Exhausted Physically, Mentally, and Psychologically? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am the executive director of a well established not-for-profit organization. I am passionate about our mission, and I know we do great things for our community.

My problem is that I am exhausted—physically, mentally, and psychologically. We have recently been through a couple of big hiccups with one bad hire, one very reliable director who has had to go out on medical leave, and some intractable logistical issues.

It just never seems to end. Problems come at me all day and it would take 12- to 14-hour days to get it all done. That would probably be okay, but I have kids at home and a partner who is getting fed up with my mono-focus on the job.

I know I need to bring in more of the right kind of help, but hiring takes a lot of time—and I am gun-shy from the last hire that turned out to be nightmare. I never have time to think anything through. I am in constant reaction mode.

I have always been driven and I just don’t seem to be able to turn it off—especially when there are so many critical things that need my attention. I envy people who don’t have to work, because they can go to yoga and take walks—things I have always done to stay centered. I can’t remember the last time I did either.

There has to be a better way but I just don’t know what it might be. Would appreciate your thoughts.

Feeling so Done


Dear Feeling so Done,

Boy, do I understand your situation. It sounds very familiar, and very difficult. I would say almost every client I work with—every one of them as driven as you—is up against similar circumstances. The rapid change everyone is dealing with, the challenge of finding the right people to fill important roles, and the constant press of needing to do more with fewer resources are all conspiring to push many folks to the brink.

Here is the thing, FsD. Your nature—to set big audacious goals and then drive toward them with unwavering commitment—is part of the problem. It can be easy, when you have experienced real success because of your drive, to let your drive take over your life. But now it is impacting your mental health and your family life. Drive is like any kind of useful energy—let’s say fire. A well controlled fire is a miracle, and useful in innumerable ways. But an uncontrolled fire is a disaster. It is up to you to use this uncomfortable moment to make a permanent change—from letting your drive have power over you to leveraging your drive to power you. Drive is a wonderful gift. But like all great gifts, it has a dark side.

At the risk of offending you, I might submit that your boss is a relentless task master who needs to cease and desist. Of course, your boss is you. If you go down, which you will if you keep this up, the whole house of cards will go down. It is up to you to stop the madness. Have a chat with your boss (take a walk and have a long chat with yourself) and negotiate for a saner way through this difficult time. You are down two important people, so you simply aren’t going to be able to accomplish everything you had planned. Look at your calendar and cancel stuff.

“I can’t!” you are silently screaming. To which I reply, “Yes you can, and you must!” But how?

  • Call people you have made commitments to and negotiate a change in deadline and/or deliverables.
  • Block off your calendar for a walk or a yoga class every day. I promise you that you will be much better equipped to deal with all of the problems that need solutions. You will think more clearly, be better at creative problem solving, and be much more optimistic. All of the research shows that this is true—and you know it is true from your own experience.
  • Choose a couple of things that you will put off until you are properly staffed.
  • Work with your partner to understand what their complaints are and what they think would be satisfactory from you in terms of after-work time. Negotiate an approach you believe you can commit to, and then follow through. If you decide to be home to be with family at 6:00, don’t schedule any meetings after 5:00 so you have time to review the day, look at the next day, carry over tasks, and breathe. That way, when you walk through the door you can be fully present with the people you love the most in the world. People like you really need the full support of their family. And your family can tell you how much they really need you at home: what is “nice to have” and what is “have to have” for them.

I think of these techniques as personal sustainability: these are the things you need to do to go the distance. If you keep going the way you are currently going, you will just burn yourself to the ground.

A word about envy: I learned this from my dear friend and colleague Laura Berman Fortgang, and I have never heard anyone else say it. But I think it is so true. Envy is simply data. It is information about your deepest desires, your wildest dreams. So when you notice that you get a stab of envy when you see others going to yoga, or taking their walks, that is an indication of exactly how critical it is to you. Let your envy inform your priorities.

There is no shame in stepping back and reshuffling priorities in the face of changed circumstances. The problems coming at you will still be there tomorrow. Your to-do list will be there tomorrow. Remind yourself that nobody will actually die if you do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

No one else can do it for you, FsD. Only you can reclaim your sanity. You have everything you need to do it—you just have to decide that you are going to.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

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.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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