In my executive coaching practice, one issue has intensified over the past year with nearly all of my clients: burnout. The COVID-19 pandemic has created some of the most trying situations leaders have ever faced. After over a year of managing in these circumstances, people in leadership roles are beyond tired; they’re exhausted. Many are also unsure of where or how to set boundaries on their time and commitments given the level of volatility and uncertainty in their businesses and industries.
In listening to what these executives shared with me about their experiences over the past 15 months, one realization emerged: Leaders often lie to themselves about their ability to set boundaries in order to manage their work, stressors, and self-care. They fall prey to a false sense of urgency and get overly caught up in the urgency of their work. While this is a natural response given the unusually high stress levels that the pandemic has created, it isn’t a healthy or sustainable approach.
Fortunately, we have far more control over our time and priorities than we allow ourselves to believe. We can decide to take steps toward creating thought patterns and conditions that allow us to take a breath, center ourselves, and gain perspective around a task’s urgency level.
One of our professional coaches, Cheryl, shared a personal story with me from her career working in corporate America. She was experiencing a particularly demanding time and burning out. A colleague advised her to pull back. “Cheryl, you’re giving the proverbial 120%. Your 80% is someone else’s 100%. You could drop down to 100%, and that 20% will give you a lot of energy and time back. Try it for a month.”
With this encouragement from her colleague, Cheryl tried creating new boundaries to regain some personal time back. She started with a few small things first, such as turning off her computer at a reasonable hour. Then she would push the boundary out a little further by practicing saying “no,” such as declining meetings that weren’t a good use of her time. She continued experimenting until she had a new way of working that better balanced her personal needs with her most critical work projects.
Ultimately, my colleague realized that these changes in aggregate made a big difference in her both her feelings of overwhelm and in expectations from others. Instead of punching out emails until midnight, she tried reading a book for pleasure to wind down earlier (and not the usual business books she had on rotation). After setting boundaries more regularly at work and becoming more comfortable with the practice, her colleagues accepted the fact that she would sometimes give them a “no.” Cheryl began to understand that she had the power to decide how to scale herself, and she wasn’t at the mercy of other people’s priorities.
This tending to tiny details and perfecting deliverables wasn’t what made her a stellar performer. Those things were just icing on the cake (and often went unnoticed), therefore they were great places for her to recoup energy and repurpose her effort.
Cheryl told me that the real aha moment for her came a month after starting her new self-care habits, when none of her senior team members had mentioned a change in her performance. “At first I thought, ‘nobody noticed and this is good!'” she said. “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.” This was a huge lesson for Cheryl, who now often reminds clients that they don’t have to get to the point of burnout to create better boundaries with work. “You can train yourself and others on what to expect from you,” Cheryl said.
Below are four strategies for learning to be honest about your autonomy and use (or lack of use) of boundaries, as well as questions to ask yourself when your burnout feels ready to set in.
Scale “rest” to “stress”
Often when the going gets tough in the upper leadership ranks, leaders simply take up more work and responsibility. Instead, you should reverse this tendency and ramp up recovery sessions to deal with periods of excess stress. To help circumvent burnout, recharge not just once but multiple times a day with a 5- to 10-minute activity that is just for you. Ask yourself, “how can I recalibrate my internal narrative and corresponding effort to prioritize my stress management needs?”
Renegotiate expectations at work and home
Part of the sense of stress that executives feel comes from other people in their lives—whether colleagues, spouses, or children—who are awaiting certain actions or results. Relieve this pressure on yourself by changing the game plan and communicating clearly about what you can and can’t do. Ask yourself, “what would it look like for me to make good enough, good enough?”
Notice the upside
When you notice your stress level, negative thought patterns, or worries escalate, it’s usually a good time to bring in some positive emotions. The fact you’re feeling anxious doesn’t mean nothing good is happening, since both states are true to you and can exist simultaneously.
Ask yourself, “what else is here is positive, existing alongside my stress?” Is it knowing the end of your workday is in sight or hearing your child laugh when step through the door?
Get introspective with your time
Each week, look for what you can delegate or completely eliminate. Go deep! Test out saying no. Even if you don’t believe it’s possible to get out of something, try it once and see what happens. Ask yourself, “what are my must do’s? And what’s truly optional?”
Lying to yourself about how much you can reasonably manage is a recipe for overwhelm and eventual burnout. Instead, get in the habit of telling yourself the truth about what you really have control over, which are your boundaries, your self-care, and your stress management.
Tegan Trovato is the founder of Bright Arrow, an executive and team coaching firm. She has served as an executive or leadership team member for Levi Strauss, Xerox, Zynga, and Cielo.