True productivity is NOT about doing more
Time is a product of the mind. In this episode, we break down what can impact your concept of time and how you can begin to have a more constructive relationship with time (and, ultimately, productivity).
Akua Nyame-Mensah is a certified executive and leadership coach, facilitator, speaker, and host of the Open Door Conversations Podcast. Akua works with leaders who are juggling a million responsibilities. She helps leaders clarify where they should focus their time and energy through her services. Find out more about her work at: https://www.akuanm.com/
Resources and links
- Guardian article on charity burnout
- Pro Bono Economics article on 7 in 10 charity leaders fearing staff burnout
- Structure & Process – What is productivity?
- The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time (Callender, 2011)
- Neuropharmacology of timing and time perception (Meck, 1996)
- Time estimation of fear cues in human observers (Grommet, et al., 2011)
- The impact of time perception processes on decision making under time stress (Zakay, 1993)
Hello, everyone, and welcome to this first edition of the Charity Professional Development Community’s 20-minute webinars. First of all, I want to start by thanking everyone attending for the work that you do for your respective charities. Today, we’re joined by Akua Nyame-Mensah, who’s going to talk to us about what time is, and how we can reevaluate our relationships with time. So, Akua, please take it away.
All right, well, first of all, thank you so much, Zac, for this opportunity, I’m really excited to share my perspective on this. And you know, I don’t have much time, so I’m really going to try to give everyone some real thoughts they can take away and some things they can implement right away. I’m just in the process of making sure I can share my screen, because I do have some slides that I wanted to share alongside it, for those of you maybe who are a little bit more on the visual side. So just making sure that we can get that on here.
But today, what I’m really talking about is the fact that true productivity is not about doing more. And as I put together this conversation, I wanted to make sure that I made it as relevant for those of you who are watching. So I made sure to go look at some charity statistics, specifically in the UK. And a lot of the things that I saw there, I think, are things that everyone around the world is probably experiencing. I really love cartoons and graphics. So throughout this conversation, I’m also going to have some cartoons and graphics. And I think this one really just illustrates how much productivity really is impacted by those around you.
And, as I looked into the charity sector in the UK, and how people talk about it, it’s definitely something that I also saw, and resources and statistics that I was able to find. And so the next two slides just really simply are really about how people are very much attached to their work. They really love what they do, but they also potentially could be drained. And I think that, for so many people that work within this sector, a lot of times it feels like, this shouldn’t be fast-paced, right? You don’t work within a private company, why is it that you’re tired? But the reality is, it’s still really hard work, and you’re doing really amazing things.
I then found this statistic, which I thought was really interesting, because right now all of us are overwhelmed, right? I think all of us are dealing with so many different things. And what this stat, really shows is that specifically, even in the UK, that there’s really this perfect storm of pressures, there’s so many things that are happening at the same time, beyond the pandemic, right? You know, so many more people need help so many more people don’t have the resources. And that’s also what we see in the charity sector as well. So as you know, I just wanted to use these really to buttress this conversation.
And, thinking about it from this perspective of time, and really recognising that how we feel about our time, and what we do with our eight hours has a massive impact on how we feel after those eight hours. And I always love to use the concept of eight hours because we tend to work about eight hours a day. So what are you doing with your eight hours? Just take a second to reflect on that. And how do you feel within those eight hours?
So, to begin – and this conversation, really, I think, is about productivity – but to begin, what is your definition of productivity?
For some of you, it might be around efficiency, for some of you, it might be about input and output. But what I would really love to recommend is that you take a second maybe to reframe or to create your own definition of productivity. And this is the initial one that I put together. But I realised though, for those of you who work, especially within the charity, or NGO sector, the fact that you’re contributing to your purpose actually might be an issue. So maybe we should add something here where it’s not just about contributing to your purpose, but making sure you’re not doing it at the detriment of your own health, your own well being your emotional, mental, mental and physical health.
There’s so many ways you can think about this. But I think the first step is really recognising that you get to decide what productivity means you get to define it for yourself. So really take a second to do that. So the main unit of measurement that we use to determine whether or not we’re productive is this concept of time. And in a few slides, I’ll share a little bit more about what that is, right? But really, it is actually made up.
