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4 ways to thrive under pressure

Written by: Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman
Published on: Jan 8, 2024

thriving under pressure - PeopleImages Yuri Arcurs

(Image: Yuri Arcurs / PeopleImages)

Working at a nonprofit can feel like being in a pressure cooker. Trying to manage huge workloads with limited resources can easily trap us into thinking that the answer is working nights and weekends after a full day at the office. The truth is, overworking will not only steal your ability to focus, but ultimately zap your energy.

We’ve all heard the advice to “put your oxygen mask on first.” We may call it cliché, but that simple statement is probably the most powerful piece of advice you’ll ever hear about the importance of taking care of yourself if you want to take care of others.

Here are some tips for better self-care, taken from our book The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout:

  1. Take care of self-care basics.
    Every human being depends on what we refer to as the Wellness Triad, the three most essential needs for optimal health and peak performance: sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

    How do you get good and sufficient sleep when there’s so much to do? Rather than stay up late trying to get things done, then collapse from exhaustion – or wake up in the middle of the night panicked about what we didn’t get done – try a bedtime ritual. Taking a bath, reading, sipping herbal tea, meditating, or other calming activities can quiet your brain and allow you to settle. Make a sleep schedule and stick to it, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t fall asleep immediately.

    In terms of nutrition, the smallest changes can transform your energy levels and your ability to both think and rest. Cutting down on caffeine and sugar can literally change your life, and drinking more water can help you avoid the energy ebb of dehydration. It’s also easy to replace packaged snacks with fresh fruits and vegetables: Put a fruit basket at your desk or in the break room to prompt yourself and others to snack well.

    In terms of exercise, adding any type of movement to your day can invigorate you – and could save your life. (According to author and Mayo Clinic Solutions Initiative Director James Levine, “Sitting is the smoking of our generation.”) Buy a standing desk – or set one up using books, crates, or other on-hand objects – so you can alternate between sitting and standing. Set an alarm reminding you to stand up and stretch at regular intervals. If you’re on the phone a lot, switch to a mobile phone so you can walk around while talking. Hold “walking meetings,” bringing people together to stroll around the office while discussing work.

  2. Completely unplug.
    The ubiquity of mobile devices has made us increasingly mindless about how often we use them. Tech wellness starts with greater awareness of how devices interfere with our relationships and attention spans. Shut off your device when you are in a meeting, unless you are using it to support your participation.

    A few changes at home can also have a positive impact on well-being. Set up an out-of-the-way charging station, and leave your devices there so they don’t interfere with after-work unwinding. Keep your smartphone and other electronics out of the bedroom so you can relax at night. Don’t use your smartphone as an alarm clock, especially because you’ll be tempted to check it the moment you wake up, starting the cycle of mindless device use all over again.

  3. Take real breaks.
    Your body and brain need downtime to replenish your energy, so make your breaks count. Don’t use your computer keyboard as a lunch tray: Walk away from your work and step outside. Just a few minutes can refresh and reset your brain.

    If you’re accumulating vacation time without taking it, you’re not only hurting yourself, but your organization as well. Use your vacation time to completely disconnect from work, emails, and the mobile devices that connect you to them. Invest in a camera to take vacation photos so you can leave your smartphone tucked away.

    In both cases, you’ll return to work with more focus, energy, clarity and perspective, which will serve your organization far better than working late and scrambling to get ahead.

  4. Set boundaries at work.
    You may not be the boss at your organization, but you are the boss of you: Stand firm when a work request interferes with your day-to-day well-being. We’re not talking about the demands of relief workers in war-torn countries, but rather the more mundane requests to sacrifice your time, breaks, and health to do more with less.

    Prioritize what is important to you, not just at work but in your life, and make time for family and friends. Maintaining outside interests and scheduling them like essential appointments helps you bring more creativity and fresh ideas to your work.

Bottom line: You are your first priority. If you burn out, you can take others down with you. If you really believe in the mission of your organization, make sure you are the best you can be.

Beth Kanter is a trainer, speaker, and author, most recently of The Smart Nonprofit. Follow her on her blog.

Aliza Sherman is a web pioneer, speaker, and author of twelve books, including Social Media Engagement for Dummies. Follow her on her blog.

This article was fact-checked and updated in January 2024; a slightly different version originally appeared on the GuideStar blog.

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