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Finding Balance, Sustaining Progress

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Karsten Siller, Director of Research Computing User Services at the University of Virginia. He is a current MOR program participant.  Karsten may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Looking back at my MOR cohort journey, it has turned out quite differently than I had expected. Before the workshops began, I anticipated learning about techniques that could aid us in becoming effective leaders. An augmented toolset to build out a skillset for leading teams and projects—my initial perspective was all outward looking. While those tools have been valuable, the workshop’s true impact has been elsewhere for me. I am grateful for how much my cohort and coaches have helped me to look inward—to take an honest look at myself and shift my focus toward my mindset. It has been transformative. 

What precipitated that new focus? I framed my initial workshop goals around strategic planning, delegation, and improving communication. These items seemed like reasonable choices. However, as I immersed myself in the workshop, I quickly realized that I had to find balance to achieve my goals. When pressed by deadlines, I felt edgy at times. I could be short with people around me. Occasionally, I had to resist the urge to make a hasty decision so that I could check it off my to-do list. My mental game was different from where I wanted it to be. I had to find a healthier work-life balance, or rather life-work balance, including keeping more time for myself and fostering inner emotional calm. Now, I have a new goal—finding balance. But how? It can be hard to leave a well-trodden path and form new habits, particularly when under stress and when stakes may be high. It is just too easy to fall back into the old rut. 

For me, a small breakthrough came in the form of a new hobby. Earlier this year, I got back into running. I had tried several times over the past few years. Each training episode lasted for about 3-6 weeks, and then I dropped it because I got burned out by the “no pain, no gain” regimen I had imposed on myself. Any progress I had made was short-lived and evaporated each time because I could not sustain a schedule of regular workouts. This time was different. I worked with a coach to guide me. We created a training plan for a long-distance trail race several months later. Regularly exercising over many months provided a welcome outlet to let off steam. It also had an unexpected side effect. I began to recognize parallels between some core concepts of the workshop and my quest to find balance through running. My hobby offered an experimental platform to consolidate my thoughts and try out cues and routines that became new habits through consistent practice.  

I am highlighting a few parallels between my applied running & learning:

  • Being intentional & defensive calendaring: I needed to prioritize exercising and reserve time to get out and run. Just like work—if I don’t block time, it won’t happen. This has been quite successful for my training and carried over well into my work life.
  • Strategic planning & relationships: To get from zero to my eventual targeted race distance, I needed a training plan. Lesson learned: invest in and tap into my network (aka my coach) to explore ideas and seek guidance. Try to give back and be a resource for others. I volunteered a few times to help my coach with organized race events. Mutual appreciation and willingness to help each other strengthened from there. I am trying to follow a similar approach at work—willing to invest time to help colleagues without expectation of returned favors.
  • Preparation and Reflections: I am clear about the purpose of each training run before I start it. Sometimes, the goal is to improve endurance; other times, the focus is on speed. Running has provided me time to think about myself without distraction. I take notes for each training session (ok, almost every session) and log how I felt physically & mentally and what I ate and drank during the run. In essence, I note the little things that contribute to a good vs not-so-good workout. At work, I have become more meticulous in the preparation and review of my meetings, although I’m certainly not hitting a perfect score.
  • Timely feedback is a gift: My coach is fantastic! He regularly checks in: How was the last run? Are the training instructions clear? What do you need? Do you have any questions? He encourages me to text him immediately about any minor “niggle.” And he means it. He is attentive, focuses on me, holds me accountable, and invests in supporting me in reaching my long-term running goal. He has been another inspiration for how I would like to coach my team at work. That’s a tough one though, he set a high bar.  
  • Activity ramp-up and recovery cycles: Rather than pushing hard and redlining every single training session, this polarized training involves high-intensity efforts that will make you faster, as well as low-intensity efforts that allow for recovery and increased endurance. I spend more than ¾ of the weekly training on low-intensity workouts. Less than a quarter is spent at high intensity. After each 3-week block, there is a recovery week with reduced mileage and intensity. Then I step into the next cycle with a slightly higher total mileage; rinse & repeat. What I have learned is that the polarized workouts, gradual increase in training load, and insertion of recovery weeks have been crucial to sustaining my progress and avoiding injury or mental fatigue. At work, this may equate to setting periodic stretch goals that require kicking work into a higher gear in a controlled manner and for a limited time, followed by a period with less intensive and less time-sensitive tasks. If done in careful doses, each cycle may further build competence, confidence, and resilience. I have just started to explore how to translate such a concept into consistent practice for my team. If you have any ideas or comments, I would love to hear them!

Coming full circle: Realizing the importance of getting myself into the right frame of mind has been transformative. For me, running has been a significant piece of that process. It took intentional effort, the results of which have permeated other areas of my life, including work. The newfound life-work balance has provided energy to sustain progress toward establishing new habits to pursue my goals. I am more relaxed, more aware of others, and generally feel more centered emotionally. Certain situations that used to get under my skin are less likely to throw me off now. I still care about the same issues, but I am less likely to blow a gasket. This has an immediate impact on my personal relationships. In broader terms, I can now be more effective in fully realizing my other work-related initial goals related to strategic planning, delegation, and communication. I have made progress in some of these areas more than in others. The journey continues. There is still more to be done.

Find your balance!

Last week, we asked how well your weekly planning work for you:

  • 33% said very helpful to focusing on the priorities for the week.
  • 25% said sometimes it works well.
  • 27% said I try, but too many distractions come up during the week.
  • 15% said I don’t have a weekly planning process.

Our answers are split.  For those of us who undertake regular planning every week, we might be surprised so many of our peers try but become distracted.  For those of us who become distracted, we might be surprised so many of our peers are able to maintain that focus.  Focusing on the important over the immediate is an integral part of the answer, yet can seem complicated when so much feels important.  However, if almost everything is important, then nothing is important.  For those of us who feel there are just too many commitments of our time for the hours available, what is one step we can take this week to slow down that treadmill just a bit?  An immediate item we can forgo to make a little more time for the more-important?  Or perhaps something more significant that we can work to no longer have occupy our time? Taking this approach week after week can help us be able to focus on our priorities.