But what is time and what is time management? For a lot of us time is about our ability to focus, whether we’re actually hitting deadlines, right? Are we distracted? But a part of being able to have good time management also includes taking care of yourself, right? And recognising that simply just working and trying to make money or trying to do things for other people without filling your own cup is not very helpful and not very sustainable.
So the key thing here – and this is something I recognised as I started getting more into working with productivity and time management – is that no one teaches us how to make the most of our time, but at the same time, our relationship with time has a direct correlation to results.
What is time? And as I mentioned before, time is actually kind of made up, there are three elements to time. There’s an element of the past, which is our memories, right? Sometimes shared, sometimes not. Interpretations of stories. There’s the future, what we think is gonna happen and assumptions. And then the point between those two is the present. And that’s actually a mental construct, which is somewhat between the past and the future.
Time is also manufactured in the mind, in our brains. And so there’s different elements within our brains that – together – create the single sensation of time, if we had a little bit more time in this conversation, I would actually do a quick little activity where we time one minute, and I give everyone the opportunity to open their eyes when they think one minute is up. What you will see by doing this activity is that not everyone will open their eyes at the same time, even though all of us have the same amount of time. Right? Why is it? Why would we open our eyes at different times? We would open our eyes at different times, because various things impact our concept of time.
Just a quick check – and I mentioned this before, about time and recognising that it has to do about the point between the future and the past – are you worried about the future? Is that something that worries you? Are you worried about the past? Noticing, right, what comes up for you as you think about the future, or as you think about the past? And I think a huge part of this is acknowledging and recognising that it’s okay. It’s okay if you’re worried about the future. It’s okay if you’re worried about the past. But it’s really important that you try to really focus on what you can actually change, which is the present, which is right now. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. And you can’t change the past. But what you can do is really plan for it in the present. And from my perspective, that’s what time management is all about.
And as we talk about time management in relationship to burnout, that’s what’s really important, changing something now. A key part of being able to do a good job of this is a concept called mindfulness. And this is a really long definition, I have my own definition, you can take a look at this, it’s about moment-by-moment awareness overall. But my definition, what I like to use with my clients, and what I try and keep in mind, is being aware of your past, but choosing to make the most of your present to maximise your future results. And that’s what for me, time management is all about, if you want to do something differently, it’s recognising that you are here right now.
Checking in with how you feel, and what can be done differently moving forward. There’s various things that can work. How you feel about time and can potentially work that ability to be mindful, right? Really simple. Stimulants, maybe drink a Red Bull or have some coffee, that could change once again, your relationship with time. Maybe if we did that time exercise of one minute, you’d open your eyes quicker, because you have this sense that things are happening faster.
Another thing that can warp time is your emotions. And, as I asked that question, are you worried about the present? Are you worried about the past? That can also change how you make decisions, right, that can also change your judgement, and change something that you’re willing to do. Any emotion will but on this slide, I just showed fear.
Another thing that can warp your sense of time is stress and illness. Not getting enough sleep, not having good emotional health can also have an impact on your ability to make decisions and judge time accurately. And studies show being able to judge others as well, being able to even figure out whether or not someone’s angry with you or happy with you, so even interpreting other people’s emotions.
This is just a really quick cartoon, I think that does such a great job of illustrating what happens right when we’re potentially warping our time, right? So when you feel good when you get enough sleep, right? When you’ve used your time for things to fill your cup. Work is so much easier, right? On the flip side, you can end up being very anxious, if you haven’t gotten enough sleep, right, or something happens and you’re not able to process it throughout the day.
Other things that could potentially have an impact your mindset, right? So really just recognising that how you feel towards something and that overall mindset that you use towards looking at a problem or challenge or issue could also have an impact on how you feel about time, and how you use time, and how you judge where your time is going.
And we’re going to take this a little step further and think a little bit more about what happens in terms of the threats and scarcity mindset or having a fixed mindset towards time and why this tends to happen a lot for us as human beings.
When we talk about this more fixed or scarcity mindset, there are three things that tend to pop up. We’re going to focus primarily on time. And I also think that bandwidth comes hand in hand with time, because that’s the primary unit that we use to measure whether or not we have the bandwidth is by talking about why don’t have the time for it. Right. But another element is also potentially fear.
