Autonomy comes up everywhere. You see it in David Rock's SCARF model for employee engagement - Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness - and in Daniel Pink's model for intrinsic human motivation - Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. I hear its echoes at least when I ask people in training what it feels like to be struggling, to feel overwhelmed - "out of control" is a phrase that always comes up. We all yearn for a feeling that we have some control over our lives. Autonomy comes in different sized packets but it starts with how we spend our time, where we devote our energy, to what we direct our attention, what we want to do.
Yet, everyday many (most?) of us will start our working day by opening up our inbox and seeing what the world has thrown at us since last we surrendered to its whims. And then we follow its random path, buffeted by whatever winds happen to be being blown through it by the world. And so we give up our day. We end it not having done the things we wanted to do (because we never gave thought to what they were), not having lived the life today that we wanted. And then we do the same tomorrow, and the day after, until we have given up our week, and then our month and then our year and (you can see where I am going with this) our life. And no one else really cares or notices.
Tomorrow belongs to me - not in some horrible 1930s jingoist nationalistic way - but in a very small, very humble sense, that my little bit of tomorrow, my experience of the world tomorrow is mine, to do with as I choose, if I want to exercise that choice. How can we make that choice?
Here is a thought, a very simple one, that comes from that great fountain of simple wisdom Nancy Klein. Before you open the inbox each morning, pause for a few minutes and think what do I want to get out of today? What are my priorities? When I sit back at the end of the day and review how it has gone, what would I like to be able to say I achieved? (And here also is some wisdom from Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, that as we are settling in to bed at night, take a minute to reflect on three good things that happened today, however small. That little moment of reflection will help us sleep more quickly and more soundly and leave us better refreshed for tomorrow.)
We can do this on our own, or better still, if we have a thinking partner available we can do it together, but do it nonetheless. Take ownership of our day.
Of course the world's winds will blow. We cannot (always) expect to set our course and ignore all that is happening around us. Make our ambitions for the day modest, but at least set a course, have some sense of where we are heading. That way, when we are buffeted by the demands of others, of the inbox, of the world, we are able to bend with them, perhaps tack a little, but still return to the broader course we set in the morning. Our ambition may be, sometimes, to get to the bottom of (or maybe just half way down) our inbox, but at least that will be our ambition and then we can work out how best to achieve that - turning off the new email notification would be a good start!
We can still deal with the stuff that comes shouting through our day, but we can set it in context against the plans we have, we can choose, we can exercise autonomy. Sometimes we may have to surrender the day to a crisis that unfolds - but at least that will be our proactive, as opposed to reactive, choice to make.
Given the medium in which I am writing this, it may be too late for today - but tomorrow is (pardon the pun) Whosday? Make tomorrow and every day your day, and exercise a little bit of that autonomy. No one else will notice, not immediately at least. But over time they will likely see a more purposeful, satisfied, engaged, motivated and happy version of you.
There will also be less of that feeling of being overwhelmed, of being stressed. Stress is best understood as being the perception that the demands upon me exceed my resources, that more is being asked of me than I can do - if I am going to just go with every demand the world throws at me each day, without any sense of self determination or autonomy, it is surely inevitable that I will soon get a sense of that imbalance.
(Phew, I have got through this post without once using that dreadful phrase "take back control"... arrggh damn it... so nearly!)