In any given week my clients range across a wonderful spectrum: small business owners, college administrators (presidents, provosts, deans), denominational leaders, executive directors of non-profits, pastors, and sometimes just someone in their mid-thirties trying to navigate a career change. While their contexts vary widely (from the Pacific Northwest, Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, all over Southern California), and their responsibilities span from a struggling church of 75 to managing a multi-million dollar budget, invariably I find one thing in common: each person is nearly overwhelmed by the variety of tasks and voices clamoring for their attention. Stress levels are high, imaginary scenarios of quitting everything, buying a van and living off the land are toyed with (#vanlife), and meanwhile email inboxes pile higher every day.
When I come on the scene, I start by spending a great deal of time listening, trying to take in all their concerns and crises, roadblocks and risks, and details and dilemmas. Once that happens, we slowly work together to map a plan forward. Rather than "solve" everything for them, my greater goal is to equip them with some tools for managing the many demands differently. Sure, we do assessments, mind-maps, SWOT analyses, strategic plans and all that, but my job is not finished if I have not had the more important conversation of all: do you have margin in your life? In other words, do you regularly (read, "consistently," "weekly") take time to reflect on your life's purpose, relationships, career and questions?
If this is a whole new concept or things are seriously sideways, I often recommend that a person reads the book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson. It really helps someone sort through the seemingly hopeless tangle of responsibilities and fears surrounding a stressed-out life.
If reading a book seems like too much to take on, I read an article today that is a great start: Why You Should Make the Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It) from Harvard Business Review. Here is a thoughtful paragraph that comes early on:
At its simplest, reflection is about careful thought. But the kind of reflection that is really valuable to leaders is more nuanced than that. The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this “meaning making” is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.
I am hoping this has won you over into reading the article because it's good (and did I mention it's brief?!). But if you're still coming up with evasive excuses like, "I don't run my own business," or "I'm not really a leader..." I want to stop you up short by slightly modifying the author's list of ways to inch into habits of reflection. Use these questions to start:
What are you avoiding?
How are you helping your friends/family achieve their goals?
How are you not helping or even hindering their progress?
How might you be contributing to your least enjoyable relationship?
How could you have been more clear in a recent conversation/argument?
We live in a noisy world where we can be over-stimulated, distracted, and bored all at the same time. One of the great tragedies of this is that a person is left not even knowing what they think or feel. So before I try to "fix" whatever problem my clients are having, I know it is far better to ask them how they are doing and how we might work together to help them build some self-awareness, self-discipline and self-care.
Yeah, I'll admit it: that's a lot of "self's." But for me it's analogous to the safety drill on the airplane. (You know where this is going...) Please put the mask on yourself before you try to be everyone else's hero. As the HBR article concludes:
Ask for help. For most leaders, a lack of desire, time, experience, or skill can get in the way of reflection. Consider working with a colleague, therapist, or coach to help you make the time, listen carefully, be a thought partner, and hold you accountable.
I agree. Turn off your device right now and go do it....