How do we engage in work that is intentional and makes the best use of our limited time and energy? On this show Rebekah Cummings, Digital Matters Interim Director at the University of Utah Marriott Library, talks about Selecting Your Yes with Intention in order to do good things in our communities while also taking care of ourselves and engaging in work that best utilizes our capacities.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights in the profession.

How do we engage in work that is intentional and makes the best use of our limited time and energy? On this show Rebekah Cummings, Digital Matters Interim Director at the University of Utah Marriott Library, talks about Selecting Your Yes with Intention in order to do good things in our communities while also taking care of ourselves and engaging in work that best utilizes our capacities. Enjoy the show!  

Rebekah, welcome to the show. Today we are talking about Selecting Your Yes with Intention. To begin with, I know you started thinking about this topic because of personal experience. Can you share a little bit about that, and what you learned that can be helpful to all of us in libraries?  01:33 

Rebekah Cummings:

Sure, and Adriane, thank you so much for having me on the podcast today. I love this podcast. I’m so excited to be a guest. I guess what I would say is that as far back as I can  remember I’ve always been someone who was busy.

I grew up in a family where my parents really felt like busy kids don’t get into trouble. So even in high school I remember being scheduled down to the minute. This persisted throughout my life, especially as I became a mom and a working mom. But, I always had infrastructure to support being busy. I had daycare. I had school. I had really supportive grandparents. And as so many of us experienced, all that infrastructure broke down in the pandemic. We couldn’t see our grandparents. Our daycare shut down. Our schools shut down. All of a sudden I was trying to do all the work I had normally done, while overseeing online schooling and moving all my library services and classes onto Zoom and Canvas. Honestly it was the first time in my life that the busyness became completely untenable.

I remember hitting this particular breaking point in the pandemic when my supervisor at the time asked me to write this intensive grant that had a deadline of December 15. For the first time in my life I remember just saying, I can’t. I cannot do this one extra thing. But I had such a hard time saying no. I started reflecting deeply on, What is wrong with me that I’m unable to actually just say no. I did ultimately say no. Then I remember feeling so relieved thinking, Why was that so difficult? My supervisor’s such a kind person, and said, Great no problem, we’ll do it next year. 

Over the course of the pandemic I made it my personal project to dive into literature about boundaries, and self-care, and wellness, and saying yes and no with intention. I read a ton of books like Burnout, Essentialism:The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Set Boundaries, Find Peace, Untamed, Rest is Resistance. It really wasn’t hard to find a through line of what I was trying to learn.

Slowly I was finding that I was becoming more gentle with myself. I was actually starting to internalize some of these messages about how it’s not possible to do all the things. Last May, Jenn McKague, I think she’s the Continuing Education Chair for the Utah Library Association, asked me to deliver a keynote for the Utah Library Association Fall Workshop. 

The theme of the conference was Grow With Intention. My mind immediately went to this very particular way I had been trying to grow with intention over the past three years. So, I delivered that talk last September. It was called Fewer but Better: Selecting Your Yes with Intention. 

I was really surprised at how much it resonated with all the librarians that I talked to. Since then several of them have said that talk meant a lot to them. They quoted things back to me. I think the reason it has hit so hard in our community is because we are practically in the business of saying yes in libraries. Just the thought of saying no to our patrons, or our colleagues is like an anathema to our profession. 

But like everyone else, we have time constraints. We have capacity issues. Since the start of the pandemic I don’t know any libraries that haven’t been short-staffed at one point or another. With all the challenges that we faced—losing people to retirement, or healthcare issues, or childcare issues, or burnout some of our old yes’s just simply had to become no’s. We had to start being more selective. The problem is that we’re just not very good at saying no. So the tips that I gave, I think, were really helpful to the library community.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: We all care about the work we do, and want to do good things for our communities, but many of us are struggling with saying no, taking care of ourselves, and setting boundaries. How can Selecting Yes with Intention be an antidote?  05:25 

Rebekah Cummings:

I love this question so much because when I started doing this work, and digging in, I really thought that what I was trying to learn how to do was to say no to things that I didn’t want to do. Just learning how to set those boundaries of things that I knew I didn’t have time and capacity for, that I could say no to. But, the more I dug into this work, and the literature, I started to learn that it wasn’t just about saying no to things I didn’t want to do—there were just so many possible amazing things that we could do that I had to start saving my time and attention for where I could make my highest contributions in doing my best work. 

