The last Friday before his winter break, I was driving my son to school, peppering him with questions and conversation starters meant to add energy and inspiration to his day and being met with the typical monosyllabic answers of a 5th grade boy. But then, I struck conversation gold.
“What are you most looking forward to about your day?”
“Meh……. Oh! Wait! It’s Friday?! I think I earned a soft start this week.”
A soft start? Tell me more! (Note to self: Do not ask why it’s the twentieth week of school and this is the first time his behavior has merited this perk.)
My son’s teacher had introduced a reward: Students who behaved well during the week would earn a soft start on Fridays. Rather than walking in the door and immediately getting to assignments, a soft start meant the student could choose how to ease into the day.
I loved this concept and the difference it made to my kiddo’s outlook. Suddenly, he was talkative and excited, knowing he could set the direction of his day. No teacher would tell him what to do that first 20 minutes! He had total control, bound only by the limits of the classroom. He would be the master of his own destiny!
In David Rock’s SCARF model—a tool I often use in employee engagement consulting—the “A” refers to Autonomy. Humans need a level of autonomy (self-governance) in order to achieve their highest level of engagement. Whether this is at work, in relationships, or—in my son’s case—at school, a sense of autonomy creates a level of ownership that helps people feel a degree of control over their own future and their well-being.
As an adult and CEO, my world should be filled with opportunities for great autonomy. Somehow, I still lose control of this. This was never clearer than in December 2021. I had set an intention to have a light work month and a heavy focus on family. I would limit work hours to 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. At the end of the month, I reviewed my Outlook calendar to see how well I honored my commitment. The data was clear: I had not behaved as I had intended. Instead, I allowed my schedule to happen to me staying busy (even on weekends and after 6 p.m.) through the very last day of 2021.
Social media activity throughout the month of December leads me to believe I was not alone in this. I saw countless acquaintances post about their desire to see the meetings, emails, and other demands JUST. STOP. FOR THE YEAR. The typical end of year lull I had anticipated in 2021 never came for me or for many others. Much like 2020 when people worked frantically to ensure they still had jobs, work did not slow down at the end of 2021 despite higher than ever reports of workplace fatigue, burnout, and a need for more quality time with family. People reacted to what came their way without much time to pause.
2021 blurred into 2022 and when the calendar turned, I realized not only had I missed the opportunity to ease out of 2021, but I was not quite ready for 2022. There was no list of goals ready to achieve, no stack of 12 non-fiction books to work my way through over the year, no half marathon to train for or mother-son trip booked for spring break. Instead, January 1 came, then the first Monday of the month came, and now we are halfway through January and my mind is still trying to catch up from some time in 2021.
A December 31, 2021, report from CBS News makes me feel like I am not alone in being ill-prepared for 2022. Only 29% of Americans had planned to make a 2022 New Year’s resolution—down from 43% just one year prior. My hypothesis is that rather than a wave of Americans achieving self-actualization and putting self-improvement aside, one contributing factor to the decline of New Year’s resolutions may be a persistent feeling that no matter what we attempt to plan, the world just keeps happening to us. Autonomy—that sense of being able to self-govern—is low and that is draining our energy.
That makes this the perfect year for a soft start, taking the time to pause at the beginning and intentionally consider how to introduce more autonomy into our own lives and the lives of those around us.
How can you better start your day, your week, or your year in the way you choose? What can you do to give employees the tools, resources, or permission to create their own soft starts when they need it most?