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The Essential Intentions of Our Work Lives

I am not good at sleeping. I used to be, but as I’ve gotten older I seem to have forgotten how. That is one reason that I was captivated when I heard Jocelyn Glei’s interview with Rubin Naiman, a sleep psychologist and professor, on her podcast Hurry Slowly. A combination of the subject matter, Naiman’s earnestness, and his soothing tone makes the episode a sort of ‘meta’ experience. I get calm and sleepy every time I hear it, and so I’ve listened to it a lot.

Naiman has been contemplating and studying sleep for decades, and so the interview is dense with insight. And then at one point, almost as an aside, he says:

“I talk with patients a lot, I try to help them understand the essential intentions in their lives, both when they’re awake and when they’re dreaming, by looking at adverbs. There’s an old notion that how you do anything is how you do everything. We can be in a hurry slowly, or we can be in a hurry mindfully, there’s nothing inherent in velocity that assigns a value to it. But most of us don’t pay attention to adverbs, we pay attention to what we’re doing.

For example, ‘to do’ lists are essentially lists of verbs. Go, call, write, buy, sell, whatever. They’re associated with specifics, but the belief is that if we engage in these verbs, if we do these behaviours and check enough of these off our daily ‘to do’ list that our life will be good. I don’t think so. I think that at the end of the day the quality of our lives depends less on what we do and much more on how we do it. It depends on the adverb.”

It took me a few listens to really absorb this, but since then it has become a nagging thought every time I write a ‘to do’ list. What if, I wondered a couple of weeks ago, I considered the adverb I want to describe how I live my year? Or my week? Or my day? Or just a meeting?

Is it strange that I’d never given thought to the fact that how I do things might have as much, or more, of an impact on the way I experience my life as what I do? Quite possibly.

I tend to think Naiman is right about our collective inattention to adverbs, and I think there is no place where this is more evident than at work. Exhibit A is our obsession with action, with process, with shipping, with getting shit done, with the next thing and then the next, and with the metrics, dollars, and titles to quantify it all.

The unspoken, unintentional adverbs I have applied to my work so far are, on reflection, pretty self-defeating (quickly, perfectly, gracefully). I’m currently auditioning replacements.

At the organizational level there’s corporate values, which ostensibly describe our corporate intentions. And yet these tend to be action verbs or abstract nouns (check out this giant list of values and notice how much ‘integrity’ abounds). Does this matter? Maybe; if they’re just one more checklist that we assume will lead us to success and achievement. Do they describe how we’ll live along the way? Consider the difference that adverbs make in how we might carry out the following actions:

  • Serving customers efficiently or warmly or authentically
  • Meeting intentionally or automatically or grudgingly
  • Debating ideas respectfully or defensively or aggressively
  • Learning humbly or impatiently or hungrily
  • Listening intently or distractedly or mindfully
  • Promoting someone deliberately or reactively or recklessly

It’s obvious that the way we and our colleagues experience our workplace will be influenced by how we do the things we do, large and small. The point here is that we often don’t take the time to define this in advance. We aren’t clear about our essential intentions. We set out to hit a target on budget and on time, and react to the inevitable twists and turns along the way. Micro-decisions and interactions just sort of happen.

Fluency in adverbs could provide us with a more vivid, shared language to notice, plan, and discuss the way we work and interact, and potentially adjust our approach as needed to align with our intention.

What adverbs, spoken or unspoken, describe the way you work and live?

Recommended Reading (or Viewing):

Tell Me About: HR in the Time of #MeToo – Jane Watson, DisruptHRKW

My DisruptHRKW video is up! This was my second Disrupt talk, this time in Kitchener Waterloo in March. It was a lot of fun, and about 20% less scary than my first Disrupt talk last year.

Ladies Get Sued

I’m a big fan of Ladies Get Paid – a 2 person start-up founded by Claire Wasserman that she scaled into a highly engaged, 20,000 member, volunteer-run community that offers events, workshops, a podcast, and an incredible online community of support for women and non-binary people in 60 countries who are navigating job offers, salary negotiations, and the other challenges of pursuing career success as a woman, including harassment and discrimination. Late last year, a men’s rights group sued Ladies Got Paid for gender discrimination, a tactic this group has used in the past to target organizations that focus on women’s issues. Basically, some people are fucking terrible human beings. You can learn more and donate to their legal fund here

A Modest Guide to Productivity – Frank Chimero

This has been making the rounds in a bunch of newsletters I read, so you may have already come across it. But if not, it is absolutely worth a read.

“A person is not a brain driving a meat robot; it all runs together. If work is stymied, ask: are you eating clean? Getting enough sleep? Did your heart pump more than a sloth today? Start with your body, not your work methods. Trust me.”

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Jane – I believe words are powerful and can have an impact. Your post highlights an interesting way of considering how we do things (and not just what we do). Add another book to my reading list!

    Also – really glad to have the chance to watch your DisruptHR talk – great job.

    May 14, 2018

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