And I love this really interesting way of thinking about it, which is thinking about it from the perspective of being time-poor or time poverty. Why is it such a problem for us? It’s a problem for us, because one of the things that we’ve been telling ourselves, and we tell each other, and based on the cultures that we’re within, is that scarcity motivation is necessary for us to move forward. Right? We feel that having less of something makes it easier for us to do it. I’m sure you’ve said to yourself, “I procrastinate, but I always get it done. I like that feeling of pressure I get at the last moment”. So recognising that there might be some level of truth to it. But it doesn’t mean that it’s something that you have to continue doing.
Another element of this is also recognising that by industry or the sector that you’re in, there may be more times in which this concept of scarcity motivation is leveraged or used. A work culture could potentially promote this. Maybe you’re not given the right resources to actually get your work done within a timely manner. Maybe everybody else in your office stays up late or is always there. So recognising some of this is driven by the culture that we’re in. But because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to.
Another reason why this is something that we have such a hard time with as human beings is because we are terrible at planning. Everything takes longer than we think it will. And most things cost more than we also think they will as well. So recognising that naturally as human beings, we procrastinate, or we like to tell ourselves, we need to procrastinate. And we’re in cultures where this is something that’s not only acceptable but potentially rewarded. But we’re also really bad at planning.
Alright, so recognising these two things are recognising how we tend to show up, what can we do differently moving forward? The first is really recognising that even if we’re within a culture, that doesn’t necessarily promote healthy balance, and once again, you get to define that for yourself, we can always try to reframe things, right? You don’t feel comfortable enough to do that, that might not be the best environment for you in the long run. So recognising something that you’re willing to do at 25 is maybe something that won’t work for you at 30, or 35. So these are just some quick examples of potentially shifting a story that you’ve told yourself about what’s possible, telling yourself, “I don’t have time to go to the gym”, and maybe shifting that to “my physical health is a priority, and I want to operate at my fullest potential, I’ll be better at work if I work out, I’ll feel better about myself, I’ll be nicer to other people if I work out”. Keeping all those things in mind can really help you show up and be a lot more effective, make better decisions, and to have better judgments.
Another thing you can keep in mind is defending personal priorities with boundaries. And boundaries are not the easiest things to do. But really just recognising that by having boundaries. And getting really clear on when you enjoy working when working on certain items makes the most sense to you can really help to make sure you’re showing up and being really effective and productive however you want to define it.
Another thing I always recommend when it comes to thinking about productivity and time management, is blocking your rest and breaks first, making sure that your holidays are in there, blocking out your calendar for lunch if necessary. And recognising that you don’t need to work hard to get a break.
In terms of thinking about planning, right, we’re human beings. So just remind yourself that things tend to take longer and might be more expensive. And just keeping those two things in mind can help you go really, really far.
So some key takeaways. Time is a product of the mind and can be impacted by how you feel. Time is also very cultural. We compare ourselves to others and, for the most part, have learned that time is against us. But we can unlearn these stories. We can unlearn these perspectives, and shift our mindset if we’re intentional. Thank you so much.
Amazing. Thank you, Akua. I’m interested about our relationship with time and how that relates to burnout. So I wondered if you could speak a little bit on that, because I think it’s something that in the charity sector we’re all quite aware of, especially in the current climate.
Yeah, I think it’s such a good question. And as I was putting together this presentation, I actually thought to myself, “maybe I should have shared something more about burnout”. But I think burnout is such a complex topic, that 20 minutes wouldn’t do justice to it. And that’s why I wanted to focus really in on one particular element of burnout, which is more about what they describe as workforce management.
A huge part about burnout is actually being able to manage the amount of work that you’re doing in relation to the amount of rest that you do. And to me, productivity is really about that piece. But there’s six basic elements to thinking about burnout, I’m not going to know all of them off the top of my head, but workload management is one of them.
Another one also is a sense of fairness. And so this is why I think, you know, when we think about the charity sector, it’s such an interesting topic, because in the case of the charity sector, a lot of people are very connected to what they do, right? There’s a sense of fairness and justice to a certain extent about what they do for others, but maybe not within the organisations they work with.