This was a shift for me of not just saying no to writing those super long grants over  holiday breaks, but also learning how to be more intentional with yeses. From my own personal experience there’s this energy you bring to the table when you’re doing things that are inspiring to you—that tap into your talents, that meet significant needs in the world. That’s what I think this talk was about. It’s not just about doing less, which admittedly, for some of us is part of it, but also learning how to identify those things where you can make your highest contributions to your work.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: When we are faced with moments when something’s got to give, you say we have three options. What are they?  06:51 

Rebekah Cummings:

For the people who haven’t heard this talk, these are the three things that I talk about when you’re faced with burnout. I do actually have to say—I have to thank a therapist that I had in my twenties for this particular framework. In my twenties I remember going through this divorce. I was constantly griping about my mother-in-law to my poor therapist. I remember him saying to me that I had to think about my mother-in-law as living in a house with a train that runs right next door to it. He says, What are your options if you have this train that’s going past your house multiple times a day? And he says, Well, of course you can move. That’s always a possibility. If you really can’t stand that train—moving is an option. Or you could stick your head outside the window and scream at that train multiple times a day. That’s an option, too. Or, if you don’t want to move, and you’re finding that it’s not very fruitful to keep screaming at that train every day, the only thing you can do is change your mindset around that train. Accept that it’s part of the reality of living in that house—just changing the things you can. It’s not an exact match for what I talk about in the talk, but it was certainly an inspiration for me. 

In the talk I sketch out a framework of options when you’re dealing with burnout at work. First I say, You can quit. I don’t want to act like quitting is not an option. Then I talk about how I grew up in this culture where quitting was always looked at like a bad thing—that if you quit you were giving up on something. 

I talk about the fact that some of the best decisions in my life have actually revolved around major quits, as we were just talking about before we went on air. I left my first career in sales to go back and get my Masters in Library Science. A lot of people thought I was crazy. A question I pose in the talk is asking yourself, Am I quitting this because it’s hard for me, or am I quitting this because it’s wrong for me? I know that so many of us can do hard things, but we don’t want to spend our life doing the wrong things.

Then the second thing that we can do is—we can do nothing. We can keep going down the same path and make no changes and do what we’ve been doing. But if we’re feeling that burnout, that’s only going to ultimately lead to more bitterness and resentment.

Then I talk about the third thing that we can do. We can change, or we can grow with intention. For me that meant letting go of resentment; creating and holding healthy boundaries; and flexing that muscle of learning how to say no. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: So, changing ourselves in order to select Yes with Intention, becomes important. What strategies can you share to help librarians do that?  09:32 

Rebekah Cummings:

My talk is split into two parts. The first is very theoretical—the frames we need to develop to start doing this work. Then I offer four concrete strategies that librarians can put into practice for selecting their yes and no with intention.

The first thing that I talk about, which sounds so easy, and intuitive, but so many of us don’t do it—especially women tend not to do this, and that is the concept of paying yourself first. Of course this principle is borrowed from financial principles where we think about—if we want to save money you have to take that first 10% and put it into savings. Or, maybe for some of us it’s 10% to giving, 10% into our personal savings and then that last 80% is what we actually have to spend money on. 

