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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