Working Through Common Pitfalls of Adaptive Action

How I prioritize my time is a consistent concern for me. It relates to my work, civic engagement and volunteerism, relationships, and to how I take care of myself. When I say, “I’m sorry, I wish I could do XYZ, but I can’t,” there is a voice in my head that tells me, “If you really wanted to, you could. You just have to prioritize it.” This blog isn’t about why I feel this way. Anne Helen Peterson nailed it when she wrote about burnout. This blog is about how I tried (and botched) using Human Systems Dynamics to optimize my time. In that process, however, I gained insight that gives me the energy to move forward.

I wanted to know if I was prioritizing my time in the “right” way. I felt overcommitted, drained all the time, and like I was letting people down. I turned to Radical Inquiry, convinced that the process of outlining what I want, what matters to me, who I am, and how I relate to others would reveal that I’d been prioritizing my time all wrong. I wanted to make a bunch of changes and then in a few months feel balanced and fulfilled.

Completing my Radical Inquiry diagram indicated that I was spending my time in wise areas for me. That was not what I expected or wanted to hear! I had forgotten the first three lessons I learned from Human Systems Dynamics:

  1. Changes are more likely to stick if you make them one at a time because the change affects multiple patterns within a system.

    I had been hoping for a basic cause-and-effect reaction: I change my behavior and I feel like I am managing my time more effectively. But my life is more complex than that. There are multiple interconnected patterns between my work, volunteer commitments, home, and social lives in which I interact, create bridges, and set boundaries.

    Adaptive Action is the Human Systems Dynamics tool that helps us shift these patterns. It involves three iterative steps—asking ‘What?’, ‘So What?’, and ‘Now What?’—as we attempt to plan change. Because each change creates ripple effects throughout the entire Complex Adaptive System, making one change at a time gives you the most control and ability to course-correct if patterns do not change as you intended.
  2. Do not start your analysis—the ‘So What?’ step of Adaptive Action—with the end in mind. I chose the Radical Inquiry tool for two reasons, because it helps you determine actions that shape patterns (read: determine how to dedicate time) and because thought it would give me the answer I wanted. I thought it would justify changes in behavior that I had already been thinking about.

    I had defined my ‘What?” by the feeling that I wasn’t spending my time in the optimal way because I felt so taxed and over-committed. I also thought that I knew what the results of the ‘Now What?’ step would be. It would include only taking on certain projects, spending more time exercising with my dog outside, and getting more sleep. I was convinced that my Radical Inquiry would show that I needed to start these habits.

    At the center of my Radical Inquiry diagram I defined what I want as: I want to help people, including myself, live fully. A big dream. As I filled in the surrounding, connected circles of what my values are, how I connect with others, and what makes me different, my answers aligned with my overarching goal. I’ll give myself a pat on the back for that, but it didn’t solve my critical time management dilemma.

    The behaviors I thought radical inquiry would point me to—choosing specific projects, exercise, and more sleep—weren’t in opposition to my central goal, but I also wasn’t doing them. Radical Inquiry wasn’t going to tell that these behaviors were a better fit than my current habits. I was stuck in another common analysis pitfall: scale.
  3. Part of the value of Human Systems Dynamics is that it allows us to see the part, the whole, and the greater whole at the same time. Seeing the big-picture is important for taking informed action, but you can only take action at one scale at a time. My Radical Inquiry diagram was high level, broad characteristics and personality traits. But I wanted a rational way to assess daily action. How could I decide!?!?

    Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that I’ve totally figured it out. But I do have more of a guide. I can normally bucket my daily actions into two types: repetitive actions and one-time actions. I created a table to compare repetitive activities and one-time activities for their fit at any point in time.

    Repetitive Activities

    One-Time Activities

    I will be in a different space (mentally, physically, emotionally) each time I participate in this activity.

    The activity is central. I may not have this opportunity again.

    I can grow from the differences between repetitions.

    I can grow by experiencing this one-time event.

    This will deepen learning, relationships, or self-reflection.

    I will share what I get out of the experience with others.

    For example, I recently decided to see a play by the zAmya Theater Project three times. I rarely see movies more than once or re-read books, so this was out of character for me. But as I assessed the value of seeing the play multiple times in relation to the values in my radical inquiry, I knew I should go more than once.

I still feel overcommitted, drained, and like I’ve failed people I care about some days, but I don’t feel hopeless. Deciding how to spend my time is an Infinite Game—a life-long effort to meet my goal of helping people live full lives. I will make choices that create new decisions points, and I will learn as I go.

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