Each month the Bright Arrow Coach Community gets together to discuss a theme that is emerging with multiple clients. Last month that topic was stress management. The leaders we work with are burning out. They are beyond tired. They are exhausted. They are unsure of where or how to set boundaries given the level of volatility and uncertainty their businesses have been experiencing. These are some of the most trying times leadership has ever experienced and we are concerned. Our community of seasoned executive coaches are pulling back the covers and sharing practices, exercises, coaching questions, and other resources to help you with this challenge.
As a foundation, there is a very important Truth we all identified with from our personal experiences and the experiences our clients are having. We often lie to ourselves about our ability to set boundaries with work, manage our stress, and take better care of ourselves. We fall prey to a false sense of urgency. We get very wound up by the urgency of our work. And it is natural that we do this, especially given the unusually high level of stress the pandemic has layered on top of already exorbitant stress levels. Our greatest opportunity is to create thought patterns and conditions that allow us to take a breath, get centered, and get real about how urgent it all really is. We have far more control of our time and priorities than we allow ourselves to believe (especially under stress when our internal systems are in fight or flight).
I was especially struck by Coach Cheryl Schofield’s personal story from earlier in her career in Corporate America. She was experiencing a particularly demanding and stressful time in her career. She was burning out. Exhausted. A colleague advised her to just “pull back” and promised her it would be okay. “Cheryl, you’re giving the proverbial 120%. Your 80% is someone else’s 100%. You could just drop down to 100% and that 20% will give you a lot of energy and time back. Try it for a month.”
Cheryl was encouraged by her colleague to try creating new boundaries in whatever way she was comfortable. She tried small things first to see how it would go. Then she would push the boundary a little farther or try another way to get some personal time back. She practiced saying no, declining meetings that weren’t a good use of her time, turning off her computer at a reasonable hour (which for her was 6:30). She continued experimenting until she had a new way of working that better balanced her personal needs and work deliverables.
Ultimately, as a high-achiever, she had to get real with herself that her worst day was still someone’s best day. She uncovered that small things added up to making a big difference. Instead of punching out emails until midnight, she tried reading a book for pleasure (not the usual business books she had on rotation). Eventually, her colleagues became accustomed to the fact that she would sometimes say no. As she became okay with the practice, they did too. She came to understand, in relatively short order, that she had the power to set boundaries and decide how to scale herself. Tending to tiny details and perfecting deliverables wasn’t what made her stellar. That was just icing (that often went unnoticed) on the cake and a great place for her to retrieve energy she could repurpose for herself.
Cheryl told me, “The real ah-ha for me a month later was that none of the leaders I supported mentioned this change. At first I thought, ‘Nobody noticed and this is good!’ But, I also thought, ‘So, I’ve been killing myself for how long and now nobody is noticing when I pull back?’ It was a relief and the joke was on me. It was a huge learning experience. I often remind clients that they don’t have to get to that point. You can train yourself and others on what to expect from you.”
You may see yourself or some elements of yourself in Cheryl’s story. I know that most of the Bright Arrow coaches had a similar awakening at some point in their careers. Be brave, get real with yourself, and try a little boundary setting. Not only will you feel better, but you will do better work.
Below are some ideas for taking your power back and learning to tell yourself the truth about your autonomy when it comes to setting boundaries and taking good care of yourself.
- Practices & Exercises
- Recharge multiple times a day (a 5-10 minute activity that is just for you)
- Renegotiate expectations at home and work
- Slash and burn your calendar. Each week, look for what you can delegate or get rid of. Go deep!
- Scale your rest to your stress
- Notice what else is present: when you notice your stress or negative thought patterns or worries, what else is present? (knowing the end of your workday is in sight? hearing your child laugh? The glass of wine that awaits you? a positive emotion that is also present?) Bring other truths and positives into your awareness. Both can exist at the same time.
- Test saying no. If you don’t believe it is possible, why don’t we just try it and see what happens? Try it one time. Try it for a day. Try it for a week.
- Coaching Questions
- What are your must-haves and what is truly optional?
- What would it look like for you to make good enough good enough?
- For high-achievers: remember that your worst day is someone else’s best day. How can you recalibrate your internal narrative and corresponding effort to prioritize your stress management needs?
- What would you tell another leader who is feeling this way? What would you tell a new leader who is feeling this way?