Wednesday Play Days

This is my calendar for this week:

It’s a pretty typical week for me, except for one thing. Can you see what it is?

One of the things I need to be happy, creative, and productive is space. Lots of it. I usually fill it up quickly, but that’s okay, as long as I have space to fill. One of the things I’ve done poorly since starting Blue Oxen Associates is create space for myself. It’s hard to do when you have your own company, especially if you love what you do. But it’s necessary.

Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been making some structural changes to try and create space for myself. One of those changes was to start taking vacations. I took my first extended vacation in eight years last October, and last month, I went on vacation again.

(Vacations, by the way, are awesome. I highly recommend them to everyone — real vacations, where you leave your devices at home. I know this is obvious to most people, but for the rest of you, please, do yourself a favor, and take a week off.)

Another change I made was to raise my consulting rates. I had not raised my rates since starting Blue Oxen eight years ago, and I was below market rate, so it was definitely overdue. That made a difference as well, partially because it gave me a bit more financial peace-of-mind, but mainly because it allowed me to hire more and better people for my projects. That made the work better and more fun, and it created some additional space for me to focus my energies on the stuff that excited me the most.

Still, at the end of June, I decided I needed a heart-to-heart with my partner-in-crime, Kristin Cobble. We had just finished a massive project together, busting our butts toward the finish line. Along the way, we had also been pouring hours into building our business, cultivating new clients, recruiting new talent, and planning and thinking together. Not surprisingly, we were exhausted.

So Kristin and I sat down together, and I said, “I want to take the entire month of July off. I don’t know if we can, but I want to. And then we need to make more changes so that we have more space — space to rest, to reflect, to play.”

Kristin was supportive and enthusiastic. We both already had vacations planned in July. Our previous client wanted to do some more work with us, but we weren’t sure when that would get started. We were also in discussions with other potential clients. We knew at worst that we’d have our vacations plus a small break from client work. But knowing that was not enough. I wanted to make more structural changes.

We decided to experiment with a new practice: Wednesday Play Days. In short, we would essentially treat Wednesdays as a weekend. That meant no meetings and no client work. Beyond those constraints, we could choose however we wanted to spend that day. We were using “play” in the broadest sense of the word.

We had several inspirations for this. One was Kristin’s dad, who believes strongly in working intensely for two days, then taking a break. He’s been practicing Wednesday Play Days for a long time. Another inspiration was my friend and colleague, Odin Zackman, who keeps his Wednesdays clear so that he can use it for thinking time. I was originally surprised that he did it in the middle of the week, but he made a really compelling case for breaking up the week that way.

We put it into practice immediately. Kristin has since stopped doing it, finding that, as a mom, it works better to distribute her rest time throughout the week. I’ve been doing it for a month now, and I’ve been absolutely loving it.

In the beginning, it was painful for me to schedule around Wednesdays. When client work is light, I tend to schedule more meetings. Wednesday Play Days prevented me from doing that.

It got easier quickly, though, because the impact was immediate. Whenever I look at my calendar and I see that blank space in the middle, I feel joy.

I’ve filled that space in different ways. A few times, I did “work” — not client work, but thinking and writing work, stuff I really enjoy and never find enough time to do. One time, my parents were in town, and so I spent the day with them, completely guilt-free. One time, I literally did nothing. I just relaxed.

So far, it’s had the desired effect, and I’m going to try to maintain it. This week, I’m being severely tested. A new project is starting, and we’re going to be working our butts off again. I also have some proposals to write for potential projects that I’m excited about. We’re in the middle of an internal strategy process, and we have the usual laundry list of things to do for everything else we’re involved with. What’s truly making it challenging is that all of this stuff is actually fun!

I am sorely tempted to break the “no client work” rule tomorrow, but I’m going to do everything in my power to resist. It may be easier to lift that rule and just keep Wednesdays meeting-free, but I’m not going to lift it without a fight. Things are picking up, but not insanely so. Leaving space in the middle of the week is enabling me to maintain that sanity, and I think the results will pay off for everyone — my clients, my colleagues, my friends and family, and most of all, me.

See you all on Thursday!

People Matter

I spent the day processing everything that’s been happening over the past week, work-wise:

  • I spent two days at the Network of Network Funders meeting, thinking with and listening to a group of funders who are trying to apply network-thinking in the nonprofit space
  • I also spent a lot of time on my primary project these days, helping a Fortune 500 company understand how it can improve how it collaborates at a global scale

Here’s the irony:

  • The funders are thinking in terms of networks, but they’re struggling to let go of a more traditional organizational mindset
  • Meanwhile, the CIO of this company (the sponsor of our work) is thinking in terms of his organization, but his mindset and actions are all “post-organizational.” He has a very network-oriented approach in how he’s leading his organization, but he’s not mired in the language and complexity of networks

I’m working with Kristin Cobble on this project, and she had a similar take on our client, but entirely different language. She described him as “an organization learning consultant’s dream client.”

We discussed how we came to a similar conclusion through our different lenses and language. And what we decided was this: Call it whatever you want — organizational learning, networks, whatever. At the end of the day, it all boils down to the same thing: People and practice.

Grady McGonagill and I have an ongoing argument about paradigms. He thinks that the way the world is now — rapid, technology-induced change and an exponential rise in complexity — requires a new paradigm of leadership. It makes sense on the surface, but I disagree. I think the old paradigms of leadership are fine. We just need to be more intentional in practicing them.

This, to me, is the timeless paradigm in which we now — and have always — lived:

  • Trust matters
  • Relationships matter
  • Communication matters
  • Reciprocity matters
  • Space matters
  • Learning matters
  • Practice matters — way, way more than process
  • Feeling alive matters

If we just stripped away our tools and processes and frameworks and crazy language and simply focused on practicing everything on this list, the world would be a much better place.

Connection Is Life

My friend and colleague, Kristin Cobble, made her blogging debut a few weeks ago with a post entitled, “Living in Service of Life.” In it she asks and explores a simple question:

What does it mean to feel alive?

David Brooks, who’s been researching the neuroscience behind our social behavior, recently wrote a piece in the New Yorker where he summarized his research in story form. He tells the story of a (possibly fictional) neuroscientist, who says:

I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends. Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.

Far be it for me to argue with a (possibly fictional) neuroscientist!

I feel alive when I feel connected to life. By life, I include other people, other living systems, and me. I need all of those things in balance with each other.

Yesterday was Saturday, a gorgeous winter day in San Francisco, perfect for disconnecting. Ironically, I spent the morning on my computer, blogging about a very networked day in my life. Susannah Fox, whom I mentioned in my post, tweeted in response:

I’m touched by this, a feeling that may be enhanced by an opposite (but still great) day offline. Thank you.

It was a beautiful epilogue to my post. To truly appreciate the connectedness that is possible in today’s world, we have to re-learn how to stay connected to the other aspects of life and living that are so important. In other words, we have to remember to disconnect in all aspects of our life, including (especially?) our work.