The Enliven! Blog

Helping Harness Human Capacity

Shifting Gears

When I was a young person, I was intrigued with learning to drive a car which required shifting gears manually. In my world, shifting gears was required on more vehicles than not. Those who could shift gears smoothly gained my admiration! As I learned the skill, I found that there was a certain rhythm in shifting into one gear, accelerating, then moving into the next gear. Each gear had its characteristic transition point, its characteristic sound, and its characteristic speed.

Our mental and emotional activity in life and work can also be compared to shifting gears manually. It takes a deliberate effort to move between different types of activities. Imagine, for example, the effort required by these transitions:

  • From writing a report to listening to a colleague’s problems
  • From gathering data to making a decision
  • From having a creative insight to structuring an action plan

Many will find at least one of these shifts distressing. (I would like to hear about your distress, or joy!)

The reticence to shift gears can be costly, even punishing. I recall hearing of an eccentric radio host who was angry with his car, so he punished it by driving it all the way across town in first gear! That meant the car whined all the way, and that his speed was limited! Similarly, we punish ourselves when we stay stuck in one gear. When we get stuck in a comfort zone, and resist shifting, we can fail to accomplish that which is ours to do. For example, a person who loves to structure and organize might avoid the decision that will create a new opportunity. The decision maker may so dislike brainstorming that her decisions are made with limited options.

How do we, then, learn to shift gears? Part of it is an energy question. Shifting into a less than favourite, but valuable, activity, is easier if there is an energy burst to go with the shift. I recently heard of a presenter at a teacher’s seminar who used the energy principle. As a choreographer, he well knew the discipline of putting energy into every motion. When he saw his group of teachers get up, slowly, to participate in the next activity in his workshop, he chided them with words to the effect of “Some of you look half dead! Put some life into your step and you will feel better!”

Shifting is aided by an energetic cheer leader, but sometimes we are on our own. Then it is valuable to identify those particular shifts which are difficult for us. We can name our difficulty and screw up our intention to the “sticking point” so that we make a successful transition. We can also tell ourselves that this shift is within our power to accomplish. We can remind ourselves of previous times we made the shift and of how this has benefited us. We can picture others who are good at the activity we are shifting into.

It is also helpful to identify the “sound” of the gear we are shifting to. Just what, exactly, do we mean by decision making, or creating ideas, or organizing? If we know the characteristics of that activity, we are more likely to engage in it.

And we should surely congratulate ourselves when we achieve a successful shift. I congratulate myself for knowing how to shift gears manually each time I hear the statistics on car theft! Fewer manual transmissions are stolen, because few thieves know how to shift gears. By learning to better shift gears, our time and energy are not hijacked, but used for the purposes we most deeply intend!

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