To provide some guidance for staff as they prepare for the 2022 session, NCSL turned to Molly McAllister, training and staff development coordinator for the Connecticut General Assembly. She’s also a life coach who speaks and writes about burnout, mentoring and energy—and she has some excellent advice for her colleagues across the country.
What suggestions do you have for staff as they prepare for the upcoming session?
Some might say there is no way to truly prepare. Others might prepare every last detail and still be thrown off course by the surprises of a busy legislative agenda. While each person is different, it is likely that the best way to prepare is to address what most impacts your energy.
Are there any commonalities on what influences our energy? How do we identify these influences?
According to the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, there are six different influencers on your energy. And with careful consideration, you can work to address and enhance the ones that are the most meaningful to you, your mindset and your productivity.
The first, and perhaps the easiest to identify, is your environment. You derive energy from the physical place where you work. Whether working remotely from home or back in the office, take a look around you. How is your physical environment supporting your ability to show up with energy? Consider your lighting, ergonomics, the order of your desk and files, the smiles of the people in the pictures around you. When you walk into your space to start your day, do you expel breath and sag your shoulders, or do you smile and turn on lights to brighten your space and begin?
The second item on the list is the social component. The legislative environment is naturally social, and there are a few things to consider when it comes to those interactions. For starters, how long has it been since you’ve seen some of the people you work with? It may be time to reach out and engage with your network and prime yourself for a successful session.
It takes a team of people to do legislative work, and healthy relationships make the process of doing the work much smoother. The other factor to consider is identifying how much socialization is ideal for you. Each person is different, and if you work best minimizing social disruptions because it drains you of energy, it’s important to consider how you will balance both what you need and what your office culture requires. What boundaries might you consider setting for yourself? And when they are broken, what is the best way to respond that will maintain the positive relationships you’ve worked hard to cultivate?
I’m guessing sleep and nutrition are important considerations as well.
Absolutely! Don’t you wish you could take a nice long vacation and stock up all the rest and relaxation you need to get you through the session? Unless you’re a bear emerging from hibernation, this simply isn’t going to work. The third impact on one’s energy is the physical influencer. It is a powerful one—and often the first one to be ignored when legislative deadlines are looming. Deciding in advance how you are going to handle things like healthy eating, hydration, exercise and sleep is an important part of your session game plan.
You likely know your own weaknesses. What can you do to address them? For example, will you set timers on your devices to make sure you stand up every hour and walk around? Or will you make a plan about what you will and won’t eat when it comes to those late nights? Perhaps creating a list of go-to snacks to buy that support your decision or buying a new lunch bag and committing to only eating what you pack will get you started. Taking charge of the physical influencer can be a challenge, but if you commit to a plan, you’ll have a better chance of following through than if you have no plan at all.
These are great, practical tips. Any ideas for how staff can effectively deal with the sheer volume of work and demands that come their way during session? Do you have suggestions to help find time to focus, to think?
The quality of our thoughts is so important and it’s the fourth component impacting your energy. The mental influencer may be best summed up in a quote by (American missionary) Jim Elliot: “Wherever you are, be all there!” One of the things that many legislative staff love about their unique work environment is the fast pace and the wide variety of work, tasks and projects. That quick pace is often at the heart of what drives action, but it can have a significant impact on your mental energy.
Multitasking means you are never fully engaged in one thing, and jumping from topic to topic can overload your mental capacity and leave you feeling exhausted. While a certain degree of this may seem unavoidable, preparing for the session might mean planning on some techniques that will give your brain a break. Consider what the best time of day is for you to get the quiet work done that needs your full attention and then make it a practice to block that time and put your phone on silent. Taking a break to simply focus on your breathing, whether aided by a meditation app or simply with awareness, may be the most powerful way to pause and clear your mind.
Given the high levels of stress, large workloads and lack of R&R during session, emotions tend to run high. Taking a moment could be really beneficial.
That’s right. When people really care about their work, it makes sense that emotions may run high. Whether you call it EI, EQ or simply emotional control, understanding what you are feeling in the moment and how it may influence your behavior—and, therefore, the effect it may have on others—is a skill that most people work on daily. This is the emotional influencer, and while you may not be able to prepare for the emotions you might experience during session, you can get into a healthy practice of observation.
The next time you are emotionally charged, take a moment to raise your awareness around what you’re feeling and what your instincts are when it comes to responding. Do you have a knee-jerk reaction that you may regret later, or do you take a breath to organize your thoughts and emotions before responding? It is completely normal to have strong emotions tied to the work that you do; it’s likely why you do what you do! What matters is identifying those feelings and responding in a way that is in line with your values.
Finally, the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching calls the sixth influencer a spiritual one, but that word can be a little too heavy for some. What it means, in our practical workplace, is a connection to a greater purpose or goal. Often, when staff are working so hard to make the session successful, they may feel depleted by the demands of the day and all the tasks that need to be completed. When in the weeds, they lose sight of the reason why they are a part of this process to begin with. Taking a step back and remembering why you do this work and why it is so important for you, personally, is connecting yourself to your greater purpose. Legislative work is meaningful, and the people who work in this unique culture are some of the most dedicated employees you will find because they are deeply connected to a larger goal.
Great advice! Any final thoughts?
Whether you believe you can prepare for session or not, the truth is, you can handle whatever the legislative session throws at you. Every session is a learning experience, and no matter if this is your first session or you’ve done this a few times, your capacity to learn and grow is limitless. Be mindful of your energy and what is influencing it, take steps to mitigate the stressors, and you may find you have the perfect chemistry for a powerful session.
Holly South is a senior policy specialist with NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and serves as liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries..