We may argue over a lot of them, but there are many simple truths in life that can stress us out if we’re not prepared:
My car fits in my garage, or it doesn’t.
My internet connection is stable and reliable, or it isn’t. (It isn’t, for the record.)
We all have things we can control, and things we can’t.
I’m sure none of us anticipated these times. I bet we each remember the sensation of a shadow creeping over the entire world last year. We may even be holding on to thoughts, feelings, and questions that shot through us with that first realization of what was happening.
Though you may hold on to these things as ways to feel prepared, you may not be doing yourself any favors. Most of us over-focus on things we can’t control. You may even feel obligated to do this as a leader. But the crazy thing about resilient leaders is that, while they own what they can control, they don’t have the time of day for what they can’t. They know that focusing on things they can’t control doesn’t make a situation better—it only tires them out.
If you’re feeling fatigued lately, there’s a good chance you’re giving a lot of mental and emotional energy to things you can’t control, instead of using that energy to keep yourself fit and focused in the areas you own. If any of the following sound like you, stress fatigue may be winding you down the road to rumination, resignation, and regret:
Self-Guided Stress Audit
Do you spend a lot of time dwelling on the past, or being anxious about the future?
- When working, I’ll often remember a previous day that went much more smoothly, and wonder why things can’t be like that now.
- When I think about going into work, I can’t think about anything other than all the ways things could go wrong.
Is your language becoming more loaded or intense?
- When I express my opinion, feelings or concerns over something, I express them as facts instead of as perspectives.
- I’m using more loaded language like “always,” “never,” “nothing,” “everything,” etc.
Do you have less patience for routine elements of your job?
- I hate seeing new emails show up in my inbox; I get irritated when a big order comes in.
- Things are getting done badly, but I have no more patience or energy to confront anyone about it.
Does change make you lose your temper?
- If anyone tells me a way I could improve right now, I might blow a gasket.
- When people tell me I’m moody or touchy, I’m tempted to tell them “I’ve always been like this; deal with it.”
Do you feel unmotivated or unclear about your purpose?
- I often wonder, “what’s the point?”
- I find myself thinking my skills could be better used elsewhere.
Do problems seem unsolvable lately?
- You believe you’re better off following set patterns even though you believe they produce poor results.
- Every time you think about a solution to a problem, a hundred new problems arise that leave you paralyzed.
Stress, Vigilance, and Resilience
Notice how each of these thoughts, feelings and concerns above involves focusing on something that’s out of your control? When we feel overly responsible for huge situations and projects, we start to feel helpless and exhausted.
These are uncharted waters, for all of us—but as leaders and coaches, we’re responsible for forging ahead and making a path for others to follow. These times call for hope.
But hope is not a passive feeling. Hope is not wishful thinking. It is an attitude, a series of actions. Plenty of voices have forecasted a need for such active hope in the form of vigilance. Every one of us is on high alert right now due to COVID-19, whether it be for our own safety, our families’ safety, or for the economic repercussions on us and our people. The answer to such urgency is vigilance.
In 2019, authors George Day and Paul Shoemaker released a book called See Sooner, Act Faster—How Vigilant Leaders Thrive in an Era of Digital Turbulence. They’re not writing about the unique turbulence of a pandemic or about spiritual confusion, but their general points still apply: turbulence is unpredictable. It crosses boundaries and smashes old models. Turbulence is turbulence, and drowning is drowning; it doesn’t matter if the water is 6 ft or 60 ft deep.
We all find ourselves in turbulence right now, and some of us feel like we’re drowning. That’s why we need vigilance. As they define it:
Vigilance is much more than a single individual’s heightened sense of alertness. It is a collective capability that firms must nurture, characterized by curiosity, candor, and a concern for the long-run welfare of the organization. Above all, vigilance is a superior ability to anticipate serious threats, recognize major opportunities, and then act faster than others despite incomplete knowledge.
To sum up: Vigilance requires Anticipating, Recognizing, and Acting.
But vigilance can go overboard. Too much makes us look like Chicken Little, screaming “The sky is falling!” to everyone we meet. But the fruits of a spirit of healthy vigilance are resilience and deeper presence in our work and lives. Like a military scout, we can take in all the details, and not just perceive threats. Like two famous Biblical scouts—Caleb and Joshua— we might see giants in the land, but we can have the courage to say, “The Lord is with us.” Resilience means living with vigilance, without the anxiety of hyper-vigilance.
According to Dr. Eboni Webb, my co-author in How to Be Present in an Absent World, there are really two approaches to anxiety: there’s the bad kind, called Pre-Living, which means ruminating on what you’ll do “If something happens.” You spend all your time dreaming up nightmares about the future. There’s a better approach though: that of Coping Ahead. This means choosing “Who we will be when something like this happens.” Part of being resilient is recognizing when we’re coming up against this choice, and what we’ll do about it. In How to Be Present, Eboni speaks of resilience as “resolved presence.” It’s a resolute presence in the face of challenge and difficulty. We define it as “Showing Up, Paying Attention, and Becoming Fully Human.”
When stress fatigue sets in, the first thing we need to do is refocus on the things we can control, and make sure we’re fresh and focused on our own responsibilities. By learning to first let go of the things we can’t control, we actually become more flexible and creative when we find more on our plates. The following strategies can help you focus your vigilance and control in ways that beat back fatigue. Doing this, we become more resilient, and we become more psychologically flexible. We’re able to Show Up, Pay Attention and Become Fully Human—and we’re flexible enough to do it all out of order, depending on the situation.
Let me leave you with 6 ways that you can practice vigilance and reduce stress right now:
- Review Your Values
- Identify one thing in your current work that lets you express yourself and what matters to you.
- Identify one way that you can bring your personality and values into your present job.
- Commit to Small Actions
- Break big problems into smaller problems, with tasks you can execute and control
- