Letting go to go forward

Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Anxious. Busy.

Each of us knows these feelings. They have become (near) constant companions. They were there before the pandemic and lockdowns, and they did not stay behind in our places of employment as work moved into our homes. Too much to do and too little time, and add figuring out new ways of doing our every day. For many the already too much expanding and the too little time compressing as their entire family’s lives converged in a confined space.

In the US, we’re rapidly approaching the 12-month mark of life disrupted by pandemic and marked with crescendos of broader recognition (if not yet reckoning) around racial injustice, white supremacy, and autocratic threats. The past year yielded countless articles about burnout, compassion, resilience, mental health; about finding grounding and direction in uncertain times; about exploring new approaches to working and being in an anxiety-provoking world. Ink spilled, pixels blazed, sound waves carried to tell employees and managers and executives that we can’t keep doing—or expect others to keep doing—all the same things in the same ways in this moment.

A glimmer of hope on the horizon grows brighter. Already some leaders are shifting their focus and mindset of planning the return to so-called normalcy, the way things were. But if the normal of the beforetimes was leaving so many stretched, should that be our goal? What practices were (or even still are) carrying that simply don’t serve us well—or maybe at all? How might the quality of our work, our experience, and even our organizations change if we shift our lens from past to progress?

I tend to say there’s no going back to work. I call it going forward to work.

Martin Lindstrom 1

I think the first step is (re-)examining purpose. We have a tendency to focus on tasks and activities. After all, it’s easier to articulate what we do, and culturally there is an emphasis on accounting for our work time in measurable ways—tangible outputs, presence in meetings, outcomes that are quantifiable (and preferably within a short period). We can fall into the trap of saying “yes” to everything—and continuing to hold fast to old ways— because we’re concerned we’ll miss something important. The trap is set in part by failing to understand or define the why, what effect we’re trying to have on our organization/community/world.

…what is important doesn’t necessarily get our attention; what gets our attention becomes important.

Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness 2

So we need to consider: What’s consuming our attention and energy, and how do those practices and activities align with our purpose? How many times do we end up in meetings questioning why we’re needed there? What tasks do we crank through while wondering how they ended up in our pile? Sometimes the answer is simply, this must get done to keep the organization running, and the job at hand most closely fits within our role and responsibilities. Sometimes we have to accept that—after all, what good is it to have a strong sense of purpose within the organization if the organization disintegrates? On the other hand, we can find ourselves holding space for work that does not serve our goals, intention, or role.

Examine assumptions. What story are you telling yourself about the work that you’re doing?

Jen Davison 3

In challenging assumptions, we force ourselves to re-examine facts, to consider how an activity links to purpose in this moment. Perhaps it made perfect sense when we started, but as the project or organization have changed, it’s filling an amorphous void rather than a need. In the wake of disruption and change, there can be a strong compulsion to reach for our old customs or to grab something new, anything to fill the silence with chatter, the stillness with motion.

Or we can stand, at least for a moment, in the stillness, breathe, and reconnect that time, attention, emotion, and thinking to our purpose. We can reclaim some space for rest, rejuvenation, creativity, creation. Letting go of those things that no longer serve us can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it makes space to explore and experiment and discover new ways of being with ourselves and our communities—and shaping a culture that invites others to do the same.

Stop focusing on what is behind you. It’s growing smaller and smaller, miniaturizing in the distance; stop squinting at it, as if it has the answers. Today, keep your eyes on where you are going, not where you have been.

Maggie Smith 4

Quote sources

  1. HBR IdeaCast Goodbye Bureaucracy, Hello Common Sense
  2. Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness – The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life (book)
  3. Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement – Community Call, Jan 2021 – (Personal) resilience and community (management)
  4. Maggie Smith – Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change (book)
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Showing up

This month I’m doing a 30-day guided yoga “journey”, trying to establish a daily practice. At one point, the instructor stated, “Showing up is the hardest part.” For this process, showing up is the linchpin. Once you’ve stepped on the mat, you’ve made your commitment for the day. The practice will be different each day, but showing up is the singular requirement for establishing the practice.

I know, this feels obvious. Of course we have to show up to participate. It’s step zero. It’s often been so routine that the process barely enters our consciousness. The past year has forced many to rethink and reconfigure. As I reflect on this idea that showing up is the hard part, one question stands out:

What do we do to make it easier for people to show up?

We could ask this question for friends, family, fitness, any number of things. Here I want to talk about what we do to make it easier for people to show up for work.

