Posts Tagged burnout

It Feels Good to be Running

Yesterday I rushed from lunch with a friend to a work meeting. Luckily the meeting ended early, since a quick check of my email reminded me that I still needed to prepare financials for the next day’s board meeting. I ran back to the office for 40 minutes, entered the latest set of donations into Quickbooks, and whooshed off an email before running out the door to a coaching appointment.

Traffic was heavier than I expected, so I arrived a few minutes late. Yet instead than feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I felt exhilarated and energized. After days of feeling lethargic and mildly depressed, it felt fabulous to be able to roll with so much action. I was in my flow.

I am learning that I have an optimal level of energy that I put out day to day. For the past several weeks, I have been operating under capacity in an effort to recover from a period of heavy stress. Instead of feeling rested and at ease, I was starting to feel depressed, unsure what to do, and unfulfilled. Yet I also know when I try to operate much over my capacity, I burn out from working at an unsustainable level.

I tend to err on the side of operating over capacity, so lately I have been practicing under doing it. However, it’s not working for me. When I am too far under capacity, my self care falls apart. I figure I will get around to meditation later. I can’t think of a good reason why I need to get off Facebook.

I know that operating over capacity can be a coping mechanism. Am I hiding from something? Am I avoiding hard feelings?

In this particular moment, I don’t think so. While running from thing to thing can sometimes be a way to run away, it can also be an efficient way to get things done. It’s efficient for me, as I get more focused and just get things done rather than fretting too much over how to do them. When I am busy, it’s easier to jump into rejuvenating activities like dance or talking with a good friend or writing or watching the season finale of The Voice. (Whoohoo Jermaine!)

I feel liberated, feeling into my natural capacity, feeling how the right tempo and flow unleashes my gifts of energy and motivation.

I know that my particular capacity is different from other people. And that my own capacity changes day to day, especially if I’m sick or been working over capacity for too long. But being present with my natural capacity, today, in this moment, I feel alive.


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Transitions Drag Me Down

Transition creates a huge drag on my ability to be productive.

New staff members have to be hired and trained. People have to pick up work done by former staff members while the new person is coming on board.

I know about this concrete drag. But there is also an emotional drag as well.

I have to process my sadness that good people are leaving. I have to grieve and bury the dreams I had shared with people who are leaving, as those dreams were built around the particular talents and skills of people who will no longer be central to the organization.

I have to process my frustration about picking up extra work. I have to process my overwhelm at having extra work to do, and less help to do it.

I need to make space for building trust and camaraderie with new staff people. We need time to dream our new dreams, laugh at our new inside jokes. We need to explore and find the magical sweet spot that speaks to our common interests and our particular mix of skills, that sweet spot that will make our work not just good but amazing.

All this work doesn’t just take time. It also requires a measure of emotional labor.

I have had a practice of excluding emotional labor from my regular work day. If I’ve had a hard day, I talk with a friend over dinner or call someone who I know will have a good insight. I don’t count this as work hours, even if I spend an hour talking about work.

When I only have the occasional hard day, this works okay. My friends don’t get tired of hearing about my job; they usually have their own stories that we process. There’s a mutuality that works.

But when many days are hard, for weeks and months on end, the emotional labor starts to take a toll on both me and my social circles. The hours of unpaid labor add up. I start to resent my job. My friends start to ask pointed questions about whether my job is bad for my health.

How do we build emotional labor in to the work day, particularly in times of transition when we know it’s absolutely necessary? How does the offloading of emotional labor to our support circles contribute to an unsustainable work place? Does keeping all the emotional processing within the workplace actually work? Or does it just turn into a social worker mess of over processing?


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Whoosh! The Bottleneck Was Removed

Just last week I sat with pools of dread, unsure how this Acting Director business would unfold.

It’s unfolding with a quick rush of energy. When a bottleneck is removed, things flow more quickly than normal. Work to shift staff and projects into place – work I thought might take a couple of weeks – was complete in three days.

The layer of dread has lifted, revealing a well of unprocessed frustration, anger, and inadequacy. Frustration and anger at past work situations where there was too much work, too much hard, not enough resources, not enough capacity. Inadequacy when I left that anger unexpressed, internalized it, and then endlessly analyzed “what’s wrong with me that I can’t handle this?” It’s still sitting heavy in my chest, just to the left of my sternum. My heart burns.

Slightly Future Me knows how this gets resolved. She is on the other side, the side where I’m not bringing quite so many unprocessed feelings to the table. The side where I’m expressing my frustration and anger appropriately, as a way to set clear boundaries and forge strong opinions.

What does Slightly Future Me have to say?

SFM: Oh! I am so much closer than you think. I’m so close, we barely have anything to talk about.

Me: But it feels like there’s still so much chest pain. It’s hard to believe that won’t take weeks to clear.

SFM: Remember the whoosh of energy when a bottleneck is removed? It’s not just about the organizational bottleneck. You’ve removed an internal bottleneck, a big one we’ve been working on for ages. Things that seem like they should take weeks are going to be done in days.

Me: Is there anything I can do to keep supporting it?

SFM: Meditation – just sitting with it and letting it unwind. Maybe try those trauma release exercises too.

Me: Is there anything else I can do to leave you little presents to make your day better?

SFM: Our weekend plans fell through … it would be lovely to make some new ones. And shimmy pop! And spend some time mucking in details this week – clean out the inbox and the phone messages please! Also, we should schedule a conversation with a slightly-future-version of me. Our next challenge is another layer of inadequacy around connecting with great spiritual beings who we need to call on for help.

Me: I thought we were already working on inadequacy? And it was going to be resolved soon?

SFM: Yes, we’re working on inadequacy/anger. This next layer is inadequacy/needs. There are lots of aspects of inadequacy for us to deal with. One of the many perils of living in a capitalist culture, with 24/7 media telling us that we aren’t good enough.

Me: Grrrrrr.


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Now Is Not Then

This week, I find myself poised to be named Acting Director at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. It’s a temporary solution to support another staff member who will be on leave. We’re hoping this distribution of leadership will jump start our intended move to a staff collective this year.

I feel deeply honored to be asked to step up in this way. And deeply in awe of everything that has unfolded over the past two years, since I decided to move to the Bay Area to be more connected day to day with socially engaged Buddhists. I’m in an even more strategic position to fulfill my dream of trying out new models of governance in a Buddhist organization.

But it’s not all easy. I’ve been sitting with a lot of dread in my chest and throat, a sense of fear and trepidation about what I am getting myself into.

A certain amount of this is normal. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I’m not sure that I’ll be able to get it all done in a 40 hour work week. There are a lot of unanswered questions about how much others will be able to step up to help. I may be shouldering a lot in the next few weeks.

But a large part of this is not about now.

1. What does this remind me of?

So much of this is unprocessed anger and fear from my past experience with nonprofits. Some of it is directed outward at nonprofits that continue to work people until they burn out, unwilling to make the hard decisions that would make our work more sustainable. Some of it is directed toward me too – can I trust myself to really take care of myself this time?

2. How is now not then?

Now – I have a huge set of practices that I didn’t even have a clue about when I was last an executive director. Meditation, compassion, equanimity, lovingkindness. When I learned those practices, I was blown away. “If only I had known about these when I was a director, my experience would have been completely different!” Now I get to learn just how different they might be.

Now – I work in an environment that supports me in using these practices. Even ASKS me to incorporate these practices throughout my work.

Now – I also have a whole set of practices for interacting with my stuff. Talking with monsters and walls, learning the patterns with Shiva Nata, emergency calming techniques, how to enter and exit consciously. And a million other helpful things that I had never even heard about, much less practiced for the past year or more.

Now – I know going in the problems of burnout, overwork, and how nonprofits struggle to make hard decisions. I can enter as I wish to be in it. Which probably means doing less, more slowly, but more deeply. There will be more practice of saying no to say yes.