So, it’s a sense of fairness and justice, workload, workload management, what else is part of it, like I said, there’s six elements to it. And I’m blanking on the rest. But there’s also sort of just this element of feeling like you’re getting what you need in exchange. So there’s an element of recognition as well, sometimes. And once again, within the charity sector, you tend to get that recognition in some ways, maybe not monetarily, but you might get that recognition. And that feeling of “this feels good”. So then it makes it feel weird when you’re saying, “Hey, I don’t have the capacity to actually work more”. It’s even harder for you to take yourself away, because there’s all these feel-good hormones that do come from the work that you do, in addition to actually having an amazing impact as well.
But burnout really is, you know, it’s more than stress, right? It really is a prolonged sense of disconnection – a lot of times – from what you’re doing, so you end up going from being maybe potentially very excited to maybe quite upset and annoyed to then apathetic. So, you sort of go through this three-step process. And it comes from feeling like things aren’t fair, you’re not getting the recognition, you don’t necessarily have as much control over your workload, and those types of elements. And, as I said, once again, the charity sector, I feel like that’s quite difficult because you might feel really good about what you do, but what you’re getting in return and the rest that you’re able to get might not be there. So it might look very different, burnout within the charity sector might look very different to burnout for someone who works within a bank.
No, I think that’s right. And I think you touched on in the talk, and just then as well about setting those boundaries for rest. And I think that’s very important. And I think for me, it’s something which I’ve struggled with, when I’ve set boundaries, about making sure that I keep them and I wonder if you have any very quick-fire practical tips for how you interact with someone who’s perhaps encroaching on those boundaries, you know, maybe you set up an afternoon for deep work, and someone wants to set a meeting, how do you politely decline those sorts of meetings?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And that’s why, as I was putting this together, I thought it was very important to also mention the cultural aspect of it, or the work environment aspect of it, because that’s really big. It’s going to depend on the culture, the environment that’s being set. How you respond, or how you set those boundaries might look different depending on where you are within that organisation, right? So I do executive leadership coaching. So that’s typically a little different. A lot of times I’m working with people who could say no, but they just don’t. So if you could say no, but you just don’t, what you need to do is get very clear on the yeses in the noes, and then leverage tools to help you with that.
An example would be, you have a calendar, if someone wants to actually have a conversation with you, you use the calendar, you don’t use the calendar, “I’m really sorry, please use the calendar”. So that’s usually one of the easiest ways to do that. But that’s a lot easier if you’re at the top of the food chain. If you aren’t at the top of the food chain, I think a key part will be understanding how to have that conversation based on the values of the organisation. So, as you go in, potentially, to talk to someone who might be above you, letting them know it’s in their best interest for you to have that boundary. So maybe you’re not saying it in the light of, “hey, like, this is my boundary”, but like, “hey, I have x, y, and z I need to get done, I’d really love to do it in a timely manner. The only way that it’s possible for me to do that is by making sure that this time is dedicated to x, y, and z”. So it’s more about communicating with that person based on something that’s going to resonate with them. And that will make sense to them to a certain extent. So, there’s something in it for you, if I have this boundary, but you’re not saying it’s a boundary necessarily. But if you’re at a higher level, “this is my boundary”, you can do that. But a lot of this is modelled by those above you and that’s why, when we talk about burnout, and we talk about time management – and even as I read more and more about the charity sector in the UK, even one of the pieces I had in there, I didn’t read all of it, but it seems like everybody does this – and because everybody does it, you also get wrapped up into feeling like that’s the right way to do it. And the reality is that there’s no ‘one right way’. And if everyone does it that way, everyone’s going to be burnt out. Nothing, in the long run, is going to get done.
Yep, I absolutely love that. Thank you for those practical tips. And that wraps us up. 20 minutes go so fast. Thank you so much Akua, that was fantastic. So for those of you listening, if you want to find out more about Akua’s work, then you should check out her podcast. It’s called Open Door Conversations, where she and her guests share actionable insights on issues that distract all of us as leaders, but that we don’t usually talk about publicly. It’s a great podcast, I recommend that you check it out. And if you want to find out more about us, then head on over to ChPD.Co; the domain name is the same as our abbreviated name, and I’m super proud of myself for that domain name purchase, not gonna lie. Okay. Thank you so much. And we will see you next time and we’ll put the next webinar on our LinkedIn page, another plug. So thank you so much.