I think I speak for all of us when I say that this year has gone by in a flash – how is it September already? This year has presented some unexpected challenges with the twists and turns of the economy, politics and extreme weather incidents. As dedicated social sector leaders, we keep facing those challenges head-on, but some of us are beginning to experience something deeper than exhaustion.
I come from a long line of hard workers – people who put forth their best effort regularly without complaint. Working hard in the pursuit of goals is noble. It makes you tired, but you go to bed satisfied and wake up the next morning refreshed. Fatigue, on the other hand, stays with you. It is an accumulation of worry, frustration and a feeling of being overwhelmed. One is physical and the other is mental. While sleep can help with both, fatigue can lead to physical and psychological strain if not addressed. Like many of you, I work hard in the pursuit of a better world. And it makes me both tired and fatigued at times. As we approach fall, I thought I would share some of the “energy management” techniques I have learned to ensure I am ready each and every day to rise to meet its challenges.
Tip #1: Do what you love, but do not love everything.
Many of us in the social sector sacrifice so much for our causes – many even consider it a badge of honor. I know a CEO who always answers the question, “How are you doing?” with “Busy – cannot find enough time in the day to do it all.” As a recovering busy bee, I know this is a tell-tale sign of fatigue and lack of strategic focus. Think of it like this – in life, there are elephants, which are the goals that deserve your undivided attention and will truly drive your organization to the next level. And there are rabbits, which are distractions that will divert your attention. They may be urgent, but they are not all important. As noted business tycoon, T. Boone Pickens, said, “When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.” To help you stay focused on what is important, I recommend developing and using: 1) a well-planned strategy, which is a structured process for choosing what to do and, more importantly, what not to do (forever or just for now) and 2) a disciplined approach to your time allocation.
Tip #2: Know when to say when
Do not get me wrong – there are days when I push my limits. But those days should be the exception and not the rule. Here is why – your brain needs downtime. In fact, many of the greatest inventors discovered their best ideas during downtime. And great ideas rarely happen when you multitask. I have fully embraced that I’m a “human being” and not a “human doing,” which means that while I push my limits sometimes, I cherish the recovery periods, too. I have learned to recognize and pay heed to my limits. When I start experiencing mental or physical warnings (e.g., forgetting things or tripping over things), I know I am reaching my limit. These signals are your body’s way of alerting you to fatigue. If you do not rest and recover, your body will send you a stronger signal. And if I find myself putting off rest, I remember that Winston Churchill used to spend one day a week in bed – reading, eating and sleeping. While that is not practical for all of us, we all need rest and relaxation to be at our peak. I encourage friends and clients to: 1) know their limits and triggers, and 2) find their unique formula for recovery.
Tip #3: Find your circle
I saw this quotation recently, and it resonated with me: “The opposite of addiction is connection.” This is true for all of us. We can get addicted to the adrenaline of helping others and being busy. Stopping that cycle requires a focused plan, but it also requires a true support system. In fact, in his recent book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy shows another side to this equation: loneliness and social isolation is now considered a public health issue. He notes that, in fact, you can be surrounded by people and still experience loneliness, which then leads to fatigue. In his book, he shares different types of loneliness – intimate/emotional (need for a close partner), relational/social (need for quality friendships) and collective (need for a network that shares your purpose). The social sector can fight the fatigue and loneliness that comes from our work by building these “collectives” – professionals who do our jobs and understand their unique challenges. We need to surround ourselves with people who can empathize with our situation and hold us accountable. To take this to the next level, I encourage friends and clients to have an official “Accountability Circle.”
So, the real question is: are you tired or fatigued? This is an individual and collective question – both for you as a leader, but also for your organization, especially during 2023 when things keep changing and challenging us. If you are tired, some time off could be just the ticket. If you are fatigued, you might need to look deeper at yourself, diagnose what is going on and create a new game plan. And remember, when it comes to change, “small things often” is a helpful mantra. Productivity is a learned skill and needs to be adjusted over time. Small, consistent changes, especially when you are accountable to them, result in huge changes in the long run. And, from one recovering perfectionist/busy bee in the social sector to another, I promise there is a better, more sustainable path forward. Not only have I become more productive (and healthier) since implementing these techniques, but I have also produced far better outcomes for my business and family. And I’m always looking for new ideas to up my game – so please share your ideas on how you have fought “leadership fatigue” in yourself and your organization.