3. What qualities do I want to bring to this encounter?

Courage. Love. Sovereignty. Possibility.

Presence. Laughter. Sustainability. Fierceness.

4. What do I want?

To midwife the organization into its next iteration. To stay open to not knowing what that actually looks like or how much of this process is mine to do.

To find my practices of self care so solid, so natural, that I stop telling the story that “I can not be trusted to take care of myself.”

5. What do we have in common?

(I’m reading this as “what do I have in common with this role of Acting Director”). Ten things:

  1. We meditate
  2. We use other self-reflective practices to bring our best selves to work
  3. We open our hearts with practices of compassion, loving kindness, joy & equanimity
  4. We’re interested in non-hierarchial leadership models
  5. We need to get more rooted after a period of transition
  6. We need to not get so rooted that we can’t still be transplanted as things continue to transition
  7. We need to ask for help from others as a way to be less hierarchical
  8. We are both terrified and hopeful about the future of the organization
  9. We are walking forward into a dark forest full of unknowns, slowly feeling our way
  10. We are resting in a larger field of interconnected, supportive people.

6. And how will this experience help me in the future?

I will certainly be learning a lot more about my practices of self care. Even if they completely fall apart, I’ll have new information about how to retool my self care tools to be more effective the next time.

I also am getting another set of lessons about nonprofit management. Even if things completely fall apart, I’ll have new information about what works and doesn’t work when trying to shore up a nonprofit.

7. Without having to appreciate this situation, what might be useful about it?

I don’t love that I’m feeling so much dread about taking on this role. I wish I could be unabashedly enthusiastic about it.

But having to process this old dread is really forcing me to think about how critical my self-care is going to be in this, and how important it’s going to be for me to start saying no to many upcoming things. I’m wanting to carve out lots of time for self care and reflection. And I wouldn’t be quite so intentional about this if it didn’t feel quite so dire.

8. What might help this encounter be less agonizing more harmonious?

I could ask Slightly Future Me who knows more about how we are aligned with this role of Acting Director in cool and amazing unanticipated ways.

I could refresh my memory of some good Emergency Calming Techniques, so they are easy to access when I am in a panic.

I could make a bag of slips specific to self care, and pull one out every day plus every time I find myself in a panic.


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Planting Seeds

Planting Sunflower Seeds

Creative Commons License photo credit: tjmwatson

Not Working As Planned

“I’m planting seeds. Planting seeds.” I was muttering to myself again, speed walking up Mission Street past Yerba Buena Gardens. I was trying to catch up with the march that had a 10 minute head start on me, thousands of San Franciscans protesting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and people around the world on October 15. I had folded up the banner I was carrying, since it was too big and unwieldy to carry by myself.

I wasn’t planning on marching alone that day. I had made plans to meet up with two different people, and had put the call out to a thousand more. I really could have used a day off from organizing, but people seemed interested in marching and I wanted to support any glimmer of interest in Buddhist participation in the Occupy movements locally in the Bay Area.

But here I was, alone, feeling ridiculous that I couldn’t even carry the banner in a way that people could see who I was with. I felt like a failure, like I was wasting time and money and energy on a lost cause.

“When planting a tree, if you want to do it the right way and get fruit from it, how should you go about it in order to have a relaxed mind? You do that which is your responsibility. Getting hold of the sapling is your job; digging the hole is your job; planting it, fertilizing and watering it, and keeping the insects off it is your job. That’s it. Stop here. How fast or slow it grows isn’t your job. Let go of this part.” – Ajahn Chah in Being Dharma

Some days, it is so hard to remember my job as a community organizer. Fostering the conditions where people can come together, can show up, can take on leadership – this is my job. Ensuring people show up isn’t my job. How much leadership they take on isn’t my job. Wrapping up my ideas of success around having a certain number of people show up, or having people take over leadership, or having an intensely powerful experience – this is all out of my control.

How Do I Let Go?

