I love solitaire. I find it infinitely soothing. Of course, there’s a line between soothing and numbing, just as there is with any activity. As long as I mindfully use a game or two as a tool rather than being used by it, it’s one of my favorite wait-I-need-to-think-about-this or catch-my-breath techniques.
The thing about solitaire, whether we play the old-fashioned way with a deck of cards, or online, is each game is different because we shuffle the cards.
We shuffle the cards.
We make choices as we play, so we have some control, but the shuffle is random. Always the same cards, but in different positions every time.
Sometimes we win. Sometimes the cards don’t fall right, or we make mistakes, or both, and we lose.
Each of my relationships is a card. My job-for-a-paycheck is one, and exercise, and sleeping, and eating. My Be Still Now time is a card. All the ordinary household tasks and activities of daily living have a card. My time is a card, and my energy another. Each piece of my life can be represented by a card.
When I don’t shuffle the deck, I keep laying out the cards in the same old way, in the same old order, and experiencing the same old frustrations and challenges.
Holistic decision-making demands a fresh look at what I’m trying to manage and why, as well as an assessment of my personal deck of cards, including priorities, resources, and sustainability. In looking at my life from an unaccustomed vantage point, through the filter of Allan Savory’s model, I see previously unconscious choices and patterns that are not in line with my current intentions.
The cards haven’t quite fallen right, or I’ve made mistakes, or both. My deck is too large and I need to discard, or too small and I need to add some cards. I’ve dealt less important cards on top of essential ones.
So I’m reshuffling my cards and exploring new layouts.
I can’t do everything. I want to. I think I should. I can’t.
Everything and everyone can’t be a priority. Some of my time and energy investments have provided little or no return. In some ways my life hasn’t been reflecting the truth of my heart.
So I’m reshuffling my cards.
I could refuse to reshuffle. Eventually, life will force a reshuffle, maybe in painful and unexpected ways. I could wait for that. On the other hand, I can face my fears, be willing to cut my losses, tell the truth (at least to myself), and let go of what’s no longer serving me.
I choose to reshuffle.
Not enough time/space/energy for what’s really important? Exhausted and overwhelmed?
This week I’m looking at the ecosystem process tools I might use to manage my writing business plan. Savory defines them as human creativity, money and labor, technology, fire, rest, and living organisms.
Leaving aside all this terminology for a minute, how do we manage our lives and environment? I’ve just been housecleaning with a vacuum (requiring electricity), a dust rag, a broom and dustpan, bleach, vinegar, cleanser, rags, Windex and paper towels. These tools don’t represent much money, but I do need to use labor to optimize them.
Now I’m using my laptop and a wireless Internet connection. These technological tools require money, in addition to my creativity and labor.
Although Savory’s focus is on land management, his model continues to lend itself to virtually any kind of management situation, as though all our human endeavor is only a sidestep away from holistic land management. This, of course, is the case, as there can be no human endeavor if we destroy the planet. Whoever we are and whatever we do, our choices and actions have consequences for Earth.
I’m using the tool of creativity as I work with this model and explore all the levels and pieces. Supporting my own creativity as a writer is at the heart of my purpose.
Savory proposes that holistic management planning will always require at least one of the tools of money and labor. Now we come up against the limitations of our resources. We might have money, but no time, energy, or willingness to labor. Or, we might be working as hard as we can, but have no financial resource. Most of us have a mixture of the two, but how do we know how to use our resources of money, time and energy most effectively? This is one of the questions lying at the core of my own situation.
I suspect many of us operate out of scarcity rather than abundance, out of a sense of limitation rather than possibility. Our lives are busy and our days full. We have responsibilities and deadlines. We respond to one demand after another. We fight traffic, the clock, and an unending stream of messages, notifications, beeps, rings, and buzzers.
Using rest as a tool seems counterintuitive. If we’re already running as fast as we can and we can’t keep up, the sky will certainly fall if we make a choice to stop and sit still, even for a few minutes. However, I know from my own experience none of our efforts are sustainable without rest. We can’t assess our resources fully on the run. We can’t think intelligently about our measure of money and labor and where to use them most effectively, and we can’t maintain juicy creativity without regular and adequate rest.
Fire is another tool we use to manage land, and I apply it metaphorically to my own situation. Natural creative forces like fire are terrifying, and we usually focus on their destructive aspect, forgetting destruction always opens the door to something new. Sometimes we use such a force deliberately, and sometimes not.
If we are managing humans rather than land, events such as divorce, death, a spiritual crisis, a health crisis, or a wholly unexpected choice can have the same effect as a force of nature like fire. In a very short time, everything changes and we no longer recognize our landscape and landmarks. We feel terror and loss. We feel disempowered. At some point, we begin to shape a new life, adapt to a new job, put roots down in a new place, or learn how to inhabit a new set of circumstances.
Technology is the tool I’m least comfortable with. Unfortunately, in these days it’s a very important tool for an aspiring writer, maybe even an essential one. As I wrote last week, I’m being inexorably forced to make friends with it and develop some skill in using it. Sigh.
Lastly, and closest to the heart of Savory’s work, is the activity of other organisms as an ecosystem management tool. Collaboration. Cooperation. When organism meets organism, both are impacted. It doesn’t matter how large they are, or if they have a Latin name, or if we understand the full nature of that impact. It doesn’t matter if one organism is a cow and one a forb. It doesn’t matter if one is a human being and the other a virus. Life interacts with life, and both lives change.
The long tale of evolution is made up of infinite stories of these interactions.
My interaction with all the life around me, past and present, human and nonhuman, is my most powerful and complex tool for managing my business writing plan. Without my social shaping by family and culture, I would have nothing to write about. Without collaborating with others who have skills, knowledge, and power I lack, I cannot succeed. Without the inspiration and support from those around me, I would not be able to fuel my creativity sustainably.
Tools help us shape and manage our lives. We learn to make them, care for them, and wield them effectively. As humans, we have a long history of developing tools to help us master our world, and human endeavor often fails if we don’t have and know how to use the proper tools.
Questions I ask myself: What tools do I need to build a sustainable management plan? Who will teach me to use them effectively? How much money and labor will be necessary in order to use my tools well?
And what about people? People are not tools. How can I most effectively interact, collaborate, and cooperate with the people around me in order to work towards my goal of creating a more secure, sustainable life as a writer?
Savory’s expertise is focused on land management, and at this point in his book, Holistic Management, he spends some time educating the reader about water and mineral cycles, community dynamics and energy flow as they pertain to the soil.
Ecosystem, however, is defined by Oxford Online Dictionary as “a complex network or interconnected system” of “interacting organisms and their physical environment.” If we’re seeking to manage a family unit, a work team, a business, a job, or any other kind of organization not directly connected to the land (remembering all human activities are ultimately rooted in Planet Earth), ecosystem processes remain an important component to consider.
Community dynamics include the whole community. If we have done an effective job of defining our whole, we’ve already broadly defined our community. In my case, my community context includes the human and animals I live with; those people I work with, who are also my community of friends; my family, because we are always working out of our family context; and the plants and animals we share our 26 acres with. I also include a future team of writing support professionals, such as an editor, agent, and publisher.
This seems sufficiently complex, but it’s not even half the story, because most of the life around us is invisible to our eyes. We have just spent a year being reminded at every turn how powerful the world of microbes is. Our bodies are inhabited by uncountable microscopic organisms without which we could not live. We teem with viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and every living being we’re in contact with carries a universe of life with them, too.
We are just now beginning to understand how essential these microbes are to our health and the health of the planet. Healthy soil is full of complex microbial life that helps it retain water, cycle minerals, and provide plants with what they need to thrive. Without healthy soil, mineral and water cycles fail and ecosystems collapse.
Community dynamics are hugely complex and often chaotic. We don’t know enough to see the full scope of them, but we can observe the difference between healthy and unhealthy communities. A flock of chickens, an orchard, a garden, a team, a family, a marriage, all reflect their degree of health in obvious ways.
Energy flow is part of any ecosystem process. For land management, energy flow is obviously driven by sunlight, climate, weather, and the activities of members of the community.
Energy is “strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity (Oxford Online Dictionary). You might notice that definition does not reference money, but the health of our finances has become closely tied to our perceived strength and vitality, as well as our position of power.
Our current political context is a stark example of what happens when the energy flow of money is dammed. Flow implies movement and cycles, an open hand out of which resource is both given and received. When water or mineral cycles are interrupted, the ecosystem suffers. Energy becomes stagnant and the whole system falters. Interconnection breaks down. The system dies, including the organism that withheld energy from everyone else.
This doesn’t occur in natural ecosystems that are not interfered with, but humans do it all the time. It’s the end result of a power-over culture. Some thrive at the expense of the impoverished majority, creating an unsustainable situation that eventually collapses and allows energy to be redistributed.
Any management plan will include us, the planner, as well as other living organisms, and all those living organisms, from a human being to the complex creature we call a cat or a cow to the tiniest soil microbes, need appropriate energy to thrive.
