Forget Self Care. See the Results When You Devote Yourself to Better Structure

For the past few months, I’ve been hearing concerns about how leaders can take care of themselves to make sure they’re ready to perform. Companies are worried about burnout and turnover after what feels like years of unrelenting pressure, and many individual leaders say they’re running on empty. Some people frame their concerns as being about self-care, but I don’t like that construction because self-care has taken on inane meanings from “You’ll be okay if we give you a chair massage” to “If you meditate, your work will get easier.” But surface shifts like those are rarely meaningful. It takes structural adjustments to make work run more smoothly.

So here are a handful of structural, organizational, and physical approaches to managing your energy so you can continue to do your best. All of these techniques work, but you may not like some of them, so experiment with the ones that interest you most and reject any that don’t serve you.

Get Time on Your Side

Time is the one thing that’s in short supply for almost everyone, so making the most of what you’ve got is crucial. Let your calendar help you. As much as you can—given that some of us don’t have complete control over our own scheduling and therefore can be booked into meetings against our will—try to schedule your appointments for 45 or 50 minutes rather than an hour, or 20 or 25 minutes rather than half an hour. You’re looking for two things: transfer time and brief breaks.

Whether you’re working on premises and need to walk down the hall to your next meeting, or you’re in back-to-back video conferences, you need a little time in between. It takes significant mental energy to run from one thing to another, even if you’re just at your desk and switching notebooks or files, so try to craft structured closing practices and opening routines. It’s pure gold to have a few minutes to note down important questions or action items, consolidate your thoughts on the first topic, and then be able to settle in with focus for the next topic, rather than trying to keep everything fresh in your mind for several groups, meetings, or issues in a row.

Similarly, it can reduce stress if you’re able to return a text or Slack message, grab a snack when you need it, or visit the restroom without having to excuse yourself to other attendees of subsequent meetings.

Even if you can’t control the way your meetings are booked, you could propose pausing a few minutes early to articulate the next steps for all, end early to create an actual break in the action or use the first few minutes of a meeting to ask everyone to stretch together or reflect on the upcoming topic in a neutral and open way. These practices can provide a bit of respite from the constant churning. And if at all possible, schedule a little time when you are not in front of other people, to let down your guard and gather yourself. It doesn’t even need to be free time—we just all need a moment not to be on stage, not be “on,” and to be able to pause a bit and even let our minds wander.

Don’t Keep Your Thoughts and Preferences to Yourself

If you’ve ever had a boss who expected you to know what they were thinking, you know what it’s like to be hypervigilant and exhausted. It’s much less tiring to be able to ask directly what someone wants and get a straight answer. That’s what you should be doing for anyone who reports to you. Explain to them all the nuances and preferences that will make your work relationship easier, like what channels and frequencies you want for different kinds of communications, or what you expect to see in various documents or presentations. Explaining that you’ll need to review multiple drafts to figure out what you think, or letting people know that you may change your mind several times in the course of preparing a report or pitch, can help subordinates feel less ineffective, less stupid, even less demeaned. We waste so much energy on trying to please other people without knowing what it will take. More information reduces your team’s sense of risk and insufficiency and makes your actions seem less punitive and disrespectful.

Similarly, leaders can set expectations about when they are and are not available. This is particularly helpful if you have a boss who likes to work around the clock or do things at the last minute. Let them know what your reachable schedule is or when you’ll have a chance to “take a look” at whatever they’re working on. This kind of notice is helpful in both directions because it lets people plan their time and not feel so on edge.

Move It or Lose It

Lastly, look for ways to incorporate physical movement into your day. Remember that you have a body and be kind to it—you’ll feel less driven and perhaps start to shift out of your permanent defensive crouch. Movement helps channel nervous energy and can increase creativity, so try walking meetings, which are great for philosophical discussions that don’t need whiteboarding or document review and can be done together in person or separately with headphones.

Add stretching or breathing exercises to the beginnings and ends of meetings. Even taking time to look away from your screen just for a moment and gaze at something in the distance will give your eyes a rest and reduce the risk of a headache. And if you have any chance at all, go outdoors, if only for a few minutes, or just stand by a window and look outside.

Once you’re using these structural approaches to improve the quality of your workday, when you do decide to go for a massage, you’ll actually be calm enough to enjoy it!

Onward and upward—

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