This is where I’ve learned to be a better community organizer by studying Buddhism and meditation. I can say over and over and over again – this is not my job! Do not be attached to outcomes. Just don’t do it! But how do I actually do this? How do I practice letting go of outcomes over and over and over again until it feels easy?

In Buddhist practice, we don’t do it by starting with the hardest things. We don’t start with letting go of the outcome of an event that we’ve poured our heart and body and mind into.

We start simply. We start on the cushion, watching our breath move in and out. We watch our mind do what minds do which is THINK and PLAN and TELL STORIES and CHATTER. We watch how we are attached to certain outcomes of meditation. My mind should be quiet! My breath should come easily! I should be feeling peace instead of panic!

We look at these attachments first because there’s so much less riding on it. It is just us with our minds and bodies. No one is depending on our breath being a certain way or our mind being quiet. No one can see what’s going on inside, whether we are still or a tornado.

If Practice Is Hard, Taking It to Our Work is Harder

And yet it is still SO HARD to let go of these attachments about how our meditation is going. Especially when they are enmeshed with guilt and shame, with a running commentary about how we should be better, smarter, more relaxed. About how we are inadequate and unworthy. How we are a waste of space just sitting here, not even able to sit still correctly.

If all this is happening when we are simply sitting, imagine how much more is happening when we have other peoples’ needs also at stake? When we’re sure that others will judge us by how many people come out, who attends, whether it’s a transformative experience? These voices of shame and inadequacy scream louder and louder.

I feel like when I was an organizer without Buddhism, I found ways to cover up those voices. I would hush the stories of inadequacy and tell myself other stories about how I was adequate and worthy. I would fake confidence until I felt something that looked like confidence. I would work harder and faster, trying to quiet the voices by demonstrating just how hard working I could be.

And these strategies worked for awhile. People judged me to be successful, and I felt proud of what I could accomplish.

But these nagging doubts lingered. Patching over inadequacy and unworthiness was like putting a towel over an infected wound. I don’t see it anymore, but it doesn’t heal. Instead it gets worse. As I felt worse, I also had less capacity to manage my work, as I was depleted by all the faking, all the working harder and faster. Things unraveled.

Practicing New Practices

During the march last week, I tried out some other practices. There was a lot of breathing as I walked fast to try to catch up with other marchers. When I got anxious, I returned again and again to the words “I’m planting seeds” to remind myself why I was there. When I finally caught up with the march, I found a way to stretch my arms wide enough so the banner was mostly visible. I walked with pride, in connection with others marching even though I felt lonely.

After letting go of this outcome, I was happily surprised to not be alone for long. A nearby marcher who practices with an allied organization saw me and offered to hold the other end of my banner. She ended up marching with me for the next two hours. We eventually met up with the other two people who I had plans to connect with, who helped our contingent feel a little larger. A few others came up and thanked us for being there, glad to see our presence.

Whether people connected with me or not that day was no longer the point. Some days people show up, and some days they don’t. Some days people jump at the chance to lead. Other days everyone averts their eyes when you ask for help. Whichever day it is, the task is the same. Keep planting seeds.


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Endurance + Precision

I am good at endurance. I am not a naturally gifted athlete, but in late 2006 I found myself signing up for the Iron Horse Training Class. At the end of six months, I would be prepared to ride my bike (which I didn’t own yet) up a mountain (climbing 6,650 feet) and if I was lucky I’d beat the train (or finish in 6 hours before I got swept off the road).

I was terrified, but also excited about the possibilities. What wells of endurance would I find deep within my body? Who would I be if I was able to complete this Herculean task?

I was going through a tough breakup and dealing with funding challenges at work. It was easy to get down on my life and focus in on all that was frustrating. I knew I needed a big anchor to keep me focused on what was still amazing in my life, and training for the Iron Horse provided that.

Sure, it was hard. Physically and emotionally.

I still remember the terror I felt the morning of our first outdoor ride after four months of training on indoor cycles. I came to work and felt the ever increasing dread in the pit of my stomach. My coworker who was also my teammate in training asked if I was ready to ride and I burst into tears and sobbed for a solid hour.

