Slow Down to be Fulfilled, Focused, and Purposeful

Kansas Sunrise – cc photo by J. Delp

We have several dogs. One is a West Highland Terrier (a Westie) named Kosmo. Kosmo has a personality that matches his name — he is mischievous, full of energy, quirky, and strong-willed. One of my favorite things to do is take Kosmo to the local dog park where he is free to run wild and socialize. There is only one problem. Kosmo has F.O.M.O. — fear of missing out. Although the park is a small one, Kosmo runs miles as he darts from one dog to the next and from one person to the next — rarely spending more than a few seconds in any one place. It genuinely appears that he is so concerned about what might be happening elsewhere that he must check out every potential source of entertainment, even if it means leaving something good behind. When we leave, Kosmo is typically exhausted from all of the running in his effort to greet every creature at the park (human and canine).

There are many times in life that I feel a lot like Kosmo — running from one thing to another out of concern that I will miss out, or fear that I won’t get everything done. More of my days than I would like to admit are marred by chaos and a lack of focus. In the end, in spite of my busyness, I am left with an empty feeling in my soul and a full to-do list. The frantic pace of my day is counter-productive. Like Kosmo I run all around, spend little time focused on any one thing, wear myself out, and accomplish very little.

This week I ran across a blog post by John Spencer entitled, The Difference Between Being Busy and Being Productive. The post resonated with me, because even though I know better, I still struggle immensely to avoid busyness and stay on the productivity tract. If you have been following my blog you know that I have been considering ways to challenge my current practices as a principal, get back to being a passionate leader/advocate for my staff and students, and redefine the principal position (at least for me). John (for whom I have a great deal of respect), writes about his ideas on the benefits of “breaking up with busy.” In addition to sharing his written thoughts on the issue, John put together this video:

As I explained in a post about my “not-to-do” list, busyness has been my nemesis — even though I am very cognizant of the difference between being busy and being productive. John’s post helped me out by reinforcing the notion that it is worth the time to ensure that I have a plan for being productive — focusing on the “big rocks.” I have always loved this quote by Goethe, but constantly be guilty of allowing “things that matter least” to dominate my days.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This morning, I found a wonderful piece in the Harvard Business Review that touches on the notion of living a balanced life. In her post, In Praise of Extreme Moderation, author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox explains what she means by investing in extreme moderation.

I want to do a reasonable job at the different parts of my life and a stellar job at the balance between all of them. – Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

As consider what I want as a professional, and as a person, this seems like a pretty sensible approach. For me, the suggestions given by both John and Avivah are not so much earth-shattering as they are humbling. I know what productivity looks like, and I know that is what I want (as opposed to busyness). I know extreme workaholism and I certainly have a sense of what it would be like to live a balanced life. So far, I have just been too stubborn, or to lazy, to make either a priority. The trick (at least for me) is taking the time to slow myself down and be deliberate about my daily activities — moment by moment (i.e. don’t be like Kosmo).

Are my actions moderate in nature? Are they contributing to a sense of chaos, or do they leave me fulfilled, focused, and with a sense of purpose?

While responding to the siren call of email may seem like an act of productivity, in reality it may just be a distraction from what is truly important. Responding to email does not leave me feeling fulfilled, focused, or purposeful.

One of my favorite things to do during student lunches is to go outside and pick-up trash or scrape gum. It isn’t because I am overly concerned about the campus (although I want it to be clean), or because I am a neat-freak (although I can be). This activity provides an opportunity for me to interact with students and model actions and behaviors I want to see in them — allowing them to see that doing little things can make a difference. When I am out scrapping gum, here is a typical conversation.

Student: “Mr. Delp, what are you doing?”

Me: “Scraping gum?”

Student: “That’s gum (pointing to the black spot on the concrete)?!!!”

Me: “Sure is. Would you like a piece. I can’t guarantee the flavor.”

Student: “That’s gross. Can I try (scraping the gum)?”

This pattern of conversation typically evolves into a discussion about what has been going on in the classroom, the book the student is currently reading, the plans they have for the weekend, and a plethora of other topics. What seems like a custodial activity turns into an opportunity to build relationships. All because I spent a few minutes outside scraping gum. Fulfilled? Check. Focused? Check. Purposeful? Check.

Finally, slowing down has a positive impact on our personal lives. It allows us to see beauty and enjoy the little moments of life. We are currently visiting family in Kansas. You might be surprised to know that Kansas is not a popular summer vacation destination. Go figure. However, there is so much beauty to be seen here if you just take the time to see it. The intricacies of an ant pile, the brilliance of a Golden Rain tree, a sunrise, a Sunflower…the list goes on and on.

So while I have developed a “not-to-do” list, I am ready to begin adding to my “to-do” list. The first item — slow down, breathe, and find the beauty and joy in the little moments.

This post is a part of my Redefined Principal Project. Throughout this school year I am looking for ways to purposefully disrupt some of work habits and routines in a manner that will benefit my teachers, my students, and my school community. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments, or tweet them at me. I look forward to hearing from you!

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