Zoe Amar: How charity leaders can use digital to be more productive

Regaining focus is a challenge that feels especially relevant in our sector as a way to stretch our precious time and money further - here's how to make it happen

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

Ping! As I sat down to write this article I was interrupted by a Slack notification from a client, followed by a WhatsApp message from a colleague and then a text message from my mum. The overload from constant multitasking now feels like a societal issue: how are we meant to get anything done when the digital landscape has made it both easier to be productive from anywhere and at the mercy of constant distractions?

With every charity leader I speak to working flat out in the run-up to Christmas, the more I think we could all be happier, get more done and feel less frazzled if we cracked this problem.

I was recently sent a press copy of Indistractible by Nir Eyal, a really interesting read on how to regain focus and be more productive. It’s a challenge that feels especially relevant in our sector as a way to stretch our precious time and money further, so I asked charity leaders to share their advice on both avoiding digital distractions and how they use digital to be more productive.

Tame your inbox

This was a common theme among the leaders I spoke to, many of whom had turned off their email notifications on their laptops and devices. People are increasingly setting tight parameters for managing email and others’ expectations.

Sophie Hobson, head of communications at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, told me: "In a really busy stretch, I’ll put an out-of-office on my inbox, saying I’m unlikely to reply before a certain date due to workload and to call me if it’s urgent."

Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group, told me that she swore by the 321zero rule for email, checking it three times a day for 21 minutes.

Choose your channels wisely

Is it really necessary to send that email, or would it be quicker to pick up the phone, or even go and talk to someone? Would instant messaging make it easier to find a solution as a group?

Many of the charity leaders I spoke to were using tools such as Slack or Facebook Workplace to talk to colleagues. Laura Dawson, a trustee at Charity IT Leaders, argued that online chats could help teams to solve problems together and create rapport.

Get the tech to work for you

Several charity leaders I spoke to were using Trello to plan operations with their teams, but also to share ideas, praising its visual appeal. Jonathan Chevallier, chief executive of Charity Digital, said he ensured he was on top of his to-do list by using a note taking app that syncs between his PC, phone and iPad.

Set boundaries

Some of the leaders I spoke to had strict rules about downtime and were exploring analogue ways of managing information. Vishnee Sauntoo, head of communications at Age International, said: "To avoid constantly browsing, I try not to use my laptop at the weekend unless it is necessary. I have an old-school notepad for lists and a handwritten journal. It's very therapeutic."

Focus on what energises you

Doing 12 different things on my phone at the same time feels stressful and unproductive. But if I focus on learning one thing at a time, such as reading a really good article all the way through or listening to a podcast, I feel motivated and excited.

Adeela Warley, chief executive of CharityComms, is a podcast fan. "I listen on my 30-minute walk in the morning," she told me. "I listen to a wide range, from the sector – Acevo, Lightful, Social Power, Third Sector, Do More Good – to the news."

If mindful tech is the secret of productivity, charity leaders need to see this as a core business skill.

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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