Or the training day when we climbed a ridiculously tough hill, a 10%+ grade all the way up for 6 miles – tougher than anything we would face on the actual ride. We rode up the hill as the April snow started to fall, and I WISHED it was uphill both ways as my sweaty gloves were actively working to freeze my fingers as I coasted down and tried not to crash on any of the tight curves.

I was already hurting just 10 miles in to the actual ride, during the “easy” flat section that had given us a vicious headwind all the way through the valley. As we entered the remaining 40 miles of rolling hills and steep mountains, I was already ready to quit. But I had told everyone I knew that I was doing this race, so I thought I’d just go a little farther and maybe quit when I got to Purgatory, the aptly named ski resort that marked the bottom of the steep climbs. And by the time I got to Purgatory, my thighs were burning and my lungs hot. But I thought I could go a little further and at least say I tackled part of the mountain. So I rode on.

And so it went. Just committing to a little more each time. Even as I was about to summit the final pass, I was watching the clock. There was a chance I would not make the 12:40pm cutoff to continue. At the time, I was READY for the van to come pick me up. Sure, I was just a mile from the summit, and it was then just an easy ride in to town. I was so close! Yet I was so ready to be done. But not so ready that I would get off my bike and just stand there waiting to be picked up. I rode on.

I came around the final curve, saw the stately mountains ringing Molas Pass and started to cry. I could see the top. It was 12:39. I was going to make it. I was going to finish the Iron Horse. I had endured.

Endurance is awesome. I’m glad I have it in my skill set.

But sometimes it’s not awesome. Like when I know grad school is not right for me, and I stay for five more years. Or when I know a job isn’t the right fit, but I feel like I should try to make it work.

Then endurance is being sentenced to twenty years of hard labor. It’s putting my limited energy straight down the drain. There is no flexibility to gather new in-the-moment information that might change my mind.

Do I throw out endurance?

No. I just need to add something. Precision. Endurance for the wrong reasons is painful. It is precision that helps me know what work is right for me, what activities bring me energy, or whether my body is hurting but feels okay enough to keep riding.

Sometimes these energies feel at odds. I am good at endurance, so sometimes I am imprecise in stating what I need. I’m pretty good at putting up with less than ideal conditions, and it often feels easier to go with the flow rather than asking for change. Precision takes a lot of internal tracking, a lot of attention and mindfulness, a lot of care. It’s usually not something I can know for sure ahead of time. It takes trying something out before I can even do the internal tracking necessary to know whether it works for me or not. Precision requires experimentation, trying something and adjusting on the fly.

I want to be more precise.

I’m entering into a period where I want to be clearer about what I want, about what will work for me and what just won’t. I keep waiting for clarity to descend into my brain, the fog lifting and everything to be obvious. But it seems that what is more called for is a mountain of experimentation, with detailed tracking and attention to what works best.


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It always makes me smile when a random connection happens. I was so used to random connections happening in the small town I’ve lived in for the past 7 years. Walking into most public spaces, it wasn’t a question of whether you would see someone you knew, but who. With only 14,000 people, I was daily reminded of the vast and numerous ways that everyone is connected. The web is almost visible, you can see the strands that connect me to you to everyone you meet on the street.

So when it happens in San Francisco, each time I’m a little more amazed. It feels the same, that there’s the vast web of interconnections and I’m tightly bound up in it even though I’ve been here just over four months. And as I feel how tightly woven this web is, I realize how deeply held I am in this new city of mine.

I run in to people I know all the time in San Francisco. On the train, on the street, at restaurants. One day on BART, I ran into a member of the leadership team of the Anne Braden program. The randomness of this instance – that we both happened to be riding into the city at the same time, on the same day, and happened to get on the same car out of 9 cars to choose from on this particular train. If I’d have been 7 minutes earlier or later, or picked one car closer to the front of the train – we’d have never met.

But of course, it gets better. A simple meeting like this is starting to feel commonplace in San Francisco. But this day held even more connection. We start talking, and towards the end of the conversation I mention that I’m heading to meet my mentor, who I’ve been paired with as part of the program. As I start to get off the train, a woman who has been sitting in the seat right next to where we’ve been standing says, “Please say hello from me to your mentor – I know her from my work at SF Women Against Rape.” SERIOUSLY. Yet another person, on the same train, in the same car, who could have been running 7 minutes late and caught the next train instead, or who could have chosen another car, but instead found herself sitting next to us at just the right time and place, who is part of this web of connections that wraps itself even tighter around me.

Where I feel it even more in San Francisco is when I read something I love, something I’ve been thinking and feeling, something I’ve been hoping and wishing tha I can find others who know something about this. Like this lovely post by Yashna Maya Padamsee, who says “We need to move the self-care conversation into community care. We need to move the conversation from individual to collective. From independent to interdependent.”

YES. I am so tired of the conversation about self-care being about individual problems and individual solutions. I am experienced at burnout, and it’s so easy to feel again and again like I am the center of the problem. But in reality, our cultural push to work and overwork is driven by capitalism. And the ways that we are internally driven to feel shame and guilt if we don’t “achieve” in the right ways are fueled by sexism, racism, heterosexism – every system that tells us that we are not okay, broken, and inadequate. Making space for myself and others to practice self care is a radical act to say that we are okay as we are, that we have worth separate from what we produce. Cultivating self-care is essential to our movements to transform our world.

Of course, this story cannot end with a simple connection of ideas. I read this article, am touched and go on Facebook to share with others. And of course, brilliant people I’m connected with here have not only posted this article themselves, but are tagged in the original post as people who Yashna thought of when writing this post. I am already building connections with the people who I moved here to connect with.

In case I have any questions about whether I’m in the right place, connecting with the right people ….. San Francisco continues to remind me that I am right where I most want to be.


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Minimum Living

I’m participating in the #trust30 challenge to reflect on quotes and writing prompts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance. I hope to develop more trust in my writing, more self reliance that what I write is worthwhile, even if just to me.


“Resolve to only do what makes you come alive.” – Jonathan Mead

I spent most of the day Saturday at TEDxSF at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Not a bad day’s work to be sitting in a room full of smart people listening to some brilliant TED-style talks. The day’s theme “ALIVE! Maximum Living as a Human” made me ask a lot of questions – what makes me feel alive? What squelches my aliveness, which I feel as this heavy, tired, foggy sensation in my body? What outright makes me grumpy, frustrated, and unhappy in my day to day life?

Since moving to San Francisco, it has been my ongoing question – what should I do here? There are so many opportunities, so many potentially interesting, engaging, and amazing things to be doing every night of the week. Which should I do? And more importantly, which longer term commitments should I make – to work, to community organizing, to community building, to personal development and education? The choices seem endless, and every attempt to choose one thing leads to a profound loss at all I will be missing out on.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

I love to be of use, but I also know that I get burnt out quickly if I’m not doing what makes me come alive. If I’m not doing work that gets me out of bed every morning, that makes me cry when I think of the difference I am making in this world. Social change work is too hard to also have the heaviness and lethargy of work that makes you feel a little more dead inside every time you show up.

“Today, let’s take a step away from rational thought and dare to be bold. What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to accomplish but have been afraid to pursue? Write it down.” – Matt Cheuvront

How do I know what makes me come alive? I know for me, time spent without purpose is critical to feeling in to what makes me come alive. I usually need quite a bit of it to get through all the jitters after coming down from the adrenaline high of being on all the time, but I know that when I finally have enough I start to feel in to what feels good in my body, what gets me excited, what makes me smile and get giddy and start plotting and call friends to get them involved too in the coolest thing ever.

So my bold, irrational pursuit? Do nothing. Take some serious time off, make space in my schedule for long uninterrupted stretches of nothingness. Pursue boredom, that empty yawning Grand Canyon that opens up before I can find that small speck of aliveness. As the brilliant Nina Wise said, in her  talk that hilariously summed up TEDxSF, “Perhaps instead of maximum living, what we need is minimum living.”