The exact same thing I have found to be true with our time. If we don’t reserve some portion of our time—putting it on our calendars for how we’re going to pay ourselves first, and doing things that actually fill us up. It might be for those of us in Utah, snowshoeing, or hiking, or snowboarding. I think it can be as simple as taking time to drink coffee in solitude in the morning, or taking a walk. I think if we don’t save that portion of time it’s not just about being more effective in the rest of our lives—which it certainly does make us more effective. But, I think it’s also this recognition of our own humanity. It’s avoiding burnout because it’s admitting that we have these needs that need to be met and that we can’t give indefinitely, and that what we want actually matters. That’s the first thing—paying yourself first. 

The second thing is to slow down and stop saying yes automatically. I think we have become so conditioned—I started calling myself this human slot machine that if someone wanted something it’s pull the lever and I would give, give, give. But what I have realized is if I sit in the question a little bit longer nobody minds if I ask them for a little time to think about it. Obviously this isn’t true for every request. Sometimes it’s okay to just say yes. But when people are asking you for more of a commitment, more time—I think it’s great to ask them for a little time to think about it and to employ something we’re going to talk about in a second, which is The Whole Body Yes. And then, to just listen to yourself about whether or not this is a good use of your time. 

The third thing—the third concrete strategy I use is from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, the Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and that is to have criteria against which you evaluate new opportunities. This criteria has become so important I actually have a poster of it up in my office. But what he says is we need to ask ourselves, Are you deeply inspired by this work? Does it tap into your particular talents? Does it meet a significant need in the world? If any of those things are no, he says that it’s just not your work. It’s somebody else’s work, and to release yourself from feeling like that’s something you need to do. I talk a little bit in the talk of, again, straw man arguments around that—I know not everything is going to inspire us, but for those big things that take a lot of time, putting that criteria into effect.

Then the last thing I talk about is learning how to map what a yes, and a no feel like inside of your body, and looking inside yourself for those answers. So that’s what we refer to as The Whole Body Yes.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4:  Okay, then what is The Whole Body Yes, and how can we use it to intentionally select our own yes?  12:58 

Rebekah Cummings:

This might sound a little woo-woo for people who aren’t used to thinking about decision-making in this way. I was introduced to this concept from Diana Chapman. She’s from the Conscious Leadership Group. Almost out of desperation I started putting this into effect. 

The whole premise behind The Whole Body Yes is listening to intelligences inside of yourself that have nothing to do with your cognitive ability. Sometimes it’s referred to as that mind/gut connection, or the enteric nervous system. It’s tapping into this idea that there’s more brain cells inside of your gut than there are in the head of a cat, that our bodies know us really well, that they’ve carried us through this life. It wants to protect us. 

I think for too many of us when we’re making these decisions start polling everybody around us, What should I do? What’s the right decision? When in reality, if we take that quiet time with ourselves and learn how to map what a yes feels like inside of our body, relying on things in the past that have been valuable to you, that have been a good use of your time, that you would gratefully repeat if you had another chance—that that’s going to tell you what maybe your future choices might look like. 

Then on the flip side of that mapping, what a no feels like in your body, and listening when you feel that inside of yourself as an invitation to decline whatever thing is being offered to you.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5:  Is there anything else you’d like to share?  14:34 

Rebekah Cummings:

There’s a couple things—first, I really want to thank Jenn McKague, and Merrily Cannon for asking me to do that talk. It was so helpful for me for crystalizing all the things that I had been thinking about, and getting a chance to share that knowledge with other people. I really appreciated trying my hand at a keynote. I had never done it before and I ended up really enjoying the experience. 

The other thing I want to share is just the sadness I have at the culture that we’ve created that leaves so many of us—especially mom’s and caretakers, feeling burnt out,  overwhelmed and resentful. I just feel like we can do better for people. It makes me kind of sad that this has resonated as much as it has. I think as managers and library leaders, it’s really incumbent on us to create those humane spaces for our employees to let them have the space and the resources to bring their passions and talents into work. I think that we’re going to have happier employees, and that we’re going to have a more vibrant and generative library when we put these things into practice. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6:  Do you have any favorite management or leadership books, or resources and why?  15:38 

Rebekah Cummings:

As I was thinking about this question—there are so many amazing leadership books out there, I mean, I love Brené Brown’s, Dare to Lead. l love Jim Collins’s Good to Great. I mean there’s just—I love Atomic Habits. I constantly find myself saying, We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems. 

