Running On Empty

One of the most common refrains I hear as a corporate coach is: I’m just too busy. What used to be called overworked is now crazybusy, slammed, swamped, jammed, maxed-out – or God help us – no more “bandwidth”.

Anyone who owns a car understands that it takes regular maintenance to keep it on the road. You don’t ignore warning lights or drive it with the needle in the red all the time – or if you do, you won’t stay on the road very long. Chances are you change the oil every 3000 miles, rotate the tires, maybe even take it for a tune-up now that Spring is here. Yet, we think nothing of driving ourselves this way without any fuel whatsoever – and then somehow act surprised when we end up in the ditch with our wheels spinning.

Burnout can be described as a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. Symptoms may vary, but the signs you’re headed for a crash are not all that hard to recognize: difficulty concentrating on simple tasks, difficulty sleeping even when you’re exhausted, feeling sad or hopeless about the future, feeling disconnected from friends and loved ones, feeling that no one else but you can do the job.

Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time *
The conventional wisdom emphasized managing your time effectively as the key to staying on course. But as the pace of communication and the demands of the workplace increase, the tendency is for us to work more and more hours to keep up – which can often lead to fatigue. Time is a finite resource; but the energy we need to perform the work is renewable.* And this is what we need to protect.* The key here is learning to properly recharge after expenditure of energy. Watch any professional tennis player and witness the perfect management of human energy. Point, rest, point, rest. What you see in between points – the ritual tweaking of strings, the automatic relaxation of muscles – this is all learned behavior designed to maximize performance and concentration.

Replenish The Well
Governments have long had fishing quotas in place to prevent overfishing from depleting the seas of their natural resource. Farmers too, understand the necessity of crop rotation to prevent the soil being stripped of essential nutrients. The same holds true for us. We need to protect and replenish our own wellsprings of energy or the well may dry up. Sadly, the average American vacation is now down to a long weekend (compared to Australians who have over 3 weeks and Europeans with 4-5 weeks paid vacation). If you can’t afford 4 weeks to go hiking in the Himalayas, just taking regular mini-breaks throughout the day can help. Engage in a 10 minute pause from whatever you are working on and do something completely different. Unplugging from technology – even if it’s just for fifteen minutes at a time – can also be enormously liberating. Your own well of energy is your most precious natural resource. Learn to protect it.

Find Your Play
It’s harder and harder as we get older to hold onto the idea of play as something that is useful. But play is more than just a frivolous childhood pastime. As adults, it is essential that we have activities in which we can lose ourselves completely once in a while. Play allows us to recharge without having to “perform” or attain results. It’s no accident that some of the most brilliant minds are sometimes described as being “childlike” (The Dalai Llama and Albert Einstein). Anything that causes you to lose track of time is an activity worth pursuing. And it’s different for everyone. I saw in an interview recently that Rod Stewart has a thing for model railways. He has a whole ballroom devoted to it! For others it’s a good book, planting a garden or painting a flower. You don’t even have to be good at it, just so long as you enjoy it. Years ago, at a beginner’s surf camp in Mexico, I learned that the best surfer is the one having the most fun.

Find a Support Group
Sure you can go it alone, but you don’t have to. For human beings to be truly healthy, we need to feel like we are a part of something bigger than just ourselves. A leaf off the tree has the advantage of floating wherever it wants, but once disconnected from the tree, it quickly dies. You have to be both an individual – to have a sense that you are fully unique – and you need to be connected to a bigger organism – a family, a community, a club, a tribe. There are people out there with invaluable information and experience who are eager to share it with you – all you have to do is pick up the phone. Research has shown that there is a direct correlation between our physical health and community. Having people around you who make you feel vibrant, alive and hopeful can literally add years to your life. Proper rest, nutrition, exercise, play, community – we know what we need. So don’t ignore the warning lights on the dash when they come on. Regular maintenance is always cheaper than a major overhaul. This month I will be conducting a workshop for entrepreneurs along with Jerry Colonna on this very topic. Click here for more details. * Human Performance Institute, Inc.

* The Energy Project