I don’t really see my work life in terms of good or bad days. On the whole, I genuinely enjoy the purpose and challenge of my work. I feel deeply satisfied with the idea that I’m giving my best energy, thinking, and labor on a day to day basis to the task of creating powerful learning environments and experiences for kids. Of course I’m still a human being who feels disappointment with setbacks, and I’m no stranger to frustration when confronting organizational inertia or unnecessary obstacles. But across the board, I feel a persistent satisfaction in my work.
And then, sometimes, I really do have a distinctively good day.
Like yesterday, for example. It’s hard to explain, but every so often I have a day that surprises me in terms of both the actual work I accomplish and my emotional state as I pass through that work. I don’t think you can precisely engineer good days – often there is some luck involved – but my experiences yesterday got me thinking about some of the common elements of a good day at work for me.
The most defining characteristic of a notably “good” day, is when I experience some degree of culmination, hit a major milestone, or enjoy some closure. My definition of culmination is when we experience some palpable sense of progress or success. Yesterday, for example, I had an advisory council meeting for one of the projects I lead. For months, we had talked about adding key strategic partners to our team. We had discussed launching a redesigned website. On multiple occasions we had planned to formally file for incorporated status with the state of California. Each subgoal brought with it countless tasks, from making calls to potential partners to drafting agendas to reviewing bylaws to sitting down to actually create a website. It’s a project that in many ways never has real closure.
But yesterday, over the course of our monthly 90 minute meeting, I felt an incredible sense of culmination. We sat with an expanded team. We received the draft of our fledgling organization’s website (which I had created). We finalized our intention to incorporate – and we paused as necessary to send the reminder emails, calendar the follow-ups, and ensure we were locking in our progress.
Of course there are moments when we hit clear milestones that bring concrete closure. Graduation ceremonies. A job promotion. A birthday celebration. Often, those events become some of our best days. But even without a full stop or external recognition of success, we have those days where things come together and put a smile on our face.
Leadership is not primarily about writing strategic plans, reviewing documents and providing feedback, or even making data-driven decisions – as important as all of those tasks might be. Leadership is about developing and shaping an organization’s culture and consistently pointing everyone towards excellence. It’s about setting a vision and then reinforcing that vision through ongoing interactions and conversations. Yes, there is important technical work inherent to moving the organization forward, but transformational leadership implies moving people towards heightened levels of engagement, skill, and commitment.
On my good days, I take time to connect with the people I have the responsibility to lead. I have the opportunity to learn about the work happening at all levels of the organization, and reinforce my vision through the corresponding conversations. Yesterday, for example, I started the morning by informally seeking out members of my team, connecting briefly about the weekend, and then learning about the tasks and potential obstacles they were facing at the outset of the week. I tried to provide encouragement, redirection, reinforcement, and sometimes tangible support. These conversations were short, and within 45 minutes I felt like I had a good pulse on our collective trajectory for the day and week.
Of course sometimes I have pressing tasks that bring me straight to my desk. That turns the tables where my team members have to come to me when they get stuck or need clarification. I feel much more in control and purposeful when I’m initiating the interactions and offering support before others feel the need to come ask it of me.
I am somewhat religious about a daily checklist – it’s a practice that has persisted across both digital and handwritten platforms for me. And almost without fail, I put more on that list than I could possibly hope to accomplish given the time and commitments of the day. You would think that after so many years as a working professional, I would have disrupted my own counterproductive tendency to over plan my time, but I haven’t. In my defense, I have developed a useful practice of identifying what I call my “big 3” – the three most important tasks of the day that I try to knock out before moving on to other things. But still, I experience daily, unnecessary emotional tension when I haven’t checked off everything on my list.
On a good day, like yesterday, I was courageous about removing commitments that simply weren’t moving my work forward. I cancelled participation in a webinar. I was honest with some colleagues about a project I had committed to that was drawing on my attention and time but that I felt was not adding adequate value to the organization. In other words, I said ‘no’ a few times. I took things off the to do list – to be forever unchecked. Of course any truly good day has to feel deeply productive at its core, it’s not just about saying no. But to a large degree my ability to focus on the most important, high-leverage projects is dependent on my willingness to walk away from less important work.
A lot is said about the food courts, lounge rooms, and flex schedules of Silicon Valley startups and tech companies. As with anything, I think reality might not exactly match up with the sometimes exaggerated picture that is painted in the media about the work cultures of some of the best places to work. Yet I do think that some companies have learned to harness the best thinking and creative energy of their people by building flexibility and adaptability into their schedules.
For the most part, schools have incredibly inflexible schedules. While most work places did away with punchcards and whistles a long time ago, schools still use bells to signal start and stop times. Kids cycle in and out of classrooms on highly routinized schedules, and there typically is not much room for flexibility. As educators, our lives are dictated by the master schedule. Part of my core work is focused on helping teachers and administrators rethink some of these traditional constraints, but even in the tightly managed work day on a school campus, I think there are ways to find space to re-energize.
Some of my best teachers had firm commitments to lunch time spent on a basketball court or walking the campus. Whether it’s a spin class immediately after school with colleagues, or a long run when the final bell rings, a lot of educators find that they have better energy when they find ways to get moving and sweat a little throughout the day. Similarly, I wasn’t afraid to use 20 minutes of my lunch for a quick nap when I felt my energy waning.
Yesterday, I used my lunchtime to squeeze in a short workout in the small staff gym. It was by no means a full strength or cardio circuit, but it was enough to energize my afternoon. In addition to the physical stimulation, I enjoyed the psychological boost of knowing that by mid-day I had already knocked out some major tasks AND done a little exercise as well. It started to free up some of my mental space for planning out my evening, knowing that instead of needing to find time to exercise after putting the kids to bed, I could choose to work on a home project or just relax. Add just for good measure, since it was a good day, I put that evening time to use cleaning out in the garage.