Some things are very personal, decisions or rituals that help get ourselves out the door—or these days, for many of us, to the table or desk in our home. For me, adjusting to work from home involved creating a specific space for work and rituals to get my brain into the work frame of mind.

But showing up isn’t just a matter of personal responsibility and ritual. It’s intertwined with what we do, or perhaps more accurately the alignment between expectations and reality of what we do. Have we found the job and organization that meets our needs and interests? Do we have the skills and experience we need to get the work done? If not, are we getting support to get there or to move certain responsibilities off our plate? Are we even doing the work we expected to be doing, that was written into our job description? These are not things employees can or should necessarily sort out on their own. These are issues that supervisors and colleagues have a role in as well.

Work environment and culture come into play as well. Do we have a space that’s amenable to our activities? Do we have the resources we need or feel we can ask for them? How do the people work together? Are norms and expectations needlessly rigid or flexible? Does the group value autonomy or indulge in micromanaging? Does the mission and leadership inspire? Is there accountability and compassion, clarity and care? For many of these things, there’s no single right or wrong way, but again it’s a question of whether they’re aligned with our expectations. Are we managing others based on our assumptions and preferences, or can we adapt our approach to their style and needs?

This extends beyond general team dynamics though. We also need to look at the structural issues within our organizations. This is the work of creating an inclusive environment, with varying degrees of commitment and results. What can we do within our own spheres of influence to create a more welcoming place for those from marginalized backgrounds? What can we do to push our organizations towards critical systemic change?

Between a global pandemic, lockdowns disrupting work and education, amplified disparities in who’s bearing the brunt of health and economic impacts, a renewed focus on racism and white supremacy, an attempted coup in US… this is a moment when we’ve ceased taking things for granted. This is a moment, more than ever, when those of us in the position to help should be asking what we can do to make it easier for people to show up. And I deeply hope that we won’t stop asking.

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A word for 2021: Center

This blog has been drifting a while, but now it’s been a year since I last posted—to share my theme for 2020. The absence here was reflective of the intensity in (work) life, which was only amplified by working from home during global crises. But I’m not really here to rehash the year that was, rather to set the touchstone for the year ahead, carrying forward an approach I picked up a few years back. Instead of setting resolutions—which seem even more elusive than ever with all the unpredictability—I’ve settled into picking a word or theme for the year:

For 2018 it was build. In 2019 it was thrive. Last year it was grow.

In 2020, we certainly achieved the stress part of growth. For me, the rest was harder to come by as the year dragged on and the intensity of my work built. Once the massive grant I was coordinating was submitted, I checked out and leaned into the rest. I stopped checking work email, took Outlook off my phone, and have spent the last almost 3 weeks just doing… whatever, within the confines of staying close to home and COVID safe. It’s involved a lot of cooking and reading, some running and hiking, streaming shows and TV.

Now as my break approaches its close, I find my thoughts turning to what my focus will be for 2021.

What do we do after a year that brought so stress, confusion, upheaval, uncertainty, disruption? What do we do when realize how fragile our plans are, how much is beyond our control? What do we do as we see some hope on the horizon but remain unsure of how long it will take to get there and what things may change along the way?

Heading into 2020, I took on a new role at work, became a manager, (remotely) hired and onboarded my first direct report. We had a clear and enormous project that easily filled the time for the year. Now that it’s done, it’s time to translate our broader roles on paper into practice.

Last year, I also took on a big running goal. I ticked off 50 miles (and 16,000 ft of elevation gain) on a local mountain. I lost some momentum late in the year as stress mounted, but I’m building back. I’ve shown myself I’m capable of something huge, and now I get to think about how I push my boundaries from here.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of building something, in the expectation (even of my own making) to prove my skill or worth. What I take on in the midst of that excitement and expectation can create imbalance, if I’m not mindful. Intense focus on one thing while another also needs care and attention. Picking up too much of the work myself. Tending to issues that could be returned others. Losing the intention or purpose. Ignoring the signs of fatigue, injury, stress.

I’m terribly inconsistent in maintaining a yoga practice, but a concept that strikes me is finding the center. There’s nothing passive about it. Even as I am by outward appearances (mostly) still, I’m grounding the corners of your feet or drawing your spine long or tightening core muscles. Poses start with one of a few foundations, and I can add features to increase the complexity or difficulty depending on where I am physically and mentally that day. When I begin to feel the imbalance, to tip out of the pose, I adjust those small tensions—and if I can’t recover, I just return to the center, ground myself, and try again, perhaps with a different modification.

