When is the last time you’ve heard or thought about the term “steady state?” Does this bring you back to high school science? Or maybe it’s something you’ve come to learn as a term that applies to so much more than science, mechanics, and engineering. I hope it’s the latter! Being familiar with our individual steady state is among the most important pieces of self-awareness we can gain.
A steady state is a situation in which all variables are constant in spite of ongoing processes that strive to change them. Think about this in terms of your personal and professional life. I’d wager we all desire living and working in a steady state; this is when we’re most effective because we’re attentive, at peace, introspective, and in-tune. In contrast, an unstable system is one that diverges from the steady state. Think: a new job responsibility thrown on your shoulders, growing your family, addressing a health concern for you or a loved one. It’s fight or flight.
If you feel like you’ve lost touch with your steady state – or maybe have never really achieved it, here’s what I hope you’ll consider…
What is your steady state?
“Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.” – Margaret Thatcher
I come back to this quote again and again because it so eloquently characterizes what I view as my steady state. Steadiness is not laziness, void schedules, or a lack of responsibility. It’s quite the opposite. It’s when I have a full (and fulfilling!) to-do list that aligns with my skills, interests, and available time, so that I can successfully accomplish what I set forth in a day at a manageable pace, with passion and conviction.
What does your steady state look like? How do you feel when you’re living in a steady state where your time and resources are well matched to the demands of your day? Write it out! List the characteristics and cues that you’re living in equilibrium. This is something to remind yourself of regularly and return to the definition as often as needed.
Steadiness is not complacency.
You can be a steady and consistent person, while still being ambitious, successful, and high-achieving. They’re two different spectrums measuring two very different qualities of life. I have never been one to advocate change merely for the sake of change. There needs to be a greater, more compelling reason for something – or someone – to propel me from my steady state. This is a perfect segway into the next critical point…
Enduring the transient state.
There will be times when introducing a variable (i.e. change) into your steady state is warranted, even necessary. We must all be adaptable and responsive to change! After all, it’s this adaptation that will ultimately bring us back to a steady state. But until we again find our steady state, we must endure a transient state (yes, more science terms!). When something new is introduced to our lives – a job, relationship, child, responsibility, obstacle, etc. – it requires a degree of transition and adjustment. You likely don’t have to think too far back to recall a personal example of this. Maybe you’re living it right now.
Transition is hard. And even for those who appear to love constant change, rarely is it the transition phase they love. Rather, it’s something that is perceived as better that can be achieved as the result of the transition that is the real reward and “high” we chase. Leaving home for the first time to attend college – that’s a huge transition! But the result of freedom, growth, education, new relationships, and life experiences is well worth enduring the transient state. However, I don’t think anyone desires constantly living in a transient state. Rather, we are always looking ahead to leveling off in a new, more comfortable, and fulfilling steady state. Transition is a necessary means to an end we all desire – which is steadiness.
Triggers of an unstable system.
What pulls you from your steady state? It’s critical to understand the triggers that can add a variable or process that changes the system you have in place. These may be necessary or unavoidable, but sometimes they can be avoided or at least minimized. How so? I like to think of the analogy of a boat trying to progress uphill. This could be an impossible feat, or one that could potentially upend the boat, unless you approach it in a lock-like manner. The boat lock system is truly amazing, and there is so much we can learn and apply to our own lives from watching this system work. If it can move massive ships through an uneven canal, what could the same system, when applied to your life, do for your workflow?
Now back to the original point…
The triggers that pull me from my steady state are most commonly things that require more of my time – adding a new client or project, taking on a volunteer role to help at my children’s school or with their sports, even forging a new friendship. These require additional time which is a limited and highly protected resource of mine. To add something new, something else about my schedule has to change. So long as I can add in one variable at a time, allow my “boat” to rise with the new water, and find its steady state before taking on the next variable, I can navigate uphill (or downhill) with relatively little disruption.
The key is to know your triggers. What variables are often thrown into your life? Which ones are you equipped to handle and which ones stand to really rock the boat? Variables are not inherently bad, nor is the transient state, but this should not become an everyday obstacle. We need the rest, recovery, and efficiency that comes from time spent in our steady state. This is why we need to become acutely aware of what this looks like for us, what triggers an unstable system, and what are our best tools for navigating the transient state. With this to guide your navigation, you will be well prepared for the waters ahead!
How would you answer the first question posed above? What is your steady state? For each of us, this is unique and I’d love to hear where you find the balance among the processes, expectations, and responsibilities that flow throughout your life. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!