Keeping Voluntary Work Sustainable
Creating a post-growth future requires balancing deep engagement with consistent self-care.
By Michelle Glass
Creating true global prosperity, even starting on a much smaller scale, can only be achieved through the ongoing investments we make in time, energy, and creative collaboration. While it’s true that we have incredible collective resources with which to solve problems and create beauty, it is equally true that the deep investments required to create come at a cost. It can be all-to-easy to lose our sense of balance in the work. The resulting chronic lack of energy or burnout not only hurts ourselves it impacts those around us and can slow the momentum of the post-growth movement itself. That’s why I believe that finding ways to balance deep engagement with healthy self-care must be at the foundation of our work if we are to create post-growth futures for ourselves and our communities.
The dual reality of deep engagement
We’ve all seen the research briefs about the health benefits of connectedness and the way that giving boosts our brain chemistry. And beyond the research, many of us have experienced firsthand the many benefits of deep engagement with meaningful projects. This has certainly been true in my work as a social justice community organizer in rural Oregon. For me the benefits range from the satisfaction of aligning my personal values with my work, watching culture shift in positive directions and knowing I was part of it, the joy of co-creating beauty, or simply the sense of community and the learning that happen along the way. But I have also witnessed in myself and others the painful realities of over-commitment. Taking on too much or not allowing for enough time off inevitably leads to low energy, blocked creativity, poor health, and poor performance. What’s worse, these signs of fatigue are often normalized or even praised in community-based work where they can be mistaken for signs of commitment.
The reality of how much energy voluntary work demands is important to recognize, and not just on a conceptual level. It takes personal awareness to notice whether we are on a sustainable path in the work we do, but I find that the biggest challenge is finding a way to keep myself from hitting a low in the first place. Why is it so difficult to find a balanced and sustainable way to be deeply involved in the voluntary work we love?
It’s not about time management
I believe that part of the struggle lies in the frameworks we use to try and balance our lives effectively; the primary one being that of “time management.” When someone asks you if you have time to help with a project, if you are like me, you immediately start scanning your mental calendar for openings. This is problematic from the start. I can usually “fit something in,” but the result can be a too-packed day or week. The immediate impact of this “tight schedule” means that I don’t have time to mentally switch gears or prepare between things, and it usually undermines my ability to be present and listen well. But when this goes on too long, even if I am involving myself in work that I love, my energy levels get too low to really be engaged or contribute in a meaningful way. Left unchecked it is our productivity, health, and relationships that suffer.
New frame: Energy management
A few years ago I came across the idea of energy management as an alternative to the time management concept that I’ve struggled with. This made such intuitive sense to me and was easy to apply. Start by re-framing the question “do you have time to take on X project” into “do you have the energy to take on X project?” It becomes immediately clear that finding an hour or two of “time” in your schedule doesn’t really answer the question. In fact, re-framing from time management to energy management transforms the blank spaces on your calendar from “free time” to potentially important energy management blocks used re-charge your energy levels.
While I can still get myself into trouble by taking on too much, I find that thinking in terms of energy is more helpful in staying in tune with myself and making realistic predictions of my own capacity. But this isn’t really just about avoiding becoming overwhelmed. The exciting potential of this concept is the power it can unleash in our lives, our work, our creative projects, our organizations. For me it is about the way that I feel and what I can accomplish when I’m fully charged.
Try it: Make an energy management plan for the coming week, or for a big project you are working on. Here’s a list of questions I often ask myself when planning for energy management:
- Check in: What is my energy level now, or over the past month? (If you’re not sure, try asking a co-worker, friend, or partner.)
- Did I leave space in my schedule to breathe, reflect, create, love, and deal with the unexpected without creating a crisis?
- Will this week’s to-do list lower my ability to give in other areas: family, other important work, creative projects?
- Is the flow of energy outputs and inputs fairly even throughout the week? If not, how can I re-balance my schedule?
- What is my plan B if I start to feel low energy part-way through? (I find it helpful to make a list of things that energize me so I can take a quick “re-charge” break if needed.)
When considering taking on something new:
- Why am I considering taking on this new commitment? Are my motivations healthy? What are alternatives?
- When I consider accepting this responsibility, what is my gut reaction?
- Do I know enough about this new commitment to evaluate the energy it will require? What questions do I need to answer before I can truly evaluate it?
- Do I need to balance this addition by removing something else from my responsibilities?
- Do I need to create more time to “re-charge” in my schedule to balance this new responsibility?
- Will this new project energize me?
Energy management leadership: Try this with your volunteers or employees this week. Make the kinds of inquiries needed to ensure that you are supporting those around you to engage deeply, contribute authentically, and take care of themselves too.
I’d love to hear from you too! What tools have you found to help you live a vibrant, balanced, engaged life? Leave a comment below!
Originally published in August 2014 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.