And so, I will try to carry this word with me through 2021: Center. I will seek out those core ideas and practices that serve as the foundation for my work, my relationships, my health. I will learn better and commit to those things that ground me. And as strain and tension builds, threatening to topple me, I will strive to bring myself back to that center and make adjustments to strengthen my approach going forward.

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A theme for 2020: grow

Society nudges (or shoves) us to reflect on the past at this time of year. And then we are to turn our attention to the future, to set goals for the year ahead. Of course this transition has been even more profound, prompting recollections of the last 10 years of life and, no doubt for many, pondering of the next decade of life.

I have vague recollections of setting resolutions at points in my life. But it’s not something I’ve really done for at least a few years. Problems/opportunities/goals often emerge out of sync with the 12-month cycle we focus on. Nonetheless I do find myself meditating on the past and future at this time of year. Two years ago, I tried an approach of selecting a theme or a word for the year. In 2018, the word was build. For 2019, I decided on thrive

For 2020: grow.

Stress

2020 is bringing some big projects, professionally and personally. I’m taking on additional responsibilities at work and moving deeper into management (of the project and people varieties). I’m finishing a project management certificate program and maybe (probably) sitting for the exam to qualify for professional accreditation.

Oh and I’m training for a 50 mile foot race in June. Maybe you wonder, Why the heck would should sign up for an event that demands so much time and energy training when there’s so much else going on?!

I started 2019 with a mantra to “progress from striving to thriving.” It’s challenging to achieve that transition when the environment around you is changing. It doesn’t have to be bad to be different and require adjustments. Several months ago, this quote arrived in a newsletter (The Morning Shakeout) in my inbox:

Shit does not get less complicated. (Mike Wolfe)

I wrote it on a Post-It that went under my computer monitor. And on another that I stuck to my big whiteboard. It’s easy to get caught up in things, to become overwhelmed by how things are changing, especially when there’s some lack of communication. It’s easy to delay activities or decisions until “things settle down”, to wait for some sort of clarity. And there are reasons, often very valid ones, to do that.

But I also can’t let the storm of ambiguity, complexity, and anxiety keep me from moving forward and taking opportunities to (im)prove myself.

Rest

Stress carries a very negative connotation in our culture, but achievement and improvement often comes from going outside our comfort zone. But we can (and do frequently) overdo it. It may come from a sense of pressure or responsibility (I think especially prevalent in work and relationships). “This must be done. Now. And only I can do it.” Other times we slip easily into the more-must-be-better mindset. “If <x> hours of exercise is good, then <xy> must be better.” “I’ve been so productive today! If I stay just another hour or two..”

Go down that road far enough and stress becomes unproductive, recovery inadequate. Keep going and it can lead to burnout, injury, illness, etc. Been there, done that—and would prefer not to visit again.

This “formula” has popped in a few places (I think it may have originated with Peak Performance), and it’s stuck with me.

stress + rest = growth

Rest and recovery are key to keeping stress productive. I see some incredible opportunities for personal and professional growth in the next year.

But I have to be intentional about making time and space for rest. Running and exercise are a big part of how I manage stress, and training for a race helps encourage commitment. I’ll plan to keep one day a week free of work and classwork, as I’ve done the last few months. I’ll take time to go into the mountains with Gene. I’ll take vacation. I’ll keep my morning time for reading and coffee. To reach key goals this year, I need to recharge regularly, and that won’t by accident.

Grow

I’m both excited and terrified by the things that 2020 has in store for me. There will be some long hours in the office and on the trails. There will be stress and anxiety and frustration. There’s a lot of work to get done. But there will also be fun and relief and celebration. Setting “grow” as my theme for the year will, I hope, help me remember to rest, with intention, so that I can continue forward and achieve my goals.

Happiness is the joy you experience while pursuing your potential. (Neil Pasricha)

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W2FA?! Two-factor authentication on the way to eRA Common

Earlier this month I attended the NIH Regional Seminar, a meeting focused on grants administration and related policy. As I usually do at meetings, I tweeted—and a short tweet prompted an immediate and frustrated response:

A little background for the uninitiated: “electronic research administration” or eRA Commons is a portal that supports several aspects of NIH grants adminstration. Principal investigators (PIs), grants administrators, and others need accounts to enter profile information, enter data for NIH grant applications and reporting, and track status of applications.

