Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind

Want to save the world, and get promoted at work, and feel like you have enough time for friends and family, and exercise, and reading, and hobbies? Lots of people do, and many of them feel like crap. Most of the activists I know feel like they’re auditioning for the part of Frankenstein’s wife — just the wig, mind you — from time to time.

stop me before i volunteer again image

The simple fact is that much activist work is volunteer, unpaid and something you will have to learn how to build time an appropriate amount of time for in your life. Time management is, honestly, one of the more difficult challenges of an activist life. So how is this ever-elusive feat possible? Let’s dive in to some tips. Pick and choose the ones that are applicable to your interests and your reality.

Repeat out loud: Taking care of myself and my needs is my first priority.

Martyring yourself for any cause, even a good one, is gross. This post’s title started with time management rather than stop treating yourself like shit, because it doesn’t help anyone to fool you into reading it. Reality is, many people, especially people who really care about other people, think of “time” as a way to frame “feeling in control.” You are not in control and you are unable to help advance any cause if you run yourself into the ground. No non-profit, no campaign, no activist event should stop you from having a job, nurturing your relationships, getting your laundry done. Affirming that your first priority is taking care of yourself and your needs is the first step to the next important tip, which is to say no.

Say the magic word when you need to: No. And don’t feel bad about saying it.

In sports you can’t win the game, much less play it well, without clear boundary lines. Same goes for activism. Just because someone asks you to do something cool doesn’t mean you have to say yes. For that matter, just because you said yes once doesn’t mean you have to say yes again. Or that you can’t leave behind a volunteer gig that is no longer working for you. Contrary to the way women and girls are commonly socialized, saying no can gain you friends, not lose them. My own mother has a great story of when I was in high school orchestra and she was called up and asked to be on a board that helped to support us. Right away, my mom said, sounds like a great group, but no, I’m too busy. The woman that made that phone call developed a friend crush on my mom based on her “no,” and years later they are best friends.

Seek out volunteer opportunities that are defined-time events.

Feeling frazzled? One of the easiest ways to get a grip on your schedule is to seek out volunteer opportunities that are defined-time events, rather than amorphous projects that will loom over your home life. For example, if you care about abortion rights and feel like you don’t have time to serve on a board or tend a website, seek out those opportunities that are defined calendar events, such as volunteering for a regular phone shift with your local abortion fund, or clinic escorting two Saturdays a month. There are a million ways to make a difference in the field you care about. Don’t get fixated on one option that demands more than you have to give.

Don’t waste your save-the-world time on drama-types.

There’s a certain sub-category of people who join activist and volunteer pursuits to share their pain. They are not difficult to spot, really: They are the difficult ones who will email you at all hours of the night in a rude tone, or call you and demand help with their issue immediately (as if you don’t have a life of your own). When you spot one of these, congratulate yourself on your laser vision and then do everything you can to minimize your involvement with that person. Minimizing your involvement doesn’t just mean minimizing interactions, it means minimizing your emotional engagement (not thinking about them, not talking about them with others). In my experience, the vast majority of people are in activism for the right reasons. Leave the ones who are not to burn out on their own time, without your assistance.

For ongoing leadership posts, come up with your three priority questions.

Many of the above tips may not seem helpful if you are on the hook for a cause, like in a volunteer board or leadership position. The thing to remember is that even when you have a title, you are a volunteer — meaning you and ultimately no one else gets to define your boundaries. When I was the volunteer president of my state NOW chapter (and going to night school full time, and working a full time job during the day) I realized fairly quickly that if I didn’t set my boundaries I couldn’t do it. So I actually got out a marker and put a sheet of paper on the wall where I would see it whenever my phone rang: 1. Does this raise money? 2. Does this get new members? 3. Does this raise the status of women and girls in Minnesota? If I couldn’t answer one of those three questions affirmatively, whatever the incoming request was, I wouldn’t give it more than five minutes. Only you can define your own questions, but they’re a great way to separate the essential work you signed up for from someone else’s urgent.

I want to acknowledge the many wonderful critiques of volunteerism as the basis for feminist work, and say that I agree that activists should be paid for their work. You deserve to be paid for your work. The purpose of this particular post is not to deconstruct that, however. It is to acknowledge the reality that much activist work is unpaid, and there are many activists who are doing this unpaid work and want some help with time management.

So, do you have experience with volunteer activist work? How have you prioritized yourself and managed your time? What worked for setting your own boundaries? Share your tips in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind

  1. Ami

    Similar to saying no, I’d add asking for help to this list. Sometimes we take on more than we can handle and we just need to reach out and ask for help.

    1. Yes! Ask for help! At the same time, remember that other people also have a right to say no, and it’s okay if an action just doesn’t happen, or happens in a different way, because nobody had time/energy/interest to do it.

  2. Great advice Erin! I have struggled with drama people who suck up all of my time and stress me out. I have tried to be understanding with these people but there are some who will suck the life out of you if you let them. I am learning to recognize these people faster and to firmly communicate my boundaries with them.

  3. I love giving back, but I also struggle for free time from work to begin with. I’ve fallen into the trap of volunteering for too many things and things that seem to eat up more and more of my time while giving me less of that satisfaction in return. This year I’ve really cut back, but doing so has allowed me to put more energy into the causes I really believe in. It’s impossible to do it all, so pick what you most enjoy and give it all your heart!

  4. I burned myself out pretty badly my last year of college, so this rings really true to me. I’ve got some strategies that work for me, most importantly that I plan personal time as scrupulously as I do activist time and work, so that I always have some. I make sure to have at least one completely unstructured day as often as possible, to lie around doing nothing, or clean all the things, or bake a cake, or whatever the heck I want to do and not feel guilty about it. I play hookey when I can.

    The point about avoiding negative types is also great. I’ve found that volunteerism and activism has become the core of my personal and social life, but sometimes you need to keep the sourpusses at bay. And I make sure I have a good supply of hugs from people that make me happy at all times. That one is key.

  5. Cynthia

    When I started supporting artists in the community, I worked without pay but this led to paid work. As a non paid worker I was quite free to make my own decisions and do what I thought was best. I loved this.

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