Focus and energy
Our University is going through a big restructuring, the Scottish Government is re-evaluating its spending on Centres for Excellence (one of which is SIRCC), and the department I work in ó a joint department of Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities ó has started the process of divorcing, to be completed at the end of the year. There are all sorts of implications related to these activities, some of which are concerning. Itís a time of change and uncertainty.
In a departmental meeting earlier in the year, we were speaking about an upcoming change and seeking clarity about roles and expectations, or some such. An esteemed colleague then said something, and I had an Ďahaí moment. What he said wasnít complicated or advanced. It was simple, really, and in retrospect glaringly obvious. What he said was something like this: it is those things that receive peopleís energy and focus that end up happening.
Like I said, simple and obvious. Yet Iíve been thinking about this a great deal over the last several months. You see, there are lots of things, both in my personal life and professional life, that I struggle to make happen. I donít mean things like world peace or even my own spiritual enlightenment. Much more attainable things like writing that letter to my sister, planting those herbs, or finishing that article. So, I just need to focus more energy into these things. Then voila, they happen. Well, yes and no.
In the best of circumstances, maintaining focus and energy is no easy feat. All sorts of things divert and dilute it. Some of this has to do with competing demands. I could all too easily blame that old chestnut of Ďnot enough timeí for my struggle to get some things done. And there is definitely is an issue of too much to do and not enough time to do it, but thereís more going on than that. For example, when Iím driving into work, I often think about what I hope to accomplish that day, and then somehow at the end of the day, Iíve ended up doing completely different things. I get hijacked (or allow myself to be hijacked) by other things.
Some of these hijackings are legitimate. Unexpected things come up that demand focus and energy ó thatís just part of life. However, I think there are a lot of hijackers that are less than legitimate. One of the worst in my line of work is e-mail. It would be possible for me to spend nearly all of my time responding to and acting on e-mails. As it is, I spend far too much time doing just that. While it is a great medium for quick, efficient, inexpensive communication, there are other costs. When Iím in Ďresponding to e-mailsí mode, Iím not fully in the driver seat of my time, focus and energy. Other people, often in large numbers, set my agenda. At its worst, my focus and energy becomes like a pinball, bouncing around with little coherence or self-determination and the e-mail becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end.
E-mail is such a powerful hijacker because it is so seductive: it must be dealt with and many of the e-mails, in and of themselves, demand little time or thought. Conversely, other aspects of the job demand a bigger commitment of time and thought. They also provoke anxiety or other uncomfortable feelings, particularly given the current context of change and uncertainty. Anxiety can be debilitating, most obviously when it has a paralysing effect on focus and energy. More subtly, less important or even spurious issues and activities can seduce attention, giving the illusion of productivity and importance while soothing anxiety (like e-mail).
So Iíve been thinking about what hijacks focus and energy in residential child care. On one level, the immediacy of working in the lifespace makes avoidance harder than, for instance, that article of mine that I just canít seem to get to. Aside from those folks who are expert at hiding, physically, away from the action, most of us get right in there.
At the same time, I think there are consistent, albeit more subtle, hijackings going on. Some are legitimate and just part of life; some arenít but we havenít yet figured out how to get rid of them. For the wee space of this column, though, Iím thinking about the ones we court, collude with or create. Certainly the worst hijacker of focus and energy when I was in practice was behaviour. Part of what made it so powerful was that we werenít even aware, most of the time, that our efforts were being hijacked at all. Like e-mail, you canít just ignore it; behaviour must be dealt with, at least some of the time. Looking back, however, based on where we were putting most of our focus and energy, it would be fair to conclude that changing behaviour was the most important thing we were trying to achieve. This focus on behaviour hijacked our attention away from the centrality of relationships and enabled us to distract ourselves from the role of our selves in those relationships. The result was a bit like pinball. And for some kids, this became a wholly vicious cycle of negative focus and energy.
Consistency was another one. We spent countless hours creating, tweaking and maintaining a system of rules and consequences. Certainly on a surface level, we were motivated to create an environment that was fair and predictable (though we might have been better to ask ourselves about whether and how kids could experience it as fair and predictable).
Residential child care practice consistently provokes anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings in those living and working in the lifespace. It is also located in a wider context of anxiety and uncertainty. It is intense and demanding. So no wonder we lost focus and misdirected our energies. We also didnít have CYC-Net and didnít know about most of the practice literature that was around at the time.
I doubt we were unique in our struggle, and I would wager that current practitioners struggle to dedicate steadfast focus and energy on what really matters to them in their work. There are just too many things competing for our attention and the demands of the job are so complex. And, well, itís hard ó in all areas of life and work ó for most people to maintain their focus.
Yet I am becoming convinced that by focusing a bit of energy on where we put our focus and energy, we can unlock parts of our practice that have been stuck or hiding in blind spots. The starting point, then, is to assess honestly where we put our attention.
The notion of a baseline might be useful at this point. For example, if your baseline for anger is relatively high, other people might experience you as an angry person. You, on the other hand, might not experience very frequent episodes of anger that are above your baseline, and therefore you wouldnít experience yourself as an angry person. However, developing a sense of your own baseline compared to othersí is sometimes the first step towards becoming a less angry person.
It is the same with where we actually dedicate our focus and energy (as opposed to where we might think we do). In assessing all this, questions might be considered about:
what gets discussed in team meetings?
what gets discussed in meetings with young people?
what gets written about in daily logs?
what is included in handovers?
what is covered in care/treatment plans?
what gets planned for and what is spoken about in the planning process?
what do folk think about during their journeys to and from work?
what do folk talk about during informal discussions at work (and about work, elsewhere)?
The growing wealth of CYC/RCC networks and
literature enables us to reconsider our previously taken for granted
baselines, and perhaps change them. Literature on relational practice is
one of the best articulations of what the work is about and where we
should be focusing our energies. My current favourite (on relational
practice) is Bellefeuille and Ricks (2008). Literature like this might
be a good starting point for exploring the current focus and comparing
it with what it could or should be, and would be a good use of focus and
Bellefeuille, G. and Ricks, F. (Eds.). (2008). Standing on the precipice: Inquiry into the creative potential of child and youth care practice. Edmonton, Alberta: MacEwan Press.