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Our National Pastime: ‘Circling Back’ and Why to Pause in January



As we approach the end of January, spare a moment to think back to the beginning of the month, and what some have dubbed “National Circle Back Day,” or January 2nd.


When you returned to your desk, virtual / home office / corporate setting after the New Year, what sorts of emails were waiting for you? What outstanding needs did you resurface with a gentle ping, knowing your colleague felt a similar twinge?


We all wince, waiting for the cascade of virtual mail akin to the end of “Miracle on 34th Street,” and the new year can bring a ton of energy for folks who find inspiration around the blank slate. This year is THE year, the year we’ll overhaul it all. Best practices! Renewed inspiration!


I used to feel a mounting sense of panic in these first few weeks of January. I’d take with zero grains of salt, the massive plans and ideas that everyone brought with them on their return. (I’d also feel it was on me alone to realize them, but that’s a different post. ;) )


On the one hand, this is a beautiful gift of working in nonprofits. What a remarkable thing, that when you come back refreshed and most yourself, you bring a renewed zeal and imagination for the mission of your organization. Not ideas about how to evade or disengage or minimize, but how to excel and how to serve.


On the other hand, there is a real risk of overwhelm and paralysis. If you take every single idea and ambition completely seriously, you risk fast-forwarding to hopeless overwhelm, the idea that there's no way to responsibly activate all of these plans. 


So, here’s what I learned years ago: each year, I wait until January 15th. I don’t disengage, I listen attentively, I’m a good collaborator, and at the same time, I do my colleagues the courtesy of pausing to let the true priorities reveal themselves. 


By the middle of the month, much of the original energy has petered out. But, hot take: THAT’S OKAY.


Most of the items that fall away either don’t advance the mission or are a well-intended equivalent of color coordinating systems that don’t need further optimization in the first place. As many have observed, one of the more dangerous forms of procrastination is doing work that never needed doing in the first place.


So, as we collectively stare down the end of January, I invite you to consider–which of the projects that felt tremendously urgent and important at the beginning of the month (or heck, at the end of December) are still persistent and viable? For the few that remain, that’s where the gold is, and that will offer a path towards maximum impact and momentum in the year ahead.


Have you found this to be true in your own work? When did a pause help reveal the best path forward? Share in the comments below.


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