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Why monitoring your ’emotional gas tank’ is critical to fighting burnout

Some of your most common time management frustrations may be connected to your emotional commitment and effort level.

Why monitoring your ’emotional gas tank’ is critical to fighting burnout
[Source illustration: Natalya Dyachkova/iStock]
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Before the pandemic, I traveled around for a year debunking the myth of time management. You know it well: If you’re more vigilant about consciously controlling your time, it will invariably lead to efficiency and productivity.

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In one obvious context, there’s some truth; if I watch one more episode of my favorite new TV show, I lose 30 minutes of doing something else. But productivity and efficiency are driven by much more than time—after all, time is just one small puzzle piece.

So, when leaders ask me, “How do I get my teams to manage their time better now that we’re all remote?” I let them know we shouldn’t be managing our time as much as we should be managing our energy.

Why? Energy is a renewable resource and time is not. Time is the great equalizer, since we’re all given a finite amount of it. No matter how wealthy I become, how many awards I collect, how healthy my body, I cannot buy, earn, or guarantee any more time. But energy is infinite when you can tap into its source. And for me, that source is confidence. Confidence is the currency of productivity. I can’t be very productive when I don’t have confidence in my ability to behave the way I’m required to. Confidence comes from having my inherent motivating needs met.

So, we can think about confidence as energy. We feel energized and alive at work when we use our natural strengths and pursue our inherent curiosities. When our unique, inherent needs are met, we receive energy like currency that we can use as tender to get more of what we want.

Being “busy” all day long without feeling fulfilled is a red flag that our energy reserves are being slowly depleted—task by task, Zoom by Zoom, email by email. When we’re just “busy,” but our needs are not getting met, we have to adapt, and that costs us some energy from our bank of reserves. At this phase of the pandemic, leaders are starting to seriously confront burnout. Managers say to themselves: “My team is exhausted. Are they spending too much time working and juggling?” While they may be juggling in excess, time is not the root of our fatigue.

According to PET scans on human brains, humans are innately feeling creatures who occasionally think and not the other way around. At the core of burnout, as defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, is one of three dimensions: emotional exhaustion.

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Emotions are involuntary, neurological responses that happen in our bodies with a beginning, middle, and end. “In short, emotions are tunnels,” say Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. “If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.” Our teams are tired because they’re stuck in chronic, repeating feelings of stress.

Managing our energy toward productivity requires our people to have both tools to get unstuck and opportunities to make choices that fuel their confidence. Here are a couple of ways to get started:

  • Keep an “energy log.” Reflect on what gives you energy and brings you joy. List those things. Pay particular attention to the things or people that drain your energy and steal your time. List those too. Then, identify one change you can make right now so that you’re doing more of what gives you energy and less of what doesn’t.
  • Cut out the small stuff. As leaders, we mold our company culture by what we deem acceptable. So it’s up to us to get clear on what’s important; if it’s everything, it’s nothing. We can all do anything, but we can’t all do everything and maximize our productivity. Protect the few important things by saying “no” to the trivial many.
  • Align your work with your values. Bring more of who you are to what you do.  That starts with knowing who you are. We get energy from work that aligns with our inherent motivating needs. If my needs are met by my job, I collect energy. If my needs are unmet, I have to adapt. Adapting is a choice—we can all do it, but it drains our energy over time and may result in burnout. Consider taking a behavioral assessment to increase your self-awareness around what objective needs drive you.
  • Approach your employees with openness. Avoid managing folks the way you want to be managed (in this case, the “golden rule” doesn’t apply in the workplace). Instead, invest understanding where your employees’ energy derives from, so that you can foster an environment in which they can renew it. This is compassionate leadership. Couple this with openness, acceptance, and the emotional intelligence to recognize when you or your team members are stuck in a feeling, and things get simpler.

Managing our energy is an exercise that allows us to step into the fullness of who we really are and align our personality to our purpose. Time is merely the man-made container for this sacred work.


Mandy Haskett is a columnist, speaker, and leadership consultant at ADVISA, where she helps companies put people at the center of business strategy.