At this point I feel overwhelmed. Some days I can barely take care of myself, let alone anyone or anything else. How can I possibly worry about the soil microbes next to our front steps when I feel too tired or rushed to prepare and eat a good meal? And what does any of it have to do with earning a living through my writing?
Holistic planning is a dance between the tension of the big picture, or holistic context, and discerning where our power lies within that picture. If I prepare and eat a meal that provides good fuel for my physical needs and the needs of the whole community of viruses and bacteria that lives with me, I’m maintaining a good energy flow in my personal ecosystem, which supports my holistic management plan.
There is no writing if there is no me. Nobody else can write my stories. I’m the only one.
If I choose to implement a compost toilet and/or grey water system, the wastes that my body produces (in collaboration with billions of microbes) as a result of energy flow can then be properly managed and returned to the soil ecosystem, which can break it down and use it to enhance water and mineral cycles and the production of more food for my next meal.
If I feed my cats (which greatly enhance my health and happiness) an appropriate diet that meets their physical energy needs, as well as the needs of their living biomes of viruses and bacteria, and compost the waste and wood pellets from their litter boxes, I’m once again supporting a healthy energy flow. Nothing is wasted. One organism’s excretions feed other organisms in the community.
If we want food sustainability, this is the kind of flow we must commit to. Animals and plants evolved together in order to maintain this kind of a sustainable energy cycle, but human activity has broken that elegant flow. We can repair it, if we’re willing to learn and can muster the political will.
At first glance, community dynamics and energy flow seem to have nothing to do with a business plan, but that only demonstrates how unskilled we are at holistic problem solving. We can’t expect a sustainable and effective plan if we don’t use energy of all kinds effectively and recycle it back into the ecosystem with as little waste as possible. The healthy whole is the last level, not the first.
To be alive is to be part of a community. None of us can escape community dynamics and energy flow. None of us can escape dependence on healthy mineral and water cycles. We are now beginning to experience the consequences of centuries of refusal to consider or take responsibility for ecosystem processes.
As I seek sustainability and security for myself, I must also understand my personal whole as part of a larger whole, which in turn forms part of a larger whole, and so on. I am both the center of my whole and a community member for countless other forms of life. I bear responsibility on two fronts: my own power and needsand choosing a position of power in regard to other members of the community. Will I enhance power for others or undermine it? Will I enhance energy flow or block it? Will I work cooperatively with my community or ignore it?
This balance between self and others is the dynamic tension of life. Holistic management planning and decision making put it center stage. Complex systems are by their nature dynamic and nonlinear; both regaining lost balance and maintaining it require resilience and presence, a commitment to living more mindfully and with a wider awareness of the life around us in all its forms.
We can no longer afford to benefit ourselves at the cost of others.
This week I’m moving on with a holistic business writing plan, based on Allan Savory’s Holistic Management. See the first posts here and here.
Whatever our situation, if we want to change it, we need a map from the place we are now to where we want to be at some future point in time. What this means is we have to move beyond our unhappiness with the way things are now and think about how we’d like them to become.
This point in the process requires a further commitment. We’ve all spent time spinning our wheels and feeling stuck. When I do that, I’m sucking the juice out of my grievances and resentments instead of letting go of the rind and moving forward. Eventually, I get bored with myself, stop focusing on the fact that I don’t like how my life is working, and think about what would work better.
It seems easy, but getting unstuck requires more effort and courage than staying stuck. Stuck is familiar. Getting unstuck means … who knows? Maybe we’ll fail. Maybe things will be required of us we don’t think we can deliver. Maybe we’ll wind up in an even deeper, muddier, icier ditch than we’re in now. Maybe we resist dreaming (my hand is raised). Maybe we’re quite sure we were born to be stuck, and we’ll betray our family or tribe if we dare to do better than they told us we could.
I have all kinds of reasons for staying stuck. Some I’m conscious of, and some I probably haven’t identified yet. They’re still lurking under the bed somewhere.
We might decide we don’t want to change things, after all, at least not using this model. It’s too much work. It’s too overwhelming. We can’t see the point in all these “holistic” complications. Taking on life in neat little reductionistic pieces is a lot easier. We don’t want to think about this stuff or ask ourselves hard questions.
I, however, am determined to continue, so my next step is to think about defining my holistic context with a statement of purpose, what quality of life I want, and how I intend my future resource base to look.
A statement of purpose is just that, one statement exactly describing our goal. Obviously, this requires some forward thinking, as opposed to sulking about our present undesirable circumstances.
(I’m reminded of a saying I once heard: If you’re in hell, don’t stop!)
It’s easy to obsess over what’s not working. We’ve probably been doing it for a long time. Thinking about what would work better is kind of a refreshing change, for me, anyway. Coming up with a one-sentence statement of purpose sounds easy, but that’s deceptive. I began with one word: security. I want to build some security for my future.
Great, but what does that mean, exactly? Security is pretty vague. I thought about it, journaled, made notes and lists, and gradually shaped a statement of purpose that felt true.
With that out of the way, I turned to thinking about what quality of life means to me. It means security, to begin with. This feels like a good sign – harmony between my statement of purpose and the quality of life I want to achieve.
At this point, I can mine my grievances for information. I’d like a roof that doesn’t leak. Check. I’d like a house that isn’t slowly tilting on its cracked foundation, mouseless cupboards, a better floorplan, a lot less stuff. Check, check, check and check.
Of course, I want to be able to afford a more secure place to live. Financial security. I also want to shape a sustainable life, which means investing in less gas and oil (heating fuel) dependency and having a more energy-efficient home, among other things.
Quality of life, however, depends on more than our housing situation. This is a holistic plan; we must look at a wider picture than we’re used to. I need healthy relationships for quality of life. I need to be able to make a meaningful (to me) contribution to others. I need to be creative. I want to be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. I need privacy and quiet in which to recharge and write.
I made lots of lists, allowing myself to fantasize without worrying about what I deserve, what I can afford, and all the rest. The result is a final list of what quality of life means to me, and what I mean by a sustainable life.
Lastly, and this is one of the unique aspects of this framework, is defining what we want our future resource base to look like. We must consider possible present actions through the filter of the future.
For example, if we want to clear land of unwanted plants (called weeds) in order to make a garden, one option is to douse it with weed killer. That might or might not destroy all the weeds in the short term, but it certainly degrades the soil, which will need intensive rehab and reclamation to become healthy and productive again. We’ve just killed our garden.
I’m not managing a ranch or farm, but thinking about the future still applies to me. If I want a future financial resource base that’s healthy and gives me financial security, taking out a big loan to fix our roof is a foolish choice. Not only does it further destabilize my present inadequate financial resources, it locks me into future debt. Fixing the roof would keep the water out, but the rest of the house is no longer sustainable in the long term. Much better to find another way to achieve and invest in a more sustainable housing situation.
Thinking about how the decisions we make now affect the future is one of the biggest weaknesses in how we plan, individually and as businesses. We’re impulsive, we’re impatient, and we’re more concerned with our present challenges and problems and our bottom line than we are with whatever might happen in the future. We clear cut part of our land to pay bills. We poison our dandelions because the neighbors object to them. We pick up leaves in the fall so our yards look neater. All those actions ripple into the future in destructive and unexpected ways, but we rarely stop to weigh the possible or probable consequences.
We’re in permanent reactive mode rather than being proactive and taking time to plan holistically. We set ourselves up for one unexpected problem after another, one unforeseen consequence after another. Our plans and policies fail, and we’re not sure why and don’t know how to fix them.
These two first steps, defining the whole we want to manage and defining the holistic context, present and future, force us to clarify and focus not only on the problem, but on the tapestry into which the problem is woven. We are not leaping to a solution for a problem we’ve only glimpsed from the corner of our eye.
In other words, we allow ourselves time to correctly define our problem.
This process also gives us a chance to make observations, identify resources, and gather information, which can redefine or erase perceived problems. If we have the good fortune to be responsible for a piece of land, raking, digging, tilling, removing rotting wood, using herbicides and fertilizers, and limiting diversity of plants and insects are not only unnecessarily expensive, they’re actions that will impoverish and degrade our future resource base.
This is what I learned as I struggled with my health. My problem wasn’t autoimmune disease. My problem was my diet. When I fixed that, the autoimmune symptoms disappeared.
Working to define a holistic context as part of management doesn’t satisfy my desire to find and implement a solution NOW. Even as I resent the time I’m giving this process, though, I’m conscious this is a more complete way to problem solve, a more thoughtful way, a more intelligent way. So I’m holding my horses and taking a step at a time, fascinated, in spite of my impatience, by the elegance of managing my life and goals with this new tool.
I have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve ever come across, Holistic Management by Allan Savory.
Savory is a wildlife biologist, farmer, and cofounder of the Savory Institute, an organization that teaches and supports regenerative land management. I read the book because I admire Allan Savory’s lifetime commitment to understanding the delicate complexity of our environment. He has successfully restored ecosystems and land on several continents using animals. His work, and the work of others like him, can restore and revive our planet, if we can muster the political will and willingness to give up some of our cherished and destructive ideas about how to manage land and animals.
Savory is an enormously important teacher for farmers. I became familiar with his work because of my interest in permaculture. This particular book, however, is a blueprint for managing any complex system, not just a farm.
I’m a great planner, goal-setter, and list-maker, but I’ve never seen any decision-making or management process like this, and as I read the book I marveled at how intuitively right it feels. Policies and standard operating procedures are so often inadequate, not enforceable, and ineffective, in spite of hours and hours of committee work and good intentions. This book explains why.
I picked up the book around the same time I was deciding to get more proactive with my writing. I recognize that I need a plan, but feel overwhelmed by all the moving parts and how to use my time and other resources effectively. What about work-life balance? I do, after all, have a job. What should my priorities be? How much time will I need for each aspect of writing? What about money?
As I read Holistic Management, I took copious notes. I could see Savory’s framework for decision making was more complete than any I’d seen before, and specifically suited to complexity.
After finishing the book, I created a document using Savory’s model. Now comes the hard part. I need to apply his bare outlines to my own situation. It occurred to me that might be an interesting process to make visible, as this is a kind of decision-making most of us have never seen before, and who doesn’t have something to manage, a household, a family, a business, finances, a life?
The first step is figuring out the whole under management. Right away, we’re in new territory, because Savory realizes that any system is not a series of separate boxes, but a dynamic, nonlinear, and complex series of overlapping wholes containing people and resources, including the land on which the system exists. No matter what we’re trying to manage, the land will be part of the whole under management. Water cycles, mineral cycles, soil, animals and plants sustain every human activity, and creating management plans without acknowledging that truth has led us to climate change, catastrophic pollution, diminishing resources, and the destruction of billions of acres of land around the world.
Holistic management of anything must take into account the effects of our choices on the environment.
The whole under management includes decision makers, physical resources, people as resources, and financial resources. I’m the decision maker for my writing plan. For physical resources, I listed our 26 acres and the buildings on it, as well as the soil, water, plants and trees. I added technology to that list as well. For people as resources I listed friends, family, my partner, a professional support team, my community, and readers.
It didn’t occur to me until later to add myself as a resource. Typical!
Financial resources include money earned, inherited, borrowed, or dollars generated from my resource base, that is dollars earned from writing or the land under my management.
Working with the concept of wholes under management provides a new frame for decision-making that depends (surprise, surprise) on the recognition that effective planning means sharing power. When we approach management from the position of power-over others, including natural resources, we have failed to create a successful, sustainable policy or plan before we’ve even begun. Any system that ignores the needs of any part of the whole is doomed to failure, maybe not in the short term, but certainly in the long term.
This is particularly true in the context of relationships, as in a family or community. If we feel disempowered, our investment, loyalty, trust, and level of participation all diminish. We may, for a while, choose to comply with whatever it is the Grand Poobah at the top (power-over) demands, but sooner or later that system will fail and the Grand Poobah will fall. Unfortunately, this kind of pattern is hugely expensive in terms of lives, health, and resource.
Savory’s holistic management model is specific, complex, and requires time. The very first step – identifying the whole under management – can’t be speeded through. If we get that piece wrong, everything that comes after will be flawed. If we can’t define all the moving parts, we’ll never be able to figure out how to support them in working together, and we won’t notice or respond appropriately when things go sideways. And things always go sideways somewhere, at some time.
Defining the whole we are trying to manage forces us to step back and look objectively at our situation. Are we being too reductionistic in our view? Are we appropriately addressing the complexity of the entire system we want to manage? On the other hand, are we trying to manage aspects of a situation that are not ours to manage? Are we taking on, or allowing others to force us into, responsibility for parts of the whole that are not rightfully ours?
Take it from an experienced people pleaser. Trying to manage an interpersonal situation we’ve been coerced into, even if our intentions are the best in the world, is doomed to painful failure. Most people don’t want to be managed, even if they say they do. If we can’t get decision makers and human resources on the same page, our policies and plans will always dissolve. In such a case, perhaps the whole needs to be redefined and refocused on where our power rightfully lies.
I worked with Holistic Management a chapter at a time, and now I’m filling in the decision-making framework a piece at a time, feeling my way into mastery of this amazing new tool.
As I think about the whole(s) I want to manage in my life, I watch patterns and interactions in my workplace, the push-pull of politics as President Biden takes power after the disastrous last four years, and the ways I interact with my partner. All are complicated systems encompassing overlapping wholes. I’m looking at life through a new lens.