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17 April 2020

Working harder to keep up

Written by
Fred Jones

On a once-normal day, you moved through spaces that were mostly familiar—so much so that it seemed you didn’t need to deliberate about each one. Now you do.

Before, this might have been you: Drive that route, multitasking with your feet while your mind preps for your weekly team meeting in your office. Walk by this break room and that person always near-by, and you take in a feel for the place. Step into that meeting room with those people, and another automatic sense kicks in. Catch that fire-drill text from your boss about the weekly numbers. When you walk to where you can grab a coffee with a direct report—that thing you do every Wednesday morning—subtly you shift. You open up a bit and make yourself more accessible. You talk about this or talk about that. At other times you close down a bit and protect. You scan continually for well-known cues found in different contexts for when to speak and not. You are more diplomatic, or perhaps more definitive and surer.

Not you sit in the same room (maybe two), day after day, tethered to the same devices. Connecting in encounters, moving from this to that, in ways that once naturally occurred but don’t anymore, not in the familiar way. The cues you relied upon, often without knowing how you know them, largely have been wiped away. You are having to learn new ones. And you, a cue-provider to others (did you know you were that?), likely are a source of mystery that others are sensing their way through. Not because you are a stranger, but because they aren’t used to connecting with you this way, or for that.

This is one of many reasons you are so tired. Your normally energy-efficient way of attending to things has been asked by circumstances to work a lot harder. How you organize what you take in with your implicit ways of categorizing has been asked to work a lot harder. The emotions that go with this are a bit unfamiliar, at least in this combination—making you work harder still to keep up with yourself. How you normally would ready yourself for action out of how you made sense is stifled by being so rooted in a chair and looking at a screen. So it takes more effort than normal to determine what to do next.

When asked: “How are you?” you may find that you don’t have an answer. If someone were to ask you the unlikely question, “Who are you?” you might find that you are a bit more unsure of what to say. Normally you only get fleeting glances of yourself, but now you see yourself so often in a box on your screen that a strange and distracting self-consciousness kicks in and you don’t know what to do with it.

The good news is that while you are burning more energy than usual, you also are learning. Your embodied mind is making adjustments all of the time, often outside of your awareness.

Here’s how you can help yourself out, with awareness. Deliberately create what I call “interim spaces” to account for and reflect on what’s been happening. Go for curiosity. Take a specific encounter, one of the many online meetings, and notice when and how you became more or less engaged. Notice what you found yourself paying attention to more and less. Notice things you were inclined to do and normally would—but now found yourself hesitating. Or doing something that seems unusual. Consider, if there were moments of confusion: What were you expecting to happen?

There’s a lot of talk these days about uncertainty. What you may also be experiencing is a lot of ambiguity about what something means and what to do with it. Interim space reflection can lead you to ask for things you didn’t think you needed before, for yourself and from others.

The other thing you can do with interim space is rehearse. This doesn’t so much mean saying your “lines” (though there are times for that, especially by sourcing from within how you want others to experience your lines). It means a bit of scene analysis, to reconstruct the context of what this encounter normally would be like to fit what it will be now. Mediated differently. And with conditions—whether light or tense or confused—that might be measured differently. How can this meeting’s purpose be established in ways that help everyone settle in and be as present as possible? What might it take for you to signal things that concern you or to show support for something (or someone) given how the encounter is being mediated by technology?

One of my favorite questions can be the most useful now, even if just as a micro version of interim space, employed on the fly: What’s it time for now? Maybe you should have asked that question much more often before the patterns for engagement in work and life shifted so drastically. Habitually asking it now, while not relying on default answers, calls on you to use your judgment, to think in time differently, and perhaps to trust yourself more. Or to trust the group more, when they get to consider that question together.

Lastly, the most subtle shift may come in how you both make things happen and let things happen. From interim space to interim space, you may notice that how you tune yourself into moments, read contexts for more nuance and trust your instincts in a new way. Yes, this will consume energy. You’ll be tired. And maybe a better leader.






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