Reflections on a Stalled Learning Project
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Do You Set Your Priorities to Add Value or To Avoid Pain?

Pain LaDonna Coy and I ended up in an interesting email conversation over the weekend that got me thinking about how we set priorities for ourselves, both as individuals and as organizations. We were discussing that working from home gave us more flexibility and time for continuous learning and then LaDonna mentioned that a friend of hers was going to be spending Saturday in the office, "catching up on paperwork." I have to say, that set me off a little as I began to think about how some of the least value-add activities can end up taking up most of our time.

One of the major reasons for not engaging in continuous learning that I hear from individual people as well as the organizations that they work for is lack of time. I understand and sympathize with this, but I also have to wonder if it's really lack of time or if it's about how we prioritize what we're doing--or about the priorities our employers seem to be setting for us.

Essentially what I see all too often is that things like paperwork and lengthy meetings of questionable relevance take precedence in most organizations over spending time on learning. It's like what happens in a lot of marriages, where everything but the couple's relationship is a priority and then the next thing you know, you're in divorce court.

Even though ongoing learning is critical for the success of most workers and their organizations, learning is usually where we spend the least amount of time. Few supervisors will call us into the office if we stop learning, but if we fail to attend a meeting?  Then we'll hear about it. Even though what was discussed in the meeting could actually have been posted to the company blog or wiki, taking up 5 minutes of our time rather than 55 minutes.

I also see this in individual choices, where people will make time for an hour of American Idol, but not for an hour of professional development in their off-time. The thinking seems to be, "If they aren't going to pay me for it, then why should I learn?" Unless you're independently wealthy, this is a dangerous attitude to have.

What I think happens for many of us is that we set priorities based on "avoiding immediate pain" rather than on what adds the most value. I'll spend time on paperwork because I don't want the pain of being called on the carpet but I won't engage in continuous learning activities because not learning doesn't cause me immediate pain. This happens on an organizational level, too--we'll engage in endless crisis management meetings, but it will "take too much time" to have meetings that might help us avoid the crisis in the first place, so we don't have them.

There are obvious problems with this approach. If you think about it, "avoiding pain" is a pretty negative and short-sighted criterion to use in deciding how we spend our days. It  tends to put us into a cycle that creates even more pain because we aren't focusing on the kinds of activities that build us up (individually or organizationally), but on the things that constrain us. If you believe that you get what you focus on (which I do), then focusing on pain is just a way to keep inviting it back into your life.

Ultimately what happens when we use the pain avoidance approach to setting priorities is that our lives become a sequence of short-term activities that feel limiting (because they are) and meaningless. Avoiding pain isn't a strategy for having impact. It's simply a way to get through the days.

I think a good question to start asking ourselves is if an activity is something we're doing to avoid pain or if it's something that will really add value, for ourselves or for our organizations. Sometimes we'll still have to do the things that help us avoid pain--it's part of the human condition, I'm afraid. But maybe by evaluating what we do in this light, we can also start making the things that add value--like learning--more of a priority.

How do you set your priorities? Do you think that you set them to add value or do you find that you're doing more things to avoid pain? And how does this make you feel about what you do each day?

Photo via The Rocketeer

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Catching up Michelle - what a nice job of capturing our conversation and expanding on it in an interesting way. I do think there is some pain avoidance sometimes or cover-the-backside tasking in many workplaces. When I was a staff member for an organization and onsite every day I sometimes had a difficult time with setting priorities given there were so many interruptions and last minute requests e.g., funders needs a report or supervisor's supervisor needs a proposal - just seemed hard to set priorities. I wonder how valuable it might be in an organization to track tasks for a week and everyone analyze how they spend their time - then have a discussion about ways they can help each other with creating "learning space" within each week?

Hi LaDonna--that's a great idea! I think it would be quite instructive overall for us to see how we spend our time, as I know that when I've done that, I've been amazed at how much time I lose in basically useless tasks.

I know that a lot of schools have gone to a model of taking one afternoon per week as a professional development day. The ones I'm familiar with do it on Wednesdays, but I could also see Fridays as a potentially good time to do it, as people are tending to wind down anyway. I'd love to see the Google model of 20% of time spent on personal projects being adopted by more organizations.

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