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Getting Back to “Normal”

, | February 13, 2024

by Tracy Smith

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Tracy Smith, Director of IT Service Support Operations at the University of Virginia. He is a MOR alum.  Tracy may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Time Flies!

It is hard to believe that just about this time last year, I was on my first orientation call with MOR Associates.  Time has flown by, and so much has changed!  If you want to take a way back trip to this time, just read Brian McDonald’s Tuesday Reading from last week, and picture yourself as the new MOR participant he describes!    One of my first readings in the MOR program was and is still very relevant: it included a section to dig in and learn how we identify, deal with, predict, and “see around the corner” of upcoming and inevitable change.

Today, I want to explore what happens when we “fall off the wagon” when life gives us a curveball that we could not have anticipated. MOR helps us build a tremendous toolset with our mindset and growing skillsets.  We also explore the importance of having a healthy dose of resilience, but what happens to our most basic habits when events throw us off course or off balance in a significant way?

These “events” could be many different types [insert yours here] – ours was a massive external event from which we are still catching up seven months later.  But others cause us to fall out of habit or out of balance.  They can be external, where our habits and practices kick in even more substantially, or they can be very personal and knock us off our game – like the loss of a family member or a severe illness, for example. What happens when we finally return to work and realize we haven’t kept up with those habits amid the chaos?

In a conversation with my coach last year about this very question, she provided a phrase that was equally helpful and frustrating to me at the same time:  “Get Back to Normal as quickly as you can.”  As much as I tried, returning to normal was more challenging than anticipated.  I wrote the words Get Back to Normal on my daily planner page every day for more than six months.  I was often frustrated when I saw those words because “normal” was elusive and seemed impossible. So many tasks and priorities were bottled up, and the resulting demands came at me so quickly that “normal” seemed impossible even months later.

When in Survival Mode, Still Employ Your Toolset
Being in survival mode lasted until about mid-January.  All along, I was still trying to use those new practices and habits – daily planning time, weekly reflection, thinking about presence, relationships, and active delegation, to name a few. Putting every task through the immediate/urgent vs. important filter was helpful. Still, there were so many “immediate” priorities that the important things seemed to join the growing queue of backlogged work.

During that survival mode time, I had to acknowledge that my time and capacity were significantly limited. I still tried to do some daily planning and weekly reflecting and to set some straightforward goals in the few precious moments carved out from the demands and chaos.  Planning a little I-time was also crucial because taking time to breathe was part of the survival strategy!  Discovering a new planner template with more intentional spaces for weekly,  monthly, and quarterly goals and reflection was immensely helpful.  Learning that weekly reflections do not need to be a chapter or a book was enlightening – only a few phrases would suffice!

But things were still not “normal,” and I was frustrated that I couldn’t just “be normal.”  So, how in the world do you Get Back to Normal?

“Get Back to Normal” is Not a Light Switch

Fast forward to the time set aside for reflection at some point in January when an “aha” moment struck:  “Get Back to Normal” is not a light switch that can be turned on to make everything, well, “normal.”   Instead, while hastily reviewing my priorities each day and occasionally revisiting goals, I made significant, gradual progress – with many little wins.

“Get Back to Normal” is not a light switch.

“Get Back to Normal” is gradual progress.

“Get Back to Normal” is many little wins.

Reflection for the Win

Another ‘aha’ moment was this: As hard as it was to set aside reflection time, even a few moments of it had been beneficial. It was in this reflection time – a 5-minute sliver – that I was able to stop long enough to realize this about disruptive events: When a “curveball” event comes my way – whether it be a minor disruption in my weekly cadence or a major one, it will take a little while to Get Back to Normal but “Getting Back to Normal” takes time, focus, persistence, and lots of patience.

This needed space was illustrated a few weeks ago when the parent of one of my team members died unexpectedly.  I opted to spend a couple of half-days on the road to be supportive by attending the funeral.  That trip disrupted the week, including seemingly unproductive days while catching up and “Getting Back to Normal.”  

The following week’s reflection time helped me to look back and see the pattern again – where even minor disruptions can ‘steal your normal.’   A plan is necessary for both multi-month and smaller events. Planning includes the determination and patience to return to normal in the face of the unexpected. I had to slow down and admit that something had distracted me from the usual routine, but it was up to me to persistently, patiently, and with some grit – Get Back to Normal.

Easily Distracted When Getting Back to Normal?

Besides using the practices of reflection, prioritization, and simple goal setting, I found several other tools helpful in the back-to-normal journey and included some pictures below. I am easily distracted.  There, I said it.  Using a new planning tool template to remind me of my practice progress (or lack thereof) was necessary.  It helped me to see where I needed to focus to get back on track and celebrate the little wins.  I needed those affirmations more than I admitted.

Also, using this new, more detailed template for my prioritization list and goals, I could see many more items marked with “IP” – my shorthand for “In Progress.”  Priorities in progress are better than priorities not started.  “In Progress” and moving forward means making progress – something I had not given myself credit for. Since beginning this practice, it has been mentally helpful to see an increasing number of items marked as “IP.”

Super-simple tool: Set an Alarm!  Sometimes, a simple answer is best. I found myself setting alarms to remind me to eat and go to bed, among others. Setting these alarms came out of necessity because knowing myself, I will work work work at the goal and forget to take care of myself.  I was a little embarrassed to share with my cohort that I had to set some alarms until I learned that others do, too!  Alarms as reminders help nail down a practice into a consistent habit.

The final tool for today’s thoughts, and the most demanding tool for me personally during this time, was continuing to build on and build new relationships.  Time constraints made this difficult, but the same benefits we learned about in the program apply.  Building on existing relationships helped me see we were in this together. Building new relationships is a worthwhile investment.  The feedback gained from newly formed relationships was helpful during crunch time and laid a foundation for the future.

What are your tools? How do you get back to normal again?”. What do you think?

(additional visual aids appear below the survey questions)

Last week, we focused on building a leadership community and asked from which leadership lessons you have learned the most:

  • 44% said doing something not-so-well
  • 24% said watching others do something well
  • 17% said watching others do something not-so-well
  • 15% said doing something well

We’ve learned almost 3x as much from times we’ve done something not-so-well vs. when we did something well.  Interestingly, though, the pattern is reversed when we look at others: we are about 1.5x more likely to learn from what others did well compared to not-so-well. When focused on things we’ve done ourselves, we learn from experiences where we’ve pushed the boundary and tried something different, and when it went not-so-well, we learned from the gap between our desired and actual outcomes. However, when watching others, the power of role modeling is more substantial – seeing their successes can help propel our achievements.

Habit Tracker
Which one do I need to focus on and course-correct?

Top Three Daily Prioritization
A great tool – and links to my daily habits chart and weekly reflections (below)

Aha Moments
No need to write a book to reflect on the week. A few phrases will do!