Patrick has lost his drive. He wants to think about moving on from his current role, but he’s struggling to know what towards.
Work feels stagnant. He’s nearing 10 years at his current company and while he’s progressed over that time, gaining experience and responsibility, it feels like a shallow slope, the changes incremental. For the past few years his focus has been pulled to home life, managing the challenges of a young family. Now he’s feeling dragged down by the day to day of the office, the constant overwork due to chronic understaffing. He knows that he needs a change but he’s unclear as to what or how to get there.
“I’m reasonably driven,” he says, “but I can’t really say where I want to be in 10 years’ time. I want to progress and do different things, but exactly what, I’m not too sure.” The impact of the overload is clear. Patrick’s big goals are being obscured by the day to day flood. He wants clarity about his career, focus.
We start with what we do know. Where is he now, how does it feel? We map out an imaginary scale on the floor, 1-10, terrible to amazing. Patrick puts himself in the middle, about a 5. He describes uncertainty, instability, doubt. Work is reasonably defined, but overwhelming. Business load varies, the constant tide of day to day requirements punctuated by regular, all-consuming tsunamis of high demand. Even during the manageable periods, the impending crash looms, the disruption just clearing when another arrives. Patrick can see incremental things to make it better, but has no idea how he’d get to 10. From here, he’s not even sure it exists.
When something feels like too big a leap, or when there’s too much immediate confusion to even see that far away, small steps can help us get there. "Don't worry about 10 for now," I say. "Where can we go?" We try for 8.
At 8, Patrick says, the work flow is manageable. Diverse, interesting, challenging. There’s space to do it properly. Some of the routine has been handed over. It might not be at the same company, he says, but could be, if he could find the variety. When he’s learning new things, feeling like there’s a higher purpose, that can be an 8. And the work-life balance is better. “Not just for me,” he says, “it’s not that I’m pushing it down a level. For the whole team.”
We hit a challenge here. Patrick’s work is important, it makes a difference. Work-life balance suffers not just from the company culture for things to be done ever faster, but the reality that the output matters in a broader sense, so there’s always pressure to work more. “I’m never going to be the person who walks away just because it’s 5pm,” Patrick says, “but it’s understanding when it really matters.” We sketch out how that would work: getting more information, having clear criteria, saying 'no' more.
Talking about 8 has brought a shift. Patrick’s standing taller, shoulders back, his voice firmer, his confidence has come up. From here, he says, 10 feels more achievable. He laughs - 10 felt so inaccessible before that he hadn’t even left enough space for it on the scale, it's hard up against the wall. “This has been really positive,” he says. “It’s all there, it's just not been focused. And if I have that variety, if it’s manageable, maybe 8 is a 10.”
A week later, we check in. Things are going better, Patrick says. He’s delegated some of the routine work, implemented tools to manage the incoming flow. He’s limited out of hours work to one evening per week, which he’s comfortable with, spending more time with his family. Most importantly he’s feeling more connected, happier with the prospect of staying in his organisation. His 8 is coming, and 10 is back as a concept.
When we’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be hard to see a way out. Without that, it’s often difficult to move anywhere, and passion, creativity and confidence can get swamped in the process.
In that place, the key is small steps. Start small and it will give you more space. As one thing shifts, another can become clear, until your steps take you somewhere new and what was overwhelming can start to feel more manageable.
This is a metaphorical reality, but a physical one too – moving our bodies is the easiest way to change how we feel. Get out for a walk, do some exercise, move along that imaginary scale on the floor – you’ll be amazed how much better you feel.
Produced with full client permission, names changed.
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Photo credit: Felix Mittermeier