How Activists Can Set Boundaries and Stay Sane

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white text on purple background, 'Keep Calm' meme: 'Keep Calm and Do Less'

‘My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do’ – Francine Jay

Have you ever felt like you wanted your life back from activism or change work? Although you enjoy what you do, now and then do you wish you’d remained blissfully unaware, or that someone would just ‘sort it’ all so you can go back to doing what else your life path might have taken you on?

Crux defines ‘activism’ as any work undertaken in the public sphere that is unpaid; or that is over and above what you are being paid for because you are committed to something intended to bring about change, whether you are a full time volunteer, or accepting lesser rates/doing extra/pro bono work around paid consultancy; or whether you’ve been handed/taken on extra responsibilities to create change as an add-on to your ‘real’ job.

Whatever you’re working on, there are times when it can feel like little headway is being made. Maybe you’ve suffered a major setback or defeat – hopefully only temporary, but it still feels like an effort to generate the psychological energy to keep going.

I was highly amused when the satirical news site The Onion released this piece, ‘Nation’s Experts Give Up’ – change agents working across areas including health, sustainability and safety will smile at the sentiment, and daydream about similarly being able to throw their hands up and let all care go:

WASHINGTON, DC — Citing years of frustration over their advice being misunderstood, misrepresented or simply ignored, America’s foremost experts in every field collectively tendered their resignation Monday.

“Despite all our efforts to advise this nation, America still throws out its recyclables, keeps its guns in unlocked cabinets where children have easy access, eats three times as much red meat as is recommended, watches seven hours of TV per day, swims less than 10 minutes after eating, and leaves halogen lights on while unattended,” said Dr. Simon Peavy, vice-president of the National Association of Experts. “Since you don’t seem to care about things you don’t understand, screw you. We quit.

“Go ahead…you don’t need us. Watch all the topsoil go down the Mississippi. Transport your children in baskets on top of your SUV deathmobiles. Keep playing with your cute and cuddly pal, the atom. Press your nose against the TV screen for even more educational 3rd Rock From The Sun enjoyment. Use plentiful gasoline to burn book-readers at the stake. Don’t eat anything but sugared pork lard. Do whatever you want.”

Excellent. Yes, let’s leave them to it. Can we go to the pub now?

When it seems the vast majority of people don’t know or care about what you’re working on, it’s understandable to hit a few ‘why do I bother?’ moments.

After all, you could be doing something entirely selfish with your discretionary time. You could be spending it with your family, on a cherished hobby, generating a better income so you can worry less about bills, or just ‘doing’ nothing.

And yet because you believe that what you are doing can and does make a difference, here you are, reading another report, writing another submission, participating in another online debate, responding to another request, planning another event…

What your efforts demonstrate to others is that you are a willing person, and the reward for doing such work and doing it well is: more work. More requests for your time, involvement, input.

On the one hand, this is positive – it means you are considered an influencer, and that you have leadership qualities that people look to.

On the other, as you become more influential, the demands for your time and advice will multiply, and being able to decide which to respond to, which to delegate and which to let pass will determine how effective you are.

Here are some thoughts on how change agents can set boundaries for themselves, and retain their sanity:

1. You do not have to respond to every email, accept every meeting request, or attend every event

Have you ever received a communication or request from someone that was so vague or open-ended, you simply did not know what the person wanted, nor how to respond (these drive me mad – I’m not a mind-reader). If it’s not following rules 3 and 4 of the Email Charter, there’s a good chance that, these days, I’m not willing to spend the energy interpreting what is wanted if the sender is not willing to spend the energy framing it so it is clear.

Maybe you suspect the request may have found its way to you because you can be relied on to take an action or do the research that others will not. There is a reason this site was created. Not all questions people will want to ask you are ‘dumb’ of course, but there’s a difference between asking for your personal input or guidance and being plain lazy. Do not fall for this trap!

For years, I persisted with a ‘service’ ethic and mindset that if someone needed my help, I should provide it. We’re all working to the same objectives, on the same team, right? Because I had the knowledge they needed around green procurement, or where/how to recycle whatever, I should share it.

Because I could, I should (see #5).

This placed me in a reactionary space where I found I was always responding to others’ ideas and needs rather than being proactive with my own work and intentions.

Some years back, I emailed UK columnist and author George Monbiot and received an automated reply, which included a thank you for anyone sending kind comments and an assurance that all messages were read; that speaking enquiries could be directed to a nominated contact, and similar pre-emptive responses.

It ended with words to the effect of: ‘I have found that I can either be polite or do my work, and unfortunately it is the politeness that has to go’.

Although I realised that meant I would not get a reply to my question, I thought this was brilliant! How true, and how honest.

I could easily fill my evenings and weekends with any one of a number of workshops, seminars, events on a range of issues – there is always something on. Sometimes I go. Sometimes I’d rather relax, play a game with my dog and not have to rush off somewhere, or think, even if whatever it is worthwhile, which it usually is.

Be aware that if you attend a meeting or event, it will (if it has been an effective gathering) generate motion in terms of things that need doing. Are you prepared to take on any of those things? Because once you’re there, and you’ve provided input to/spoken in support of a course of action, are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?

2. Put the work back on to the people who need to do the work

If you notice that people are overtly handing you work that you’re not in a position to influence (see #6), or subtly throwing out bait to see if you will bite and take something on, ask ‘who really needs to do this work?’

A classic situation is that of the organisational ‘greening’ or ‘sustainability’ champion – in many cases, the issue becomes identified with a particular person rather than becoming embedded as everyone’s responsibility. When that person leaves or is absent, efforts fall over. The change work has become bound up with an individual, and not the organisation.

In Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of LeadingHarvard University’s Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky warn of the dangers associated with becoming the issue, rather than ‘orchestrating the conflict’ inherent in change:

(Leaders) can rarely can afford to embody one issue. They need to keep their hands free so they can orchestrate conflicts, rather than become the object of conflict…when you take on the issue, you become the issue, and the way to get rid of the issue is to get rid of you…you stay alive in the practice of leadership by reducing the extent to which you become the target of people’s frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to think constantly about giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility. Place the work within and between the factions who are faced with the challenge…

Making yourself the hero/ine or taking on the responsibility of change that belongs to a wider group means making the change work vulnerable.

3. Protect your mental & auditory environment

If you work in an open plan environment or anywhere that leaves you exposed to distractions or interruptions, or you are dealing with a level of ‘stuff’ on a day to day basis beyond your brain’s capability to deal with any superfluous mental stimuli, invest in a good pair of ear plugs, or listen to this via your computer or mobile device.

The same goes for mental intrusions that interrupt flow. Mobile tech in the form of remote email access, wi-fi and smartphones is both a blessing in terms of flexibility and connectivity, and a curse as an electronic leash. Be the master, not the slave, of your tools. One of my friends has his phone confiscated by his partner while on holiday and locked in the hotel safe for the duration of the break, and is not allowed the safe combination! Maybe all homes should have such a safe :)

Mental down-time is critical, especially if you’re switching back and forth between a range of different things. Meditation to quiet the mind is always good, but its even better to stop becoming mentally over-busy and frazzled to begin with.

stylised image of brain with 'out of order' sign on it

4. Beware of prestige

Don’t agree to do something because it will look good on your CV or impress others. Think about what it will cost you in time and attention to divert your energies from existing objectives, and to do the new role, task or position justice.

In particular, beware of ‘prestige’ – in his article How To Do What You Love, Paul Graham offers an important insight when he cautions:

If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

‘Prestige’ also means the spotlight, and attention – and even a way of ‘neutralising’ your efforts. Perhaps your work can be most effectively carried out under the radar?

Weigh up any potential opportunity or request by considering how well you can truly fulfil it, and how well it also serves your existing objectives – not what packaging it comes in.

5. Kill the word ‘should’

There are probably a lot of things you can do. That’s why people look to you. Even so, it doesn’t mean you ‘should’ do anything – ‘should’ is an awful, judgmental word we inflict on ourselves in many areas of our lives. It’s responsible for guilt, and ultimately resentment if we end up doing things purely out of a sense of ‘should’, especially when we no longer enjoy them or feel we are achieving anything as a result.

‘Should’…pffft! Who said?!

There’s only one instance in which the use of this word is acceptable: you should get rid of the word ‘should’!

6. Know your scope of influence

Is the request or opportunity within your ability to influence via your knowledge, contacts or ability to leverage things needed? Consider every request for help or involvement, but ensure it is worth the effort to engage, not only for yourself but for that person or organisation – because if you are not able to contribute to furthering what a group is working on in some way, then you are wasting their time as well as yours.

Sometimes, a conversation or meeting with no clear purpose can yield the unexpected and will turn out to be worthwhile. Yet too often, you can end up frustrated at having spent time doing something that you could have spent better elsewhere.

It’s tricky to pick the difference, but your intuition will usually guide you. Be honest. If you don’t have the time or mental bandwith, you are short-changing yourself and the people and organisation you’ve agreed to assist.

And above all – don’t waste your precious time in any kind of group where others repeatedly show they are only committed to wasting time.

some-e-card of men around a table, caption: 'I'm not convinced we've wasted enough time on this'

Of course, these suggestions apply to all work environments and practices, but they are extra critical to change agents (and indeed any volunteers who are intrinsically motivated and/or emotional captives of their work) for two reasons:

if you’re doing activism around your paid work, you’re managing two such situations not one, and will have even more demands on your time from more people for less available hours, so there is an even greater need to be extra vigilant about time thieves

if you’re not in paid work, there’s often an assumption that your time is much more discretionary – without the structure and boundaries of paid work that ‘quarantine’ you to some extent, your time can quickly become fair game and be chipped away at, a bit at a time, until you feel completely fragmented

It all feels so horribly ruthless at first: saying no, declining to do something for any one of a myriad of worthwhile initiatives. Even worse is the guilt associated with giving up existing associations. But it’s an evolution – you’ll progress from not being able to say ‘no’, to saying ‘no, because (justifying your decision)’, and eventually you’ll just be able to say ‘no’.

Recognise the positive aspects of such an approach – it enables you do what you have committed to doing more effectively, and leaves open the possibility for those who can commit the time and energy to step up.

Remember: be the change, but not all of it!

How do you set and protect your boundaries?

Have you ever given up a position, a role that you felt obliged to continue with, or an emotional attachment to? 

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