Provision #738: eXhaustion Matters

Laser Provision

There is a time and a place for exhaustion. In a few weeks, I plan on leading my annual 4:45 pace team at the Baltimore marathon. Afterwards, and probably at some points during the race, there will be moments of exhaustion. Exhaustion can be a sign of having pushed oneself to get something done that is important, difficult, and/or fun. Leaders have to do that at times. Then it’s time to renew, relax, and restore. But some leaders get addicted to exhaustion • a dangerous trait to be sure. If that sounds like you, if it seems like you are always exhausted these days, then read on.

LifeTrek Provision

So how do you feel right now? If you are like many people I talk with and coach, you are feeling at least some level of fatigue. It may be a low grade sense of never getting enough sleep, of having too much to do, of never getting caught up, of facing too many deadlines, or of never seeing the bottom of your email inbox. You can function, but you are rarely at your best. You don’t have the energy you used to have, but it has become so familiar that you take it for granted. It has become your new steady state.

And then something happens that pushes you over the edge. You go from the background noise of low-grade fatigue to a full-blown case of exhaustion. On the surface it may seem to be something trivial. Someone asks you to do just one more thing. Or it may be something momentous. Like going to your doctor and “discovering” that “somehow” you gained 30 pounds and your blood sugar or cholesterol levels put you at risk for diabetes or coronary artery disease. Yikes! Your stress comes crashing down around you and you feel exhausted.

If and when that happens to us, and I think we all have our moments, the leadership question is, “How do we respond?” Do we double down and push even harder with a “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” attitude? Or do we pull back into recovery mode to renew, regroup, and realign our priorities. The smart leaders pull back, receiving exhaustion as a gift from the universe telling us to get our house in order. But too many leaders do just the opposite. We find ourselves unable to break our performance momentum, to let go of what “must” be done, until the risk of diabetes or coronary artery disease becomes reality.

Then we vow to turn things around, but it’s often too late. Exhaustion, untended, takes a terrible toll. When exhaustion becomes the new normal, all kinds of things suffer. It’s not just our health that declines, it’s also our leadership effectiveness. That’s because the first thing that goes with exhaustion is our emotional intelligence. We lose such critical leadership faculties as empathy, patience, understanding, calm, and perspective. We become grumpy and demanding with people, which is a surefire way to undermine productivity.

That’s why great leaders maintain rhythms that make exhaustion an event rather than a lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with exhaustion as an event. In fact, any leader who is not, from time to time, exhausted, is not much of a leader. Leadership takes work, and lots of it. More than once I have had to break that news to people as they move up the ladder or venture out on their own as entrepreneurs. Success and ease do not always go hand-in-hand in some perfect semblance of work-life balance.

I have even had to break that news to coaches, who have read an article about coaches who make six-figure salaries and work only a few hours a day, or a few hours a work, from the comfort of their yacht. Such coaches may exist, and more power to them. But all the really successful coaches I know have a tremendous work ethic. They push themselves because they are passionate about what they stand for and what they hope to contribute to the world. Such people, in any walk of life, have moments of exhaustion.

Moments are one thing, chronic conditions are quite another. Depression works the same way as exhaustion. Depression is an appropriate response to certain life events, such as the death of a loved one. Healthy depression resolves as people go through the grieving process and usually, within a matter of 6-12 months, the depression lifts and vitality returns. When depression becomes a chronic condition, however, energy is no longer flowing and treatment can help break the log jam. Through talk therapy, lifestyle changes, and often medication, clinical depression can be released and relieved.

Great leaders don’t wait until exhaustion, like depression, becomes a disabling, chronic condition. We instead take charge of our lives to build in healthy rhythms of rest, recovery, and renewal. We may work hard for the moment, even pushing ourselves, on occasion, to the point of exhaustion. But then we pull back and do those things that restore our bodies, minds, and spirits.

Notice my use of the word “rhythms” rather than “balance.” Long time readers of Provisions may remember that I used the concept of “Vital Rhythms” to conclude my 2009 series on Life-Giving Needs. My point was simply this: balance is not only hard to achieve (think standing still, balancing on top of a seesaw, right in the middle at the pivot point) it is impossible to maintain forever and an undesirable place to be. Animals are not meant to stay still, in balance! Animals are meant to go from one need to the next, in rhythmic patterns of satisfaction and fulfillment.

That’s especially true for human beings. Our curious minds and dexterous bodies are made to move. It’s much more fun and sustainable to seesaw from side to side on that teeter-totter than to hold perfectly still, like equal weights on a balance scale. First we push out and work, then we pull back and rest. First we strike out and discover, then we retreat and recover. First we speak our minds and assert our will, then we listen with our hearts and connect with others. First we tend to our basic needs, then we soar to new heights of self-actualization. 

When our energies are flowing in these dynamic and restorative ways, that’s when we are at our vital best. Vitality reigns not when we are in balance, but when we have rhythm. Have you got rhythm? Are you moving in patterns of renewal and right relationship with yourself and others? if not, then it’s probably time to take charge of your greatest friend on the planet in this regard: your appointment calendar.

Too many leaders have calendars that are filled with only one kind of appointment: those involving other people outside the home. We put down that meeting or conference call, we put down that golf outing or club commitment, and we may even put down a planning period where we close the door and work on a report or a PowerPoint presentation. But we don’t protect the time for ourselves, our families, and our friends in the same way.

I invite you to look at your calendar right now, whether paper or electronic. Step back and ask yourself, what kind of rhythms are reflected here? What kind of person is this? Is this the calendar of a workaholic? Is this a formula for exhaustion? Or is this the calendar of someone with healthy rhythms?

To answer those questions, you are going to have to look at your calendar for more than a day or a week. That’s the difference between exhaustion as an event and exhaustion as a lifestyle. There are going to be busy periods where we perhaps do not get enough sleep and do not take as much time for reflective practices, active exercises, and connective pursuits with family and friends. But when you look out over the next several weeks, do you see busy periods followed by recovery periods or is it just a disaster in the making? Do you get exhausted even by looking at your calendar? Then it’s time to change the rhythm of the dance.

Those calendars can include everything we need to be healthy, happy, and whole. They can include all of our morning practices, so we don’t just dive into work as soon as we wakeup. They can include all of our personal health and hygiene routines, so we get enough exercise and eat the way we want. They can include all of our appointments with ourselves, our families, and our friends • even our play dates and vacations • so that we can see how those vital rhythms will play out, right before our eyes, right on our calendars.

Then, when someone asks if we are free to do just one more thing, it becomes easy to say, “Let me check my calendar. No.” That’s all one has to say. One does not have to explain what’s on our calendar. We’re just not available. “No.”, it has been pointed out, is a complete sentence. But we can only say “No.” when we take charge of our calendars and make healthy rhythms a regular part of our lives.

And don’t get fooled by the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” Too many people desire healthy rhythms but never get around to making them happen. We give them lip service, but we never take charge of our calendars and of our lives. How do we know if we’re falling into that trap? Exhaustion. Exhaustion is a gift; it’s a message that we worked hard and it’s time to rest and recover. That has to happen regularly, with a timeframe of weeks rather than months or years. Otherwise, our leadership effectiveness as well as our health are sure to suffer.

Coaching Inquiries: How exhausted do you feel right now? What kind of rhythms are reflected in your daily and weekly patterns? How might you take charge of your calendar in order to better serve yourself and your commitments? Who and what could help you to make it so?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob

Your last Provision, Experiments Matter, reminds me of the book Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman. He discusses how when a nation becomes more concerned with safety than adventure it is on a downward spiral. He highlights Europe before the Renaissance, that until the explorers dared to defy the cartographers of the day society was stuck in a hopeless rut. I thought you might find it interesting if you are not already familiar with him. Thank you for your Provision.

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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