Refill your personal gas tank

16 March, 2020

Don’t let exhaustion become your “new normal”. It’s time to start looking after yourself.

The varied demands, multiple priorities and the constant juggling can make leaders exhausted and drained – both physically and emotionally. Unfortunately, workplace fatigue takes a high toll: poor decision-making, inconsistent performance, weakened relationships, health problems and a high likelihood of burnout. In Fatigue Is Your Enemy, Tony Schwartz, President of The Energy Project, points out our physical limitations:

Sustainable capacity – meaning sufficient fuel in the tank – is what makes it possible to bring one’s skill and talent to life. Not even the most talented and motivated employees can run on empty.

So, this week, my message focuses on the costs of leadership fatigue – and how you can take better care of yourself. As a leader, exhaustion and stress make you extra vulnerable. When you feel overwhelmed, you start seeing threats and dangers everywhere, which act as triggers. In her Harvard Business Review article, Handle Your Stress Better by Knowing What Causes It, Anne Grady explains:

When you are triggered, the emotional part of your brain takes over. You are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the same neurotransmitters and hormones that have evolutionarily protected us from threats like bear attacks (freeze, fight, or flight). Your logical brain temporarily shuts down, and you lose the ability to solve problems, make decisions, and think rationally.

Some leaders operate in this reactive state for weeks or even months, making decisions from a place of fear and anxiety. Over time, this can lead to a host of health-related issues, from depression to heart disease.

Think about your own state of mind: do you often experience negative feelings like anger, frustration, impatience and defensiveness? If yes, that’s a strong indicator of fatigue.

Not only do these toxic emotions impact your own happiness, their effects filter down to everyone around you – including your family and friends. In this hyper-sensitive state, even minor annoyances get blown out of proportion, damaging your relationships. (In contrast, when you’re well-rested and emotionally balanced, you’re more likely to feel positive emotions such as excitement, optimism and connectedness.)

Fatigue also takes a toll on your brain, as outlined in How to Deal with Constantly Feeling Overwhelmed by Rebecca Zucker:

The cognitive impact of feeling perpetually overwhelmed can range from mental slowness, forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating or thinking logically, to a racing mind or an impaired ability to problem solve. When we have too many demands on our thinking over an extended period of time, cognitive fatigue can also happen, making us more prone to distractions and our thinking less agile.

 Here are six suggestions to help leaders combat personal fatigue and keep sufficient fuel in their tank:

1. Self-assess your state under pressure

Stress management begins with becoming aware of your own emotions. Ask yourself a few questions recommended by Grady:

  • How does stress affect you physically (e.g., tightness in your chest, sweating, knots in your stomach, headaches, etc.)?
  • How does stress affect you psychologically or emotionally (e.g., feeling out of control)? 
  • How do you destress (e.g., laughing, meditating, practicing yoga, reading, etc.)? 

When you understand how you respond under pressure, you can start to identify the triggers that send you spiralling. Pay attention to those moments when you’re feeling intensely stressed and overwhelmed: What triggered those feelings? Try to find the pattern – this awareness will help you prevent your brain from getting hijacked and develop more control over your response.

2. Create an artifact to remind yourself daily of your real purpose

I find this advice from author-speaker, Art Petty, very powerful: 

The daily challenges in our organizations can be all consuming. Chasing the urgent consumes much of our time and the urgent-unimportant has a way of filling any openings. An exercise I’ve used for years now to help leaders remind themselves is to develop and make visible their own personal leader’s charter. I have my own…and those who have followed this tactic have developed their version of why they are serving in this role and what they are accountable for in leading others. A simple morning re-read of this framed charter hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf provides a powerful reminder of your real role and the opportunity you have to build others and your business with every single encounter in the upcoming day”.

3. Outsource and delegate

Your attention, energy and time are precious, limited resources – and they should be used for important, high-value work. Tasks that don’t fall within this domain should ideally be outsourced or delegated to team members. This approach offers two benefits: not only does it free up valuable space in your schedule but also allows your team members to grow and take on more responsibility.

4. Make big decisions early in the day

Science tells us that our physical and mental resources get depleted as the workday wears on. This exhaustion results in compromised decision-making, even by experts. According to one study, primary care doctors increasingly prescribe unnecessary antibiotics towards the end of a clinic session. Researchers also found that favourable decisions by judges go from 65 percent to nearly zero over the course of one sitting. As Francesca Gino says in Don’t Make Important Decisions Late in the Day:

Considered together, this evidence points to a clear conclusion: The overall demand of multiple decisions on people’s cognitive resources throughout the day erodes their ability to resist making easier and potentially inappropriate or bad decisions.

So, try to schedule intensive deliberations and key decisions earlier in the day, as far as possible.

5. Fix your output-to-input ratio

As leaders, our job is to create outputs – results, success, team satisfaction, profits, change and so on. However, most of us have a lopsided ratio of output to input. Inputs include nutritious food, sufficient sleep, enough exercise, fulfilling relationships, fun hobbies and so on. In Why Leadership Is So Exhausting-And What to Do About It, Carey Nieuwhof explains the important of maintaining a balance:

Like a bank account, outputs have to be at least matched, if not exceeded, by inputs. Otherwise, you go bankrupt… If you’re consistently putting out more than you’re taking in, then adjust the ratio… Increase input and reduce output voluntarily before exhaustion and burnout reduce your output involuntarily.

What is your output-to-input ratio? How can you include more inputs to bolster your resilience? A healthy diet or fitness regime could be a good place to begin.

6. Prioritize renewal

In the article mentioned above, Schwartz highlights the need for regular renewal:

The greater the demand, the greater the need to intermittently rest, refuel and reflect. Unfortunately, our inclination is to do just the opposite – to push harder and more continuously as the pressure grows.

When your workload increases, your natural response is probably to put in even more work and cut down on breaks – which is exactly the wrong thing to do. Taking frequent breaks during the day helps you stay energized and keeps fatigue at bay. So, make time to recharge your batteries – be it a short meditation, or a walk around the block. Carve out some “you” time to do things that you enjoy. And please get sufficient and good sleep.


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