When I was thinking about it, the things that I put into practice every single day in my library are actually some of my favorite parenting books, which may not sound like leadership books. Years ago, for example, I read the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk. It has forever changed the way I interact with people, because let’s face it, people are people, are people. Little people—our employees are just kids grown up and we all sort of feel the same way. 

Things like acknowledging feelings, avoiding the advice trap, giving in fantasy what you can’t give in reality, staying curious and asking more questions, engaging cooperation, problem solving, focusing on building autonomy, as opposed to fixing problems for people. All of these tactics I actually learned from reading some of my favorite parenting books like How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk. I use this every day with my colleagues and my students to build connection, to empower them, and to help them gain the skills that they need to be leaders and problem solvers themselves. 

Then more recently I read a book called, Good Inside by Dr. Becky Kennedy. Again, it is called a parenting book, but I have started thinking of it as just a relationship book with all of the humans in your life. Something like starting with the assumption that everybody you’re talking to is good inside. Seeing behavior as a window, as opposed to seeing it as the problem. So behavior’s just giving you an idea of things that are going on at a deeper level and how do we ask questions and learn more about why those behaviors are manifesting. Also holding the idea—I learned this from the book that two things can be true at the same time, and holding that multiplicity inside your brain has been so helpful for me as a manager to know that we can hold nuance and complex thoughts inside of our heads. Those are the management books I’m going to talk about right now.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Those sound great, Rebekah. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  17:52 

Rebekah Cummings:

I feel like we could spend the whole hour on this question because there’s so much that libraries mean to me, personally. As a library user, as well as someone who’s worked in libraries for thirteen years now, I was not raised in a family of readers. Neither of my parents are readers. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen either one of them sitting down with a book for fun, but they did—they did expose me to books. They took me to the library, and quite frankly books became my life, especially as a kid. So much of what I like about myself, and what I like about my life is a direct result of becoming a reader as a child. I don’t think that would have happened without that exposure to libraries. 

When we talk about the importance of libraries, I think all too often we talk about libraries as important for democracy—that they really help people have access to good information, to be good citizens, and make good choices. I think that’s true. We don’t want to forget about that, but to me that’s just a small part of what libraries actually do. 

For me libraries are about tapping into latent potential. It’s for the insatiably curious child who would not otherwise have access to books, and to stories. It’s for the parent who wants to do better for their kids, but may not have the resources to go to places where they get those great early childhood interventions, for example. It’s about grandparents who want to volunteer and give back to their community. 

I think what’s important—it’s not just for people who don’t have financial resources. All too often we act like libraries are just for people who can’t afford other things, but last year I had this really great experience where my kindergartener—she’s six years old, and she learned how to play chess in aftercare. Now, I don’t play chess. My husband doesn’t play chess. It’s not just something that we do at home, but she marched her little six-year-old self into her school library and checked out a book on chess, and taught herself how to play chess. Now we’re learning and it’s really fun, but I just think about the role that the library played in helping her learn how to do something that wasn’t readily available to her at home. To me, that is what libraries mean. It’s tapping into the latent potential of curious people who want to make their lives better in some way. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8:  Rebekah, that is so inspiring. And it is also inspiring to hear what you say about Selecting Your Yes with Intention because when we are at work we want to bring our whole selves in a way that is authentic, and that means the most to us without burning us out. So, having you on the show today is going to resonate so much with our listeners. I appreciate you being here.  

Rebekah Cummings:

Thank you so much, Adriane. I’ve loved being here.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune in to where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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