It’s been around a while and comes with a particular set of quirks and bugs/features. You have to reset your password every 120 days. The password has atypical restrictions, like you can’t end with numbers. You can’t recycle a password for 8 years. When you’re updating your personal profile, you can’t save and leave the page until all the required fields are filled and errors have been resolved.

During an eRA Commons workshop, staff revealed that, in the not too distant future, eRA Commons login will go through two-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA adds in another layer of security to establish that you are indeed the user whose name and password you entered.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. PIs were resoundingly against 2FA. Great, one more thing to make the login process harder. Isn’t resetting their password every login enough? 2FA is such a pain. Who really wants to hack into their account and view their grant scores/statements? It’s going to create problems for sponsored programs helping with submissions. And more generalized, Aaaargh whyyyyyyyy?

Why 2FA?

First we need to recall that NIH is a federal agency and thus subject to a whole lot of federal regulations, rules, plans, and guidances.  Maybe protestations are right; maybe no one cares to hack into eRA Commons and 2FA is overkill. Nonetheless NIH has to address priorities and requirements to modernize systems and enhance cybersecurity. So on the surface, this is about NIH complying with federal requirements.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Why might external stakeholders want a little more security on eRA Commons? That portal provides access to several different NIH systems: ASSIST (creating, editing, and submitting applications), RPPR (progress reporting), xTrain (managing training grant appointments and terminations), Internet Assisted Review (critiquing and scoring applications as a reviewer)… In short, eRA Commons provides access to a lot of confidential information.

Of course that’s for just a select few applications and awards, right? People were primarily thinking of eRA Commons through their lens, what they see in a scientific role (e.g., as a PI). But other people are engaged in grant applications. Most critically, PIs can’t just submit an application on their own. An authorized organizational respresentative (AOR)/signing official (SO) “has institutional authority to legally bind the institution in grants administration matters.” They are cleared to provide signatory approval of submissions, and you can’t submit a grant without them. The SO is typically in the sponsored programs office (and there should be more than one). Within eRA Commons, an SO has access to every NIH grant application across the organization. The SO can not only submit but also reject grant applications. They can create, updated, and delete eRA Commons accounts for almost every individual at their institution and manage other people’s eRA Commons access. Maybe hacking a PI’s eRA Commons account provides a low return, but the implications of accessing an SO’s account carry much more weight.

What about implementation?

Some pushback in my stream was about how 2FA would be done and how administrative support would access applications to input information for PIs.

NIH isn’t building a new system for 2FA from scratch. It will leverage the existing login.gov system, which is already in use for Trusted Traveler Programs, USAJOBS, and SAM. Folks at eRA Commons will begin piloting with a subset of users next year and develop the interface with user input.

login.gov enables multiple methods for 2FA—text, phone, authentication app, security key, backup codes. One concern that popped up in my feed was access while traveling abroad, and a pre-generated list of backup codes could address cases where text or phone aren’t readily available.

Some people raised the issue of how 2FA would interfere with enabling others to access someone’s eRA Commons account. Indeed it will. And frankly I think that’s part of the point. As far as NIH is concerned, you shouldn’t be sharing your login credentials with others, even trusted individuals you want working on your application or reports. User credentials are assumed to represent accountability to said user for actions. “I didn’t do <x>!” isn’t a defense when you contact the helpdesk and they see that your account did indeed do <x>.

That doesn’t mean that PIs are left to handle grants administration activities on their own. The PI and/or SO can delegate other eRA Commons roles  to individuals within your organization, granting them access to edit RPPRs, initiate applications, administer training grants, etc. There are certain activities that can only be executed by specified roles. Only the SO or an ASSIST Access Manager (designated by the SO) can manage access to applications, which means contacting your sponsored programs office to add anyone other than PI and the person who initiated the application. Only the PI can route RPPRs to the SO, creating a stage of accountability for the PI in the reporting process. The advantage of delegations is that you can manage the level of access. It’s not all or nothing. Plus you don’t have to worry about one person changing your password and disrupting your (and maybe others’) access.

I’m not expecting people to embrace 2FA lovingly. I’ve dealt with it on different systems and experienced hassles and headaches it can produce. But perhaps a little context and knowledge about eRA Commons can promote some understanding, and maybe even grudging acceptance, of what’s to come. Either way, 2FA is on its way.

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