When you hear or read the word “freedom,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?
In the US, the 4th of July marks the anniversary of thirteen colonies declaring independence from Britain. They gained their freedom from British rule and government.
In contrast, Canada Day, celebrated on the 1st of July, marks the anniversary of four separate colonies uniting into a single dominion with the British Empire. They gained their freedom to.
Both holidays celebrate freedom, but from very different perspectives. One is freedom from, and the other, freedom to.
But is it really a matter of perspective?
The words freedom, free will, and liberty are frequently used interchangeably. However, according to Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Ph.D, author of Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (MIT, 2006), there is significant difference:
Liberty is linked to human subjectivity; people have (or have not) liberty.
Free will is the quality of being free from control.
Freedom can exist within a state of liberty: a person can be liberated but not experience freedom. Just as control differs from discipline, freedom differs from liberty.
And then there is the matter of negative liberty (or negative rights) and positive liberty (or positive rights.) In Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin wrote that “I am slave to no man,” as an example of negative liberty, and “I am my own master,” as an example of positive liberty.
How do you experience freedom and liberty? Are you your own master?
Consider how you may have defined freedom pre-pandemic. Was it a feeling? Was it an abstract principle? Was it the ability to do what you wanted, when you wanted? You may have given it little thought; freedom may have been something you took for granted. For many, this became abundantly clear during the pandemic lock-downs and the renewed focus against systemic racism.
Yet for persons of color, women, LGBTQ communities, or any oppressed persons, freedom is rarely taken for granted. The struggle was, and remains, real. For others, the struggle might be a matter of awareness that requires a shift in mindset.
What if we acknowledge the freedom of privilege and choice where it exists? What if we manage our time and energy better, and advocate for others?
In “Time Management Won’t Save You,” (Harvard Business Review, June 2021), Dane Jensen wrote, “time management is like digging a hole at the beach: the bigger the hole, the more water that rushes in to fill it.” That pretty well describes it. Maybe it’s not about time management, it’s about freedom management.
Of course, productivity matters. But choosing what to choose is critical. Here are a few strategies to exercise freedom.
Clarify values, identify choices (and which really matter), and prioritize tasks that align with values. This requires an attitude of gratitude and the ability to set boundaries:
When it is in your power to do so, say “thank you, no,” to tasks that don’t align with your values or priorities. When it is not in your power to do so, engage in a collaborative discussion to prioritize the request. This strategy aids in the reduction of tasks.
Recognize and reduce decision fatigue with absolute principles. Seemingly unlimited options and choices can overwhelm even the most experienced leaders. Create rules about your decision-making and decisions. For example, I won’t eat anything between 7:00pm and 11:00am; I will research options for 48 hours, make a decision, and then let it go; I will limit my time on social media to 15 minutes each day, including the time it requires to respond to direct inquiries.
Block task-time on your calendar in order of priority (i.e. #1 priority on Monday, #2 on Tuesday, etc.) to safeguard your time and prevent distractions. For managers and leaders, this can include open-door or on-call hours when you are available. Block a few minutes between meetings to capture notes, process, and reflect.
Together, these strategies work to reduce how many tasks we take on, how many decisions we must make, and the number of distractions that can interrupt us, depleting our time and energy.
Exercising Our Freedom
The very subtle stories we tell our self about our own limitations often block us from exercising the freedom we do have. These stories are often a form of self-handicapping: we anticipate a real or imagined obstacle that might get in the way of success and use it as an excuse to do nothing.
This behavior is not uncommon, even for great managers and leaders. We do it unconsciously to protect our self from the pain (and fear) of failure. It may look like procrastination or lack of time. It might feel like “I can’t,” or, “I don’t have the freedom to…” But, what if you could? What if you do?
More Freedom and Power at Work
Here is an exercise to explore the freedom and power you have at work:
Block 15 minutes on your calendar where you will not be interrupted or distracted.
Reflect on your career path, and identify the projects that you enjoyed the most.
What were your actual actions, or tasks?
Did these projects rely on your strengths, or allow you to develop new skills?
How were you involved in establishing goal- and benchmark setting? What about processes to achieve the goal?
If you had the freedom to change your work, what would that look like? For example, which tasks or projects could you swap with someone who would find them more enjoyable or fulfilling? Which strengths would you like to better utilize or develop?
It’s easy to unintentionally lose power and get stuck, especially today. We have been inundated with obstacles and barriers outside of our control, and we feel disappointed, angry and frustrated. Many of us have been holding ourselves back, waiting for better times. If you have trouble with self-handicapping or embracing your freedom, a qualified coach can help.