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Say No so you can Say Yes

I say no to new opportunities at least 10 times each day. Hundreds of time each day, if I count every time I say no to buying the extra iPhone accessory the sales guy is pushing my way or say no to the guy on the street corner who asks me to spare fifty cents.

I am terrible at saying no, so each time I have to muster up the energy to say it, and each time there’s a lingering dread – should I have actually said yes? The pain is even greater when it’s something I would actually love to say yes to, but I’ve reached my limits of time or money – like when I have to say no to an invitation out with friends because I’ve got another commitment that I can’t get out of.

Moving to San Francisco, I’ve had to quadruple the amount of times I say no. I moved here because there’s so much cool stuff to do, but there’s SO MUCH cool stuff to do. It’s impossible to do it all. In Durango, most of the time it WAS possible to do it all, if you were willing to do a bit of party hopping or show up to a meeting 20 minutes late. In San Francisco, the sheer volume of activities and the travel time to get from one activity to another make it impossible to do everything I would love to do.

Increasing My “NO” Capacity

I’ve been struggling to increase my capacity to say no, especially because my life is already overflowing with projects and activities. I have two jobs, which combined could take up 26 to 60 hours of my time each week. I also participate in the Anne Braden program which is a minimum of 15 hours per week, with cool extra opportunities each week which could involve an additional 2 to 20 hours easily. So I’m at 41 to 80 hours of activities, before we even talk about all the tasks associated with moving to a new place, connecting with old and new friends, writing this blog, and all those basic self care activities which I find so easy to neglect. It’s all great opportunities, but it’s a lot.

A couple weeks ago, I had two different people ask me how I manage to juggle all my competing responsibilities. From their perspectives, I do it well and they wanted more insight on how they could apply it to their own lives. I’m always better at giving advice to others, and then realizing it all applies directly to me and what I most need. So this is what I discovered I needed myself in the process of thinking through advice to others. Hopefully some piece will be helpful to you too!

Know What Your Big Rocks Are

While I have used a lot of different time management tools over the years, my current problem is less a time management problem and more a problem with setting clear priorities. One of my favorite books in setting clear priorities is one of the time management standards – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I always cringe a bit in recommending this to others, because the author, Stephen Covey, has been accused of deceptively repackaging religious ideas into business language as a way to spread Mormon ideas to the general public. I don’t want to be a part of that, and at the same time I’ve found some of his metaphors and tools to be extraordinarily helpful to me.

My most well-worn chapter is for Habit 3 – Put First Things First. You may know the analogy of filling a glass with rocks – if you put a pile of pebbles in first, there’s no way you can get any big rocks in later. But if you put the big rocks in first, the pebbles will easily sift down between the crevices to fill in the remaining space.

Get Out of Crisis Mode

Covey also talks a lot about prioritizing the important but not urgent tasks. Especially in my work at a rape crisis center, I could have spent all day every day simply responding to the crises that came my way. Yet when I worked like that, I never had the time for strategic planning, building relationships, community organizing, and self care. And even work that I could anticipate – grant reports that were due or a press release that needed to get out for an upcoming event – these became last minute emergencies that got done right on deadline or were delivered with apologies for being late (again). I was always in crisis mode, and I never had time to do important work that would make a long term difference in ending sexual violence.

I got fed up with this mode of working. We deal with ENOUGH real crisis in our work. The shit that doesn’t have to be a crisis should be organized and produced with ease.

Who Are You Going to Be This Week?

So, how do we work differently? The most effective tool I use is weekly planning, with a clear set of goals for the week. I often don’t know day to day what I’m actually going to work on, but when I have a pocket of time, I have a clear list of what to work on.

Yet this list must be manageable – if my list is “Write a novel” and “Raise $30,000” – I’m probably not going to reach those goals all in one week. Most time management tools will tell you to break these down into smaller goals, but what size is right? It’s hard to know.

Covey switches the planning from task-based to role-based. A person can only manage about 7 roles in your whole life at any given time. Usually my job is more than one role as I’m juggling fundraising, marketing, organization development, and production.Yet, I also have personal roles that are important to me – like being a good friend, getting my new house set up, organizing a social justice project.

For me this week, my 7 roles might be:
– Person who just moved to a new place
– Data analyst
– Anti-racist training participant
– Fundraising & development planner
– Bookkeeper
– New roommate
– Friend

Each of those roles might have 2-3 important goals to achieve this week, and I can kind of map out when those things might get done during the week and still have a lot of space in my week to deal with whatever else comes up. The container of having a maximum of 7 roles forces me to be very selective about what’s most important to get done and then clarifies that the rest is over capacity and needs to be pushed off to next week, delegated, or cut back. Next week my roles might look totally different, or some of the same and some new ones.

Know What You Want to Say YES To

It’s hugely helpful to me to have to define the most important roles in my life and have that drive what I do, rather than try to randomly cut tasks from my to do list. I’ve seen this work tangibly for me when purging out old stuff. When I look at a previously treasured item and ask, “Do I want this or not?” the answer is usually “yes! I want this! It’s been important to me!” But when I change the problem to, “I get one box of treasured items – what are the most important ones to keep?” it seems effortless to send off to Goodwill a lot of things that I no longer treasure that deeply, so that someone else can enjoy them.

Seeing my most important roles clearly each week helps me see what I’m saying YES to when I’m saying NO to other activities. It makes saying no much easier because my own limits are much clearer and visible to me. It also helps me say yes to new opportunities that come up that fit with my top roles for the week. So I may not have any social activities planned at the beginning of my week, but I know that it’s something I will need and want. By including it as a role, I leave space to fill in fun social activities to meet that need.

Getting ready for a lot more “NO” in my life … so I can have plenty of space for all that I want to say “YES” to.


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White Anti-Racism in New-to-Me Social Movements

I am excited to be part of the 2011 class of anti-racist white folks participating in the third Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training Program by the Catalyst Project.

I just completed a move to San Francisco in part because I sought more training and connection with this kind of work. In small town Durango, Colorado, I felt disconnected from a larger movement and any sense of history of social change work that I was part of. I felt alone, isolated, like I was one of just a handful of people who cared about anti-racist work as part of the larger struggle for any kind of social change.

It’s amazing to be immersed among so many people committed to anti-racist organizing, so soon after my move to San Francisco (I started the training less than 48 hours after I arrived). I didn’t anticipate the way that I would be challenged by being immersed in new issues that are of primary interest to white community organizers in the Bay Area – issues like the anti-imperialist movements for global justice that have grown out of the Seattle WTO protest in 1999, Jewish Anti-Zionist and Palestine solidarity work, and anti-war work organizing with soldiers and veterans.

In small town Durango, these issues are present but not central to the issues we struggled with as a community. Part of that feels like our isolation from state, national, and international politics – it can feel disengaging to be several hours and mountain passes away from decision makers on these issues. Part is also the make-up of our community – Native American sovereignty and Latino immigration issues were the pressing issues that people of color were organizing around.

But I also have felt a certain internal laziness about learning more about these issues. They are complicated by a lot of different voices. They require taking a strong side. Many of these issues have a long history that must be understood – sometimes hundreds or thousands of years.

I am realizing that  it’s not that I struggle to take a side on anything. I struggle to take a side when I can’t actually have conversations face to face with people who are most affected. I have really fought to unlearn binary ways of thinking about the world. Now if I can’t hear multiple sides and understand the complexity of how different people are viewing an issue, I feel paralyzed to take a side just based on my gut reaction or what one person is saying.

I sometimes feel like an ineffective ally because I need to know more to take a strong position, and I have only a limited capacity about how much new information I can take in at a time. I am trying to give myself some space for learning, understanding, and finding my own way on these new-to-me issues. It’s hard when I feel internal pressure to impress my new radical anti-racists friends by being down with all the right politics.


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