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Cultivating Practices for Meaningful, Intention-Based Work

Despite what we’re calling unprecedented, challenging times, for many of us daily work seems to carry on as normal. Even before the pandemic, many of us were intimately familiar with never-ending to-do lists. Now, as the nonprofit sector is increasingly strained, many have taken on more work with fewer resources. In a culture that favors productivity, even as we’re marching through hell and high water, there is always another email to send and task to complete. 

It’s important to establish practices that can help hack the to-do list, identify what is truly important, and cultivate a feeling of fulfillment both at work and in life. I am admittedly no pro, but I’ve gathered a few of these actionable items that have helped me along the way.

Narrow Down to the Essentials

A lesson I learned the hard way is that if I don’t set meaningful intentions around how I spend my time, others will decide this for me. When I’m in autopilot mode, I quickly agree to too many meetings or projects to please others. Suddenly, I’m working longer hours, I don’t have time for lunch and I’m too exhausted at the end of the day for an activity that would replenish my energy. This, dear friends, is the perfect set up for a beautiful swan dive into burnout. 

Making the Wisest Investment of Our Time

Greg McKeowen, author of “Essentialism,” says that we can be more successful by focusing our energies and efforts on the essential few. With the wisest investment of our time, we can cut out what’s deemed unessential and get the more impactful things done that should take priority. 

Creating the Space to Discern What’s Important

In a culture where busyness is a badge of honor and requests for our time seem to come in constantly from every direction, the first (and hardest) step is taking the space to reflect and discern what is important – on a daily basis if possible. Every action we take is a trade-off; if we say “yes” to one thing, that means we are saying “no” to a dozen other possibilities. Once we have a clear picture of what is important, it’s easier to respectfully decline when we are confronted with an unessential ask. Saying “no” gracefully? That may take a lifetime to perfect, but the pursuit is so worth it.

Create Systems and Enjoy the Process

Goals are great to have, but if you have ever drafted a strategic plan that was left in the dust, it may be that the right systems weren’t in place to make it stick. Developing effective systems can turn tactics into positive work habits, help make your plan sustainable for the long-term, and allow you to enjoy the day-to-day process of it all.

James Clear, the author of “Atomic Habits,” breaks it down this way:

  • A goal = something you want to achieve
  • A system = a process that leads you to those goals

For example, if my SMART goal is to publish eight blog posts a month, my system for achieving this goal is to meet with blog writers each quarter to identify topics and set deadlines, plus make time in my schedule to edit and upload two blog posts each week.

Defining What Makes Up Our Daily Work

Goals are hyper-focused on the destination, while systems are all about the journey. After setting goals, even SMART goals, it’s easy to lose motivation or focus, and forget why they were important in the first place. To put in place practical and valuable systems, we need to first identify the set of repeatable actions that will make up our daily work. Systems are often more realistic – offering us more flexibility and grace.

Finding Satisfaction in the Process

Focusing on the broader systems can help those of us who are overly goal-oriented to find fulfillment in other ways beyond achieving these set objectives. James Clear writes, “When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”

Celebrate Your Wins

In my experience, most workplaces don’t prioritize a culture of celebration and appreciation. Often when one project ends, employees barely have time to take a breath before it’s on to the next. Because of this, celebration can often feel silly, unnecessary, or frivolous. Yet, earnest celebration,even in the smallest of ways, can be a vital tool to fend off burnout and build a sustainable work practice. Proudly acknowledging milestones, finished projects, and efforts made along the way can offer great opportunities for cultivating a sense of gratitude and connection with your team. 

Yes, Even Your Efforts Are Worthy

In a recent podcast episode, Christy Tending suggests celebrating so often that “it feels silly,” and also celebrating what’s in our control (our efforts), versus how the work is received. In other words, don’t wait on the approval of others before you say “hurrah!”  

Depending on your style, here are few ideas for mini-celebrations:

  • Create a list of “wins” that you add to weekly (his can also be a helpful summary at your annual review)
  • Post a shout out on social media about your team’s accomplishment (#proud)
  • Pick a celebration theme song to play at the end of a project and/or have a personal dance party
  • Practice the art of a socially distanced or virtual high-five
  • Embrace your inner-child with stickers that you can offer as a reward to yourself or unsuspecting team members

Spending Our Time Well

Most of us desire to lead fulfilling, balanced lives that are grounded in the things we truly care about. As Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It’s important to set honest and realistic intentions around the actions that make up our days because in the end, this is the only time we have. 

Resources for Further Exploration

Cori Mattli | @CoriMattli


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