A Leader’s Perspective on Reconnecting with Our Creative Selves through Seasonal Work Cycles

Nature has taught me so much about moving with the seasons, that we need to honor times of harvest and times of rest. That the frenetic pace of doing, doing, doing, without being present with each other and the season we are in, what is happening around us, is unnatural and counter to life. So it has made me realize how important community ceremony and celebration is to our efforts to transform the world.

Brenda Salgado (as cited in Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown) 

The Addiction to Frenzy

I love my work. It’s a core part of my identity and it gives me a sense of purpose and meaning. I have the privilege of working with so many thoughtful, talented people who want to make the world a better place. And yet, since I became a nonprofit leader nearly a decade ago, I’ve started every vacation feeling utterly spent. I’ve felt firsthand how difficult it is to think differently, show up with empathy and patience, and stay motivated and inspired when feeling exhausted and burnt out.

There is no denying that we have placed urgency and hustle culture on a pedestal – and it is killing us, physically and spiritually. The values of conquering, building empires, competitiveness and individualism that our society was built on have led to a sense that we must keep going, keep performing, and keep climbing.

Of course, none of this is news. Anxiety and burnout risk being our new “normal”. Dominant ideas of productivity are based on the notion that the shorter the time it takes to complete a task the better, so we can produce more. They assume that humans are like machines that should be able to continue along at steady – or accelerating – paces indefinitely (if this interests you, check out how our understanding of management is rooted in Taylorism).

But we’re not machines. Imagination and creativity are crucial ingredients for transformative change, and the more we are consumed by tasks and to-do lists, the less able we are to tap into them. In his book “The Four Pivots”, Shawn Ginwright describes these to-do lists as “a symbol of modern capitalist culture that guides our daily behaviours”, allowing us to ramp up our productivity without having to think. These lists contribute to our “addiction to frenzy”, which in turn diminishes our ability to experience joy, meaning, and connectedness.

As the complexity of the world’s problems grow, the disconnect between how we operate and who we are is growing wider. We’ve become detached from nature’s cycles and rhythms and it’s hurting us. If we are to have any hope of building our capacity to solve the challenges we’re facing, we need imagination and creativity – the ability to see a different future. The more we chug along doing our work in similar ways without pausing to reflect and adapt to what we’ve learned, the more we lose opportunities to increase our impact.

Reimagining Time

If you’ve been following the work of IONS, you know that we’re big believers in pushing against the status quo and experimenting with different ways of working. Late last summer, a friend and I decided to hold each other accountable to resisting the impending onslaught of the fall season busyness. While I can’t say I was very successful, in our discussions she introduced me to the idea of seasonal working that was being implemented at GEO Nova Scotia. I thought it was genius! Essentially, the idea is that periods of reflection are sprinkled through the year as an intentional time to pause external-facing work and programming to hold space for debriefs, individual and group reflective work, and relationships.

Since I became aware of the idea of seasonal working, I’m seeing it everywhere. The article “The Tyranny of Time” by Joe Zadeh appeared in my LinkedIn feed recently. It explores the political nature of the clock and how our lives are disciplined by it. Zadeh states that “the more we synchronize ourselves with the time in clocks, the more we fall out of sync with our own bodies and the world around us”. Our devotion to carving out our days by minutes and hours keeps us in a place of counting our productivity and value – always tracking what we’re able to achieve and how we measure up to expectations.

A recent guest essay by Cal Newport in The New York Times called “To Embrace Burnout, Embrace Seasonality” notes that for most of human existence, the seasons guided our pace and productivity. He recognizes the link between slowing down to allow creativity to emerge, noting that “energized creative breakthroughs must be supported by the slower incubation of new ideas” and how modern work neglects to factor in these cycles.

Of course, living in alignment with the seasons and perceptions of time that are not centered on the clock are not new ideas to Indigenous cultures around the globe. Interestingly, The Circle on Philanthropy – an Indigenous group in Canada that contributes to positive change between philanthropy and Indigenous communities – uses seasonal references in job postings, programming and donors. Here’s how the seasons guide their programming cycles:

    • Spring: Planting seeds and tending relationships for the year ahead 
    • Summer: Visiting with members, celebration, ceremonial with a land-based focus
    • Fall: Tending the Harvest 
    • Winter: Internally focused, readying the organization for labour and sustenance through administrative and technical preparation

Seasonal Shifts at IONS

In our September blog, “Off the Clock? Exploring Our Relationship with Time and Work”, Diane Connors and Lydia Phillip spoke to the extractive nature of colonialism and our relationship with time in work. They introduced our intention to begin working in seasonal cycles, and in December 2023, we implemented our first reflection season at IONS. The fall is a notoriously busy time of year for events and programming as people return energized after summer holidays. There can be a tendency to continue that frenetic pace as people try to squeeze in meetings before the winter break. But this year we decided to intentionally pause programming in December, slow down and turn inward.

For about two weeks we limited external meetings, replaced regular team meetings with opportunities to learn together, and reflected and debriefed what we’d done over the past few months. We took two days completely meeting free for individual reflections and prioritized social time together as a team. We also wrote messages for each team member in journals about what we appreciate about them, how we see them living IONS’ values, and our hopes for them in the next year. The December reflection season was a resounding success. We were able to go into the holiday period feeling caught up, connected, and a lot less spent.

Reflection seasons are about rest and rest comes in many forms – some say there’s seven types. I would describe the reflection seasons as a time for creative rest, which Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith says is particularly important for those of us who need to solve problems or brainstorm new ideas (pretty much everyone in the Community Impact Sector!). Creative Rest helps to reawaken our awe and wonder. On one of my individual reflection days I went for a long solo hike in the woods carrying the list of questions we were asked to ponder in my pocket. I realized it had been a while since I’d been in the forest, an environment that grounds me, inspires me, and gives me a sense of spiritual connection. The experience enabled me to go deeper into what I was feeling proud of, where I was feeling values alignment, and new ideas for moving forward.

It’s safe to say that we’re converted! So, going forward we’ll be following a seasonal flow that incorporates periods of reflection much like the ones our peers at Vantage Point in British Columbia describe in their recent blog about deepening impact through seasonal breaks. Our reflection periods will look like this:

    • Late March/early April – reflecting on learning from the winter and the overall fiscal year
    • Late June – reflecting on learning from the spring programming season, as well as space for formal peer feedback processes
    • July/August – rest and planning phase
    • Early December – reflecting on learning from the fall programming season, team retreat and space for personal goal setting and growth planning

In addition to debriefing and learning, reflection seasons offer space for the people and culture work such as team retreats, policy and procedure check-ins, and feedback and growth processes – the things that easily drift to the bottom of our priority lists during busy times. We’re discovering that we’re much more likely to have the energy needed to do these things well when we’re not trying to do it all at once!

Personal Reflection

Over the past few months (I’m sure in part due to our 4-day work week as well), I can say that I haven’t gone into my vacations feeling as spent as I did in the past. I’m finally working less overtime and have a healthier relationship with my window of tolerance.

In January, I started being more intentional about noticing seasonal shifts in all aspects of my life and changing my daily practices accordingly. For example, winter is a time of rest and hibernation, reflection and restoration. I’ve been reading and journaling a lot and producing less. I added more restorative and hot yoga into my exercise routines. I’ve been intentional about going for walks in nature at least once a week, and night walks with my kids. I’ve scheduled time with friends and peers whose perspectives I value and tried to listen more and talk less. All of this has led me to feeling more in touch with my own feelings and emerging goals, and has given me renewed energy.

Now, as I feel the season shifting, I’m ready to lean into the sense of newness, growth and creation that spring offers. I’m thinking about what this means for adjusting my daily practices (if you’re interested in these ideas, I highly recommend checking out Jacqueline Suskin’s book “A Year in Practice: Seasonal Rituals and Prompts to Awaken Cycles of Creative Expression”, which I stumbled upon at a conference this winter).

I truly believe that rest and living in accordance with nature’s cycles rather than the unrelenting clock hold immense potential for us to reconnect, reduce polarization, and awaken our creativity – all of which are so badly needed. But I’ve reached my word count, and this has turned more into an essay than a blog so I’ll end here but there will likely be more from me on this soon. I would love to hear if any of this resonates, and anything you’re doing in your organization or your life that we can learn from!

Additional Resources:

  • brown, adrienne maree (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press. 

  • Ginwright, Shawn A. (2022). The four pivots: Reimagining justice, reimagining ourselves. North Atlantic Books. 

  • Newport, Cal (2024). To Cure Burnout, Embrace Seasonality. The New York Times. Accessed March 27, 2024 at: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/16/opinion/creative-work-productivity-seasonality.html 

  • Rubin, Rick (2023). The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Penguin Press. 

  • Suskin, Jacqueline (2023). A Year in Practice: Seasonal Rituals and Prompts to Awaken Cycles of Creative Expression. Sounds True.  

  • Zadeh, Joe (2021). The Tyranny of Time. Noema Magazine. Accessed March 27, 2024 at: https://www.noemamag.com/the-tyranny-of-time/ 

Written by:

Annika Voltan

Executive Director

Annika supports the Board of Directors, steers the operations and the implementation of the strategic plan, and helps steward the NS Nonprofit Coalition. She develops partnerships and project opportunities and helps elevate the voice of the sector.