Good Disengagement

See if any of these statements are familiar to you:

“I would love to get involved, but I just don’t have the time right now.”

“I am running out of time to finish this project so I am going to have to skip the meeting.”

“We are going to have to postpone our meeting because almost everyone has backed out.”

“I really don’t have the time to devote to this fundraiser. Can I just write you a check?”

“I had homework in every class last night, I just didn’t have the time to complete it all, so I chose what I thought was most important.”

“I’m sorry we missed the conference, but between carpooling, soccer practice and piano lessons, there is only so much time in the day and only one car.”

“I need a mental health day.”

“I’m allowing my child to stay home today…she is exhausted.”

The common theme of these statements is obvious: time, or a lack of it. More and more, people find themselves struggling to find the time to do just about anything, whether it be their work requirements, family obligations or activities that relax and renew their personal spirit. And I guess it is true, there is only so much time in a day and when it’s over, it’s over. For many of us, we look at our calendars and cannot imagine how we are going to get everything done. Some days, I become exhausted just looking at what has been scheduled on my calendar. We all have a similar thought: something has got to give!

If time is the great enemy of engagement, what is the solution? How do we inspire they type of engagement in our workers and families so that the positive outcomes we all desire actually come to fruition? What if there was a way to manage ourselves within the time we have and discover that the key to allowing us to fully engage with our jobs, families and lives may lie in the degree to which we are disengaged?

I have re-read a book entitled The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The premise of the book is that managing energy and not time is the key factor in anyone’s ability or desire to engage with anything. According to the authors “Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.” They make an interesting comparison to the energy needed to fully engage and running.

The authors ask the reader to imagine a long-distance runner. Long distance runners, they claim, look “gaunt, sallow, slightly sunken and emotionally flat.” But sprinters “typically look powerful are bursting with energy and eager to push themselves to their limit.” The reason given seems pretty logical, sprinters, regardless of how daunting of a task their sprint can be, are always able to see the finish line. So, for any of us to improve our ability to engage with the various aspects of our lives, we have to ensure that we have short periods of intense engagement followed by periods of complete disengagement. Most of us ignore this idea, run until we are exhausted or become ill and usually flat line in our ability to accomplish our goals. “We build emotional, mental and spiritual capacity in precisely the same way we build physical capacity.” Disengaging from our tasks to build energy capacity provides more opportunity for meaningful engagement.

It is also interesting to note an observation made of professional athletes. Generally speaking, most of them rest, practice and develop skills about 90% of the time and perform at tremendously high rates of demand only about 10% of the time. Now consider the rest of us: we virtually give no time to practice, rest or skill development and spend 90% of our time (or more) performing. And then we wonder why productivity is down? Loehr and Schwartz make a very important point about this: “At the most practical level, our capacity to be fully engaged depends on our ability to periodically disengage.”

Now consider for a moment how we in the United States have organized our schools, expectations of students and teachers. We have crammed more curriculum into the day than there is time to teach, assign more homework to students than there is time to finish and require the engagement of families and communities maybe beyond what is reasonable, practical or sound. We spend a significantly inadequate amount of time allowing for renewal and rejuvenation of ideas and learning – case in point: professional development. We have high expectations for our teachers and we have a strong desire to invest in their learning, but have almost no time dedicated to disengaging from the actual work long enough to reflect and renew.

It seems to me that this is exactly the reason why we as a nation are looking to significantly reform our high school experiences for students. Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith make similar arguments about the breadth of curriculum, learning and expectation and the accompanying disengagement it germinates in our students and their families.

Over and over again, I have educators lament to me that they “can’t get parents to come…” to this or that. Just this week, I heard a story of a school district that created a series of parent academies to which not one parent signed up. When there was to be a meeting about how to correct the problem, everybody bailed out. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the purpose of engagement, or why disengagement seems so attractive? Or maybe it’s the motivational underpinnings of these events: intrinsic or extrinsic?

The power of engagement (and disengagement) lies within intrinsic desire. As Ayn Rand says: “You must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences.”  “Purpose,” say Loehr and Schwartz,  “also becomes a more powerful source of energy when it moves from being externally to internally motivated. Extrinsic motivation reflects the desire to get more of something that we don’t feel we have enough of: money, approval, social standing, power or even love. ‘Intrinsic’ motivation grows out of the desire to engage in an activity because we value it for the inherent satisfaction it provides.”  I often ask my workshop audiences this question “do you work for a passion or a pension?”  I get interesting looks.

All of this got me thinking: Engagement relies on energy, not time. Engagement must have intrinsic value. To provide energy, we must engage in short bursts of time followed by periods of disengagement, renewal and reflection. Our ability to effectively engage is predicated on our ability to effectively disengage. Maybe before we try to engage families, we spend time reflecting and conceptualizing that engagement so that it becomes manageable for all and meaningful to the point where the desire to engage is intrinsic.

Maybe we should take a long look at our expectations for families and what we want the to “do, come to, respond to, sign, engage with, or support us in.” Maybe one more math night is the last thing we need. Maybe we should consider the value of homework and provide homework free weekends for families so that they can disengage from the stresses of work and school and recover their energy to engage with each other first and then with us when it truly matters.

Maybe a little disengagement is a good thing.

(The references in the blog are from “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Here is the Amazon link to the book.)