problem with urgent requests is that they make us feel important in the moment, even when they're detrimental to essential long-term projects. Humans are social. We want to please our tribe. If we're focused exclusively on relationships, it can feel like a betrayal to say "no" or even to wait to respond to an email.
Yet relationships can be nurtured in many ways. Consistency might not provide the immediate gratification a quick response does, but it pays off in the long run. I didn't ignore all my emails during this eight-week period, but I did view them as something to deal with after completing my deep work for the day on scheduled projects. My supervisor and colleagues were understanding, and I'm grateful to them. A supportive team makes all of this easier!
Deep work requires that we "face the productivity dragon," a phrase from Cal Newport's podcast, Deep Questions. It means that we have to adopt a reasonable plan rather than just push things down the road. That reckoning can be hard, even scary. But facing the situation systematically gives us the information necessary to negotiate in order to reshape our workload, make real progress, and succeed.
Note for other Newport fans: I've combined a few concepts here, including deep work, multi-scale planning, and daily time-blocking. Also, I think we need a drawing of the productivity dragon . . .