We are only two weeks into the new administration and many of us are already exhausted. There’s even a term for it: “resistance fatigue.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal who thinks the U.S. is being set up for a coup or you’re a conservative who feels politically homeless. We are all feeling overwhelmed and tired.
When a lot of intense energy is activated – whether it’s from anger, or fear, or even desire – it ultimately needs to go somewhere. When our energy doesn’t have a container to help shape and direct it, we end up feeling unfulfilled because we use up a lot of energy but don’t see a visible impact. That’s the fast track to burnout.
We have a lot of problems in the world. That statement is, I hope, uncontroversial. As individuals, we cannot hope to solve these problems on our own. We have to organize ourselves. We need organizations to help us coordinate and amplify our efforts. In my line of work, I spend a lot of time thinking about how organizations can be designed more elegantly and run more effortlessly – to produce business results, to nurture human beings, and more and more these days, to fulfill a larger purpose.
The tough thing is, our world is now more interconnected, interdependent, complex, and fast moving than ever. Whether you are a political organizer or a business leader in 2017, the puzzle you have to solve is the same:
How do you engage the hearts and minds of a bunch of fickle, fragile, imperfect humans? How do you help those humans put their gifts to good use? And how do you line up all that talent and effort to fulfill a purpose?
The answer is simple. (However, the execution of it is not).
We must imagine and create organizations that are more like organisms.
We often think of an organization as something arcane and bureaucratic, where would-be leaders wait for approvals to act and passion is held hostage by structure and process. But it doesn’t have to go that way. We have already reimagined a different way to work and some forward-thinking companies are already operating this way. This new approach might at times be called: dynamic, evolutionary, or holacratic. There are many similar models that represent stops along a spectrum — among them: distributed leadership, network leadership, self-managing, self-organizing, a team of teams, and leaderless organizations.
Whatever you call it, the bottom line is: to create meaningful movement in today’s crazy world, we need to do things differently. Fundamentally, we need to organize in a way that is more fluid, more resilient, and more adaptable. We can no longer rely on those in the government and other institutions to lead. We The People must take the lead ourselves. We can not wait for authority to fix things; and we must not be content with armchair activism that says and shares a lot, but sees little change that sticks.
Some of us are caught in a cycle of defensiveness and inaction; others are stuck in a never-ending loop of outrage and panic. Others are so overwhelmed that we’re disconnecting completely. Instead of consciously consuming media, we let the media cycle consume us and we feel depleted. We get drawn into the crisis du jour, become emotionally triggered and reactive, and self-medicate by lamenting to an echo chamber with those who share our sorrows. Unfortunately, an OMG-a-day does not keep fascists at bay. Our newsfeeds are furiously feeding the fear-manufacturing machine left, right and center. But you can’t fight fear with fear. No one wins when we play that game.
Okay, so how do we make our efforts more effective?
By self-organizing into cells, or circles, or pods that form around a particular cause or purpose. This is how we can direct our energy effectively toward a specific aim. In these circles, we can plan; we can be focused; we can be strategic. We can bring together people with different skills and passions to round out the circle and help the group realize its purpose. Everyone can take roles that best fit their gifts, and find the domain where they can – and want to – contribute the most. We don’t have to wait for the next election, the next nomination, or the next vote on legislation. We can start now. Here’s what you can do:
1. Align with a singular purpose
We can care about a lot of things – women’s rights, Muslim rights, healthcare, trade agreements, LGBTQ issues, financial transparency, Cabinet picks, police training, job creation, mental health, science funding, education, the environment... the list goes on – but we can only effectively carry one or two things at a time. Choose the focus area that has the most personal connection to you, your own story, your own journey. You’ll be a more compelling hub of activity around it that way, and you’ll have an inner source of energy to continue when things get hard. Try to pick just one thing. If you absolutely must, pick two things. But focus. Really. Focus. Decide on what your priority issue is. And when you hear noise about all the other things, filter it out. Keep your eyes and your energy on your number one thing. There is a cognitive cost to switching topics all the time, and it is wasted energy.
2. Create a dynamic circle with clear roles
Now find other people whose number one thing is the same as yours. Connect to form a circle. Choose one channel for communication – a Slack channel, a secret Facebook group, a WhatsApp thread. And then define clear and distinct roles. Don’t have everyone doing everything. Some possible roles: reader, researcher/analyst, lawyer, policy expert, historian, event organizer, social media manager, content writer, photographer, or even a group comedian (for when things get heavy). One person can have more than one role. Each role can be fulfilled by more than person. Circles can form around dimensions other than causes, like geographic location. Circles can also form around a particular role, to support other circles. For example, you can form a circle of volunteer family law attorneys focusing on supporting many local neighborhood circles addressing domestic violence. A circle is a grouping created around a shared purpose and the shape of it can be multi-dimensional, complex, flexible and dynamic... the same way humans are. The key is that each circle has a clear shared purpose and each individual person in the circle has a clear role, or roles.
3. Plan and take actions in real life
Make a plan. It can be a 10-day plan, a 100-day plan, whatever. But have a plan. We need to be more strategic, less reactive. It’s not productive to be leaping into action at every new press release or tweet. Within your circle, develop a shared sense of what’s most important to tackle – what actions are needed no matter what. Respond in a crisis, if necessary. But try to keep an eye on what’s beyond now and next. Start small and start close to home. You don’t have to create a plan to replace Obamacare or reshape US foreign policy for the next 100 years. And go analog – don’t limit your activities to digital ones. You might organize a gathering at your apartment to write letters to your Congressperson or volunteer your home to host stranded travelers.
4. Stay focused and pace yourself
There are a lot of distractions. It’s important to take control of the news you consume. Try to manage your media diet by proactively seeking out information that is uplifting and energizing. It’s important to counterbalance the daily deluge of anxiety-provoking headlines. Try to ignore any noise that doesn’t have to do with your number one thing. You can stay informed and have healthy debates, but be disciplined and be aware of how you spend your time and energy. Engaging selectively is the key to engaging most effectively. Remember to take breaks to nourish and care for yourself. Make sure what you are doing is sustainable. We need you to be well-rested, calm and focused.
If we can stay focused on a singular purpose, and self-organize into circles that function more like living beings do, then we can create micro-environments around ourselves that are nurturing and supportive to life itself. This is only way forward if we want to take our resistance and make it resilient.
Wendy May is an organization and leadership consultant, executive coach, and creator of Life Reboot — a unique retreat experience for women seeking to shift the meaning of work. Wendy has found that many principles used to shepherd organizations through change can also be used to guide individuals who are making changes within themselves for the “soul purpose” of work freedom and fulfillment.
Learn more about Wendy’s coaching and retreats at kaistara.com