I run a small not for profit. We are past the startup phase and we were hitting a stride, but then we had some big setbacks before our big summer season and all my people are melting down. I spend my day moving from crisis to crisis (in between talking people off the ledge).
I have been super busy getting us more help, but the new people need to get up to speed and it takes time. I find myself snapping at colleagues and family members, and some days I just feel like walking away.
I keep thinking, “I just have to get through this week,” but then the hard weeks just keep on coming.
How do other leaders do it? There must be a way to manage this much stress.
Burnt to a Crisp
Dear Burnt to a Crisp,
When my daughter was in high school, she was talking with one her teachers about “getting through” a difficult patch and her teacher said, “Don’t wish your life away.” That really stayed with both of us. We still bring it up and remind ourselves when one of us is in the state you are describing.
There always seems to be a fantasy that it’s going to get better—conditions will lighten up, things will go more smoothly, and problems will become easier to solve.
But life just doesn’t work that way. Okay, to be fair, I do know some people who have retired and do, as they like to quote, “whatever they want, whenever they want, all the time.” But it isn’t going to help you to just try to hold your breath until you retire. Anyone who is focused on achieving a goal—and yours sounds like a big one—is going to find themselves up against it on a regular basis. It goes with the territory. And don’t think I am going to advise you about work/life balance. Forget about work/life balance. There is no such thing. That’s just another weapon for overachievers to beat themselves up with.
What you need is your own Personal Sustainability Program. To build your own personal program, you can choose from some of these options, and any others that our readers might share in the comments.
- Cry Uncle: When there is simply too much to do—on your own list or one of your people’s—decide what isn’t as urgent as all the other stuff. What can wait until tomorrow or next week? Defer tasks that can be deferred, even it inconveniences or disappoints someone. Make sure to communicate if a commitment is being broken, to manage expectations. People—all people, including you—can only do so much and no more.
- Get Support: Talk to your family and ask for grace when you are snappy. Ask for more help from them if they can give it. Hire a coach, call a board member, and hit up your best friends so you can vent and problem solve in a safe space.
- Take Care of Yourself First: Find the one thing that you know will keep you on an even keel and do it come hell or high water. Your dance class, yoga, meditation, walking, listening to music, playing golf, whatever it is that will keep your head from blowing off. Experiment with how much of it you need to stay stable—maybe it is two times a week, maybe it is seven times. Whatever it is, make it non-negotiable. I learned early on that hardcore exercise was my antidote to anxiety and I never don’t do it. When my son was about three, he would stand at the window with tears streaming down his face every time I left the house to go my exercise class. I felt like a terrible mother but also knew I would actually be a terrible mother without the class. So off I went. He is 29 today and doesn’t appear to have sustained too much psychological damage. One of the industry’s finest coaches, Shirley Anderson—who was my coach for four critical years when I was getting my first coaching business off the ground—coined the term “extreme self-care.” It is extreme not because it takes so much time or involves anything crazy, but because just the concept of taking care of oneself so one can take proper care of others can feel so extremely counterintuitive.
- Practice Mindfulness: Stress is a habit. Treating everything like a crisis becomes habitual. Cut it out. Practicing mindfulness can help. It isn’t that complicated. It just means being curious and paying attention to our own thoughts and emotions without judgment. For example, when you are feeling spun up, you might notice it and think, Hmm, isn’t that interesting, I am getting more and more anxious. I wonder what is going on. Noticing when you are reacting to something in a way that doesn’t really make sense is a good first step toward mindfulness.
- Breathe: There is amazing new research that shows that just taking deep breaths may feel good, but it doesn’t actually calm the nervous system down. There is a very straightforward, simple way to do that with breathing, though. It is called Two to One Breathing. You simply breathe in for three counts, hold for one count, and release the breath on a six count. Repeat. Or you can do two and four counts—whatever works for you. I have been experimenting with it, and it really works! One client mentioned that one of her regular meetings starts with that kind of breathing. Everyone feels better, and the meetings are more productive as a result. You might try doing it with your people when they are stressing out.
- Get Perspective: When all else fails, you can remind yourself that this too shall pass, things will calm down, people will stabilize, and no one will die today because you didn’t get to everything on your list.
I am pretty sure I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, but, as with many things, there can be a big gap between knowing and doing. A wonderful coaching question to ask yourself might be: whose permission do you need to do what you need to do to take care of yourself? I hope the question makes you smile, because you know who the boss is, and whose permission you need.
So, give yourself permission to be a human being and choose one thing—just one—to commit to, and do it. I guarantee that you will notice a big difference in your ability to manage the stress, the crisis, and the constant busyness.
Breathe. Three counts in, hold one, six counts out.
You’ve got this.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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