“The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”
So said poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow many moons ago. As the British summer season peaks and the rains tumble down across the land - bringing a further dose of chaos to our lives - Longfellow’s words ring true. To fight the inevitable is futile. It’s better to simply watch on in awe and accept that a little chaos is just part and parcel of the modern world.
There’s nothing you can do.
The idea of trying to harness chaos seems particularly relevant when considering the state of modern work.
The world of work is often presented as something that needs to be tamed. We believe we can control it if only we complete this document, hit the next deadline, make ourselves constantly available, respond faster, work later, rise earlier, skip breakfast, stay at our desks, sacrifice exercise, ignore friends, dose ourselves up on caffeine and plough on towards the promised land.
A promised land of control and tranquility. A place where chaos is absent and calmness prevails.
The thing is - this place doesn’t exist. It never has. It never will.
I’ve recently been reading Matt Haig’s brilliant, perceptive and frequently alarming book - Notes on a Nervous Planet. Amongst the deluge of enlightening and life-affirming advice contained within its pages, the one overriding theme I took out of the book was this:
Yes, the world has always been chaotic.
Yet we’ve recently convinced ourselves we are capable of controlling the chaos.
At some point - you have to ask yourself the simple question;
How comfortable am I with chaos?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since co-founding 4and20million. There is always something more to be done. Another call to make and another document to be written. Another lead to chase and another deal to close. When should you mark the end of your working day? When is enough, enough?
Notes on a Nervous Planet confronts you with a plain truth. We’re not designed to function effectively in the modern workplace. At least not in the way it's structured right now.
The world of work is constantly connected and alive with possibilities. Whilst this is wonderfully exciting, the constant promise of new opportunities is causing us to overestimate our own capacity to control all elements of our working lives.
We don’t have to be “always on”. We’re not capable of it. When we think we are, we act in a less human way.
THE WORLD IS ON EDGE
If we wanted to, we could worry constantly. Many of us do. Much of that worry is brought on by the way in which we interact with the world. Accepting every new initiative, every technological advancement and every news story into our lives isn’t necessarily progress.
As Haig neatly puts it:
“Progress is a matter of acceptance. Only by accepting a situation can you change it. You have to learn not to be shocked by shock. Not to be in a state of panic about the panic. To change what you can change and not to get frustrated by what you can’t.”
There is no shame in not watching the news. There is no shame in not going on Twitter. There is no shame in disconnecting.”
These are not necessarily new thoughts. In Stephen R. Covey’s seminal The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People he introduced the concept of the Circle of Concern - representing all the things you’re concerned about - and the Circle of Influence - representing all the things you can actually do something about. Inevitably, the Circle of Influence is much smaller than the Circle of Concern, highlighting just how much time we spend preoccupied by things we cannot change.
Our work is never done. “Completing work” is rarely a viable option. Especially in a knowledge economy. WE know this, but we rarely accept it. We know we can't influence it, but we persevere in trying.
We tell ourselves that the busyness we feel today will not be a part of our future in a fortnight...in a month...next quarter. “I’ll be rested and focused in a few weeks” we say. “The future - that’s the time when the chaos of today will have dissipated.”
It won’t. It doesn’t.
We have to get comfortable with today’s chaos...today.
We need to consider where our daily finishing lines are. Accept when you’ve done what you can and acknowledge what falls outside of your circle of influence. Accept that the world continues to turn when you’re sleeping.
We need to be capable of disconnecting effectively from work, in order for us to be effective tomorrow.
One way to help become more comfortable with chaos and mark the end of the day is to engage in a Shutdown Ritual. This is to apply a brilliant technique from Cal Newport - author of Deep Work. This technique is perfect for the modern world where the end of the working day is often dependent on the individual. So whether it’s 3pm, 5.30pm, 10pm or 2am - this approach switches off your conscious brain and unleashes the power of your subconscious.
A Shutdown Ritual looks like this:
E: Take a final look at emails to ensure that there’s nothing requiring an urgent response before the end of the day
T: Transfer any new tasks that are on your mind or were scribbled down earlier in the day onto your office task list or into your calendar
S: Quickly skim every task, and then look at the next few days on your calendar. These 2 actions ensure there’s nothing urgent you’re forgetting or important deadlines or appointments sneaking up on you.
P: You have at this point reviewed everything that’s on your professional plate. To end the ritual, use this information to make a rough plan for the next day.
S: Say “Shutdown complete” out loud and your work thoughts are done for the day!
So whilst you’ll likely feel weird attempting this at first, your new-found ability to mark the end of your day - or acknowledge the limits of your circle of influence - will help you to sleep better, reduce any anxiety and enable you to switch your attention to your life outside work. A chance to direct your full focus on your family, friends, your evening...not your emails!
Becoming comfortable with chaos is disconcerting at first - but it’s a skill that is worth striving for. We can convince ourselves that we need to be busy 24 hours a day. But the problem isn’t time itself. Mr Haig again:
“The problem clearly, isn’t that we have a shortage of time. It’s more that we have an overload of everything else.”
So by accepting our circle of influence, by creating a clear finish line at the end of our working day and allowing ourselves to disconnect from an increasingly nervous planet - we can start to cope a little better with the chaos of modern work.
Amidst the constant hailstorm of assignments, ever-expanding commitments, demands on your time, requests for your attention, the voice telling you that sleep is an indulgence rather than a luxury...we can simply accept that there will always be professional and personal disorder falling from the skies.
“The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”
And at least now we can use our Shutdown Ritual as a metaphorical umbrella, providing a little respite from the deluge!