From time to time, we all find ourselves stuck in a rut or unhealthy pattern. Examples galore. We are unable to get into a good workout routine or unable to focus on work. We feel that we lack productivity, creativity, or innovation. In short, in countless different ways, we feel stagnant and stuck. This stagnation can have diverse root causes. Perhaps we have become too comfortable, risk-averse, or reluctant to change. We may have started to take things for granted or begun favoring convenience by shying away from complex challenges. Perhaps we are in situations where we have less control, such as a toxic relationship, a career-stifling work environment, or a tragic loss or trauma. Stagnation is real, all around us, and as leaders, we have a responsibility to combat it.
Take a step back and "breathe". The very first thing I do when I find myself being stuck, I try to create distance from whatever I am doing and focus on finding balance and clarity. There are many different techniques to achieve this; for some, it can be meditation; for others, a hike in the forest, a good book, or enjoying a hobby; all can create space to "breathe," collect your thoughts and find a path forward. From the book "Breath" by James Nestor, I have learned of the significant positive impacts of breathing in the search for health and balance, and performance. Several breathing techniques have been effective in helping me decompress after a tough day and are particularly useful to achieve balance and clarity. Therefore, it is critical that as leaders, when dealing with stagnation, to give our teams time to create some distance before jumping into problem resolution mode.
Create motion to find your "why?". While studying this concept, Newton's First Law came to mind as incredibly applicable. "An object continues in a state of rest or motion (speed or direction) unless it is compelled to change by an external force; furthermore, the greater the mass, the higher the resistance." Like in physics, we also deal with motion and inertia. When we are stagnant, we become stuck in a negative state of motion. The longer we stay there, the larger our mass of comfort becomes. As a result, we become engulfed in an inertia force so strong that it makes it harder to create change. I deal with this by formulating questions that can help me get clarity on my "why?" such as: Why am I feeling stuck or what prevents me from taking control? What do I want? What can I change? How can I pivot? Finding answers to these questions creates the energy that allows me to embrace change. As leaders, we must find ways to identify points of negative motion and create opportunities to combat inertia.
Eliminate saboteurs. Sometimes it seems that the minute we try to get unstuck and move forward, something pops up and blocks our path. Therefore, it is critical to identify the various ways how we self-sabotage our lives. Self-doubt, fear of failure, distractions, lack of discipline, or peer pressure are all examples of different obstructions, which can further compound a stage of stagnation. Leaders can play a crucial role in helping overcome sabotage – especially when serving as mentors who are not afraid to point out the truth. My mentor Tom Murrin, candidly and quite bluntly, I might add, counseled me once that I was "too invested in others' opinion of me." Not realizing previously that this was one of my saboteurs allowed me to course-correct and made valuable changes in my life.
Initiate small steps & goals. In the movie The Martian, Matt Damon says: "You solve one problem, and you solve the next one and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home." A key to getting unstuck is to have a plan of action with specific steps and clear goals. A plan beats no plan. However, we sometimes make excuses and shy away from planning to avoid the implied pressure. Starting small is key and setting attainable goals can avoid being overwhelmed or stressed. Ultimately, our goals and plans should be in servitude to our purpose.
Focus on execution. A plan is only the beginning step at creating traction and is of no use without action. The key to avoiding the trap of stagnation is to shift the focus towards execution. Personally, I favor discipline and structure. A daily routine of key activities and actions helps me to stay focused. Holding yourself responsible for taking accountability for action is one of the most important principles for me. However, execution should give you joy and meaning. We should not forget to celebrate the little successes on the way and learn from our setbacks.
Whatever the reasons are, we will find ourselves stuck at different points in our lives; therefore, we will have an opportunity to take inertia head-on and give ourselves and our teams the strengths to combat stagnation whenever it occurs. Ultimately, stagnation may be an indicator that we are still looking for our purpose. In Mark Twain's words: "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why."