My in-laws dropped in early this Saturday morning. We were getting our day going and just finishing our first cup of coffee. Right after they arrived, our daughter and granddaughter also came through the door, although we already knew they were coming over at some point. None of this is unusual and all of them are always welcome. In conversation with my mother-in-law Eleanor about my day we touched on how I didn’t really have an idea for my blog this week. She jokingly suggested that I could write how my in-laws always drop in and change my Saturday morning plans.
I think her suggestion was brilliant so here we are! What resonated with me is the paradox of how little control we have over what happens to our time, but how much control we have over what decisions we make about how to spend our time. A second paradox also came to mind – that of planning vs. presence. Wouldn’t life be simple if we could make a plan for our day first thing in the morning and have everything unfold according to that plan? No surprises, no interruptions, no delays. But that never happens and thus we are faced with decisions every day as to whether to stick with the plan or decide to be present in the new situation.
Especially in North America, we are often driven by achievement. Our natural instincts are to get things done, to get ahead, to achieve more. Our need to plan for such achievements often drives us out of the present and into the future to create that plan, or into the past for all of the things we’ve learned along the way about how to succeed or anticipate what might get in our way. More often than not, though, our successes are dependent on the strength of our relationships, and to build those relationships, we need to invest in them. That only happens by being present for the other person.
So how do we go about making decisions of task vs. people? What concepts and approaches might we utilize to help us guide ourselves through these choices? Here’s a few that I like:
Commitment over connection
This is my only guideline that favors moving towards task instead of a relationship. What is most important here is what one defines as a commitment. I have two parts to my definition. First are those things I have promised to others. When we think about this one, I’m still focused on a relationship because I’m fulfilling a commitment to someone else.
The second part of the definition would be commitments to myself that relate to my personal vitality – exercise and education for example. As these are commitments that involve only me, I can also pause and understand if I have other options that will allow me to both enjoy connecting with someone while finding an alternative time to honor my commitment to myself.
This can be a tricky choice to make, as our inner critics will often try to convince us that we have implied commitments that we need to honor. We never want to be seen as failing to meet someone’s expectations and we sometimes confuse that with a commitment. A commitment is something that we impose on ourselves, calling on our integrity to keep it. An expectation is something others want to impose on us, which allows us to choose to accept it or not.
One last thought – if we choose to decline a connection attached to an expectation we should do it with the relationship in mind. For example, if we tell someone we can’t stop and chat because we are on our way to a meeting we can conclude the statement with a genuine interest in connecting later to pick up the discussion.
People over production
If there is no hard commitment in place, that might indicate that we have some slack in our “production schedule” giving us the ability to choose between engaging relationship with someone or taking on a task. Perhaps you might argue with the assumption that there is slack in our day as our to-do list always seems to outstrip the hours in the day. This is a topic too big to take on here, but what I would answer to this is that we all have the ability to prioritize our work – the trick is allowing ourselves to leave the low priority items for later (or never). That said, my personal guideline here is to choose connecting with someone over selecting something off my to-do list.
There are a bunch of reasons for this but here would be the key ones for me:
- Most connections are short, but it is always meaningful to the person who engages us to be genuinely acknowledged and heard. It builds our interpersonal capital.
- Some days it seems as though there is one visitor (or interruption) after another leaving no time for getting things done. In reality those are rare days – everybody else has work to do to and thus if we handle each request for our time authentically we will still find we have time in our day to accomplish the key tasks for the day.
- Truly connecting with people keeps me in the present, and when I’m present I’m much more in touch with what is going on around me right now, which can really help me in my decisions as to what work to prioritize. Further, being present is a source of energy for me. Thinking about what might happen in the future or what recently happened in the past, particularly at work has the tendency to move us into more distressing emotions such as anxiety, fear and shame. If we stay in the present (and focus on making sure the connection we are a part of stays in the present) we will find that we engage our more empowering emotions like joy.
Who planned for my time?
This is my favorite guideline. Sometimes we have multiple requests or requirements to connect at one time. Often this occurs when we’ve made an appointment with someone and are ready to head off to that meeting when someone appears at our door. When this latter person brings us something that isn’t urgent we aren’t faced with too tough a discussion. We can simply smile, acknowledge the person’s request and arrange to connect later.
The challenge is when there is an urgent request placed on us that usually comes with an emotional appeal (whether implied or explicit) that is tugs at us to help with. The problem being that if we choose to satisfy the last-minute person, we are likely deciding to disappoint the person who planned for our time instead.
We do need to use our judgment about how important the last-minute request is vs. the one that has been planned for a while, but unless the new item is very clearly more important than the planned one I will choose the connection with the person who planned for my time out of respect for them.
How do you manage unexpected connections? What is easy for you and what is hard? How might these guidelines work for you?