By Justin Draeger, NASFAA President
Multiple times a week, I set off on a 20-mile bicycle ride into work, which is made all the more grueling because I know I’ll also have to do 20 miles in the afternoon heat to make it back home. After doing this route for a few years, though, I decided to take a longer, bumpier, more congested (vehicle-wise) and less pleasant ride into work.
Each day I’m at risk of being pulled into a million different directions. Inquiries from reporters, questions from NASFAA members, a note from a board member, incoming questions from Congress, or federal agencies. Each of these is important, but there are also waves of administrative minutiae that have to be done each week, which threaten to steal from me, and my organization, the things I’m mostly paid to do: strategic thinking, connecting dots, developing staff, working with volunteers, and enacting change for the public good.
If I let it, I could show up every day without a plan and stay busy from morning till night simply answering emails. It takes real intentionality to avoid being swallowed in a sea of urgent, but ultimately unimportant work.
We only have a finite number of hours to work in any given day and, therefore, need to spend as much of that time as possible focusing on doing the most valuable work placed on us. Anyone who wants to grow into a management or leadership position will be required to do the same. That sort of work requires us to keep perspective.
How do we do it? Here are some suggestions:
1. Separate what’s urgent from what’s essential: There are lots of ways to do this, but perhaps the most famous is the Eisenhower Matrix. Our goal is to focus our daily energy on the things deemed most important.
2. Take the long view: Something may seem urgent at the moment, but becomes less vital the larger our perspective. Simply asking the question: “Will this be important in 10 minutes? Ten months? Ten years?” Can provide some much-needed perspective on our day-to-day decision making. Many of the troubles we’re having today will likely seem ridiculous to us by the time we get to our next job, if we even remember those troubles. As one ancient philosopher put it: all one has to do is “Draw further back and laugh” (Seneca, De Ira 3.37.2).
3. Premeditatio Malorum: Which literally means the premeditation of evil. There are lots of things that can cause us to stress each day. These are things that distract us from the critical aspects of our jobs. Often, our stress is generated as we do all that we can to avoid an undesirable outcome that we think will cause us even greater pain.
This is where premeditatio malorum comes in. By spending a few moments thinking about all of the bad things that could befall us, we come to realize that (1) the worst-case scenario isn’t all that likely and (2) even if it was, it’s not as bad as we make it out to be.
Our mammalian brains evolved to focus on ill-defined bad outcomes because that sort of outsized risk-assessment served us well when our species faced a daily barrage of life-ending risks. But it doesn’t work so well when we stress about a million things in our work and personal lives that don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things.
Take the amount of stress that consumes us as we think about our careers. Sportswriter Austin Murphy wrote about his experience falling from a prestigious career in journalism to delivering packages for Amazon. He lost perspective, and momentarily confused his identity with his job:
“I had a low moment, dwelling on how far I’d come down in the world. Then I snapped out of it. I haven’t come down in the world. What’s come down in the world is the business model that sustained Time Inc. for decades. I’m pretty much the same writer, the same guy. I haven’t gone anywhere. My feet are the same.”
Ultimately, he figured out his finances, adjusted his life, and embraced new challenges that awaited him.
4. Regularly visit perspective-inducing places: A beautiful vista, a walk in the woods, gazing into the oceanic abyss, or capturing the full view of a starry night all give us a sense of our place in the universe.
The ancient stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius extolled the virtues of looking to the stars at daybreak, to remind ourselves how they complete the tasks assigned them, without concealment or guile (Meditations, XI, 27).
And this is why I choose a harder commute. Yes, it’s longer and bumpier, and my legs ache a little more, but the vistas of our national monuments provide me the perspective I need to fortify myself for the day ahead. Each memorial represents an ideal not yet fully realized. Ideals that I can help bring into reality. It’s a tougher commute. But it’s the perspective that keeps me focused.
Justin Draeger is president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to shape the future by promoting student access and success in higher education.