Jenga, Onion Peeling & Dance Parties

Mel's Blog

Do you ever feel like your daily work life is basically one gigantic game of Jenga? It seems I don’t really know anyone right now, including myself, who doesn’t feel they need more time than they have to accomplish the things they need to get done. We all feel pretty overwhelmed it seems. And forget about the things that we WANT to do, versus those “musts” that keep piling up in front of us.

Sometimes the cause comes from others. Maybe your big project was someone else’s Jenga tower block they chose to pull! Maybe you fell prey, as I have from time to time, to the “eyes too big for my stomach” habit of saying “yes” to too many exciting and cool sounding things.

Whatever it was, that moment inevitably comes of needing to choose what you will sacrifice today or this week or this month to keep things on track. Which Jenga block will I put out of the tower and hope it doesn’t cause the whole tower to fall?

At first glance this seems like one of those time management problems but all my usually effective systems for that are in place and I’ve ratcheted down (and ratcheted down again) any “extras” to ensure I’m on task. Then I decided it’s not about time management, it’s about attention management. Pay attention to the things that matter and say “no” more often. That sounds great, right on and even pithy. The only problem is how do we decide what matters? What should get attention paid to it and what shouldn’t?

This, it turns out, is way harder than we might have initially believed. The work that Healthy Gen and many of our collaborators and partners are doing in service of creating enduring health equity is deeply complex, requiring engagement with multiple complex systems all populated by even more complex creatures – human beings. The health equity field is evolving and still learning about itself, how to talk to others, how to even explain what health equity is. This is happening against the backdrop of the once in a generation opportunity of health care reform. Complexity layered upon complexity.

It’s the best feeling though, isn’t it, when you’ve been working on something complex, over time, really digging into it, and you have that gorgeous “aha” moment and suddenly you find yourself out the other side of that complexity in a place of simplicity. That kind of simplicity, hard fought for through tangled briar bushes of the mind and heart, has a beauty and an elegance that is breathtaking to me. But we’re never done really, we just re-engage with the next layer of complexity, peeling back the onion in a way that is both revelatory and, like any good onion, occasionally makes you cry.

It’s easy to get stuck in to do lists and prioritization charts. But the best work plan in the world misses a critical element most of the time. Reflection. Reflection, digestion, non-task oriented time in which the massive firehose of data input can swirl organically for awhile in support of some wonderful emergence of learning or solution. That reflection and deep digestion time requires a combination of 1) alone time dedicated to non thinking, daydreaming, staring out a window, gardening, going for an ambling walk, whatever lets our mind be free to roam around and process in an unstructured way and 2) time with others in conversation that allows iterative and generative interplay, that is intellectually playful and curious and just rolling around in the delight of interesting ideas stimulated by interesting company. These are needed for those “aha” moments and those moments are desperately needed for us to achieve our long term goals.

It occurs to me that our whole system of organizations working on health equity, on health care reform, on everything related to social and human services and reduction and mitigation of poverty are themselves deeply traumatized. Traumatized by overwhelm, by ongoing, long term funding cuts, by competition, by secondary trauma, by running 24-7 in fight/flight mode. And to borrow from the neuroscience, if our agencies are in permanent fight/flight mode, they cannot focus on anything other than what is immediately in front of them, what they need to survive versus any long term goal or pursuit. So how will we solve any of these intractable societal issues we are dedicating our lives to? How can we start to heal our organizations in the absence of dramatic new resources magically appearing?

I think of Chris Blodgett’s wonderful relationship IS the evidence based practice,” but in this case through the lens of organization level toxic stress. Let’s prioritize each other. Let’s make time to be together in ways that aren’t only about tasks. Let’s dance! At this summer’s Healthy Gen sponsored training for the 25 new NEAR Expert Coaches (lots more coming soon on these amazing folks), we closed the two-day training by being put into two groups to design our own graduation celebration ritual of acknowledgement for the other group’s members. We came up with all sorts of wacky, wonderful stuff and everyone was laughing and having a great time. I felt so connected and bonded to everybody there and we all know how great laughter is for you.

Matti Neal, a CHW from the SW Healthy Living Collaborative suggested that we incorporate group dance into it and we all wound up in a pretty spontaneous dance party, thirty five or so hard working professionals, parents, community members just dancing together to Pharrell William’s “Happy” (great pick, Matti!). Group dance has been shown to have all sorts of positive benefits, reducing pain effects, building social cohesion and trust and more. 

So, in addition to all that hard work I know you’re doing, take time here and there to day dream a bit, knowing it will actually make you more productive in solving our field’s knottier problems and grab some colleagues and start an impromptu mini flash mob. In fact, I think we should weave flash mobs into our collaboration best practice toolkits going forward. Let’s see what we can cook up at the next Healthy Gen conference on that front! Are you with me? Tweet #dancetocollaborate to me and I’ll send you a 20% off promo code for the conference!

Shall we dance?