4 Practices to Balance Your Solo and Collaborative Work

These practices can help you when you're trying to regain the value of your solo and collaborative work.

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt that I was in an “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” spiral when it comes to writing. I was on a great streak of drafting posts every day and then I stopped.

This isn’t the first time a daily blogging stint has expired after about a month. In fact, it’s actually more of a pattern that I’ll start something like this in late March or April and then it’ll fall off in May. The No Hiding project that I started in 2015 has served as the template for the rules I need to follow and it started in April and I struggled in May.

There’s some truth to the “same pattern, same outcome” narrative my inner critic has been hammering me with, but the wider view is that part of what happens when I start writing daily is that it unlocks a lot of energy that flows into other things: larger creative projects, meetings with collaborators, and discovery sessions with people who want to work with me. A younger version of me didn’t see the connection between the two and only saw that the writing stopped.

Realizations like this are why I say, “It’s hard to read the label when you’re stuck inside the jar.” I see this pattern every day as I’m working with my clients — as soon as they open the dam and let their work flow through, positive downstream effects make it harder to keep those floodgates open. Most of those downstream effects lead to the results they want more than the direct genius they’re tapping into to create them, so the tension between continuing to make time to do the fun, flowful generative work and doing the different work of channeling the flow into projects, collaborations, and service increases. For ease of communication, I’m going to refer to the upstream work as the solo end and the downstream work as the collaborative end.

A quick but essential aside: I’m writing this to the many folks who are craving more of the solo end of the work. I see you if you crave more collaboration or find working by yourself to be torturous. If you invert some of what follows, it’ll still fit. Your growth edge is creating practices that help you do the solo work required to keep your collaborations fruitful rather than a never-ending series of conversations about ideas and what you’re going to do.

The natural response is to generate some head trash about both ends of the stream. On the solo end, we devalue the essentiality of doing the work because it doesn’t get the result, or we create a reality of not getting to do it and thus being the perennially tortured soul. On the collaborative end, we energetically lash out at the people who are showing up for and with us and devalue the co-created outcomes that we generate (because it wasn’t the thing we wanted to do). The end result is that we create a no-win scenario that ultimately ends in frustration, regret, and demoralization.

That is if we let it go too far. There are a few ways to cut this Gordian knot:

  1. Appreciate that both ends of the spectrum are essentially and intrinsically valuable. Yes, they’re different, but one is not less than the other. Since the collaborative end is where I find so many people thrashing, the in-the-world work here that unlocks it is creating and curating collaborators that you wake up in the morning wanting to work with. If your first thought upon reading that last sentence was “that’s impossible,” notice how deep you are into that story and the reality you’re creating.
  2. Notice the asymmetric weight you put on the size, kind, and duration of your work. What normally gets me in this spiral is that I discount the unpublished deep work that I’m doing and over-value the public work that I’m doing. In this particular period, I’ve been drafting two book proposals, creating an audit that assesses organizations’ workways and culture, and onboarding a new teammate that’s required a lot of strategic thinking, writing, and co-creation. All while opening up a few more service slots to work with more clients who are looking for strategy execution support during COVID-19.
  3. Embrace the cyclical nature and allow your priorities, expectations, and schedule to shift with it. This may look like doing the solo work for a day, week, month, or quarter and then spending days, weeks, months, or quarters in the collaborative work. If you settle into the right frequency for the season of your life and work, you’ll know that about the time you’re on one end, you’ll start swinging back toward the other.
  4. Let go of the idea that you must do everything at the same time and find a smoother equilibrium between the two kinds of work. If #3 is about embracing the wild solo/collaborative pendulum, this one’s about keeping the flow between the two much tighter. This may look like spending your mornings doing solo work and your afternoons doing collaborative work, or figuring out the right amount of each kind of work that roughly balances your energy, focus, and time.

The last two points are about practice rather than mindset, but the core mindset they share is that you’re going to have to let go of something. Embracing #3 means that when you’re on one end of the pendulum, you may not be able to attend to the work of the other end for a while. Embracing #4 means that you’ll be switching between modes more frequently and may need to do more work to feel like you’re making progress since it’ll be easier to lose the thread. Neither path is universally better than the other and, if you listen, your projects will tell you which practice is better for what you have on deck.

Practices aside, my biggest hope for this post is that it helps you when you’ve created the no-win scenario that comes from counter-posing the holistic value of your solo and collaborative work. Both are essential and valuable; both can be fun and flowful. The more you fight those truths, the less energy you have to do the work and (co)create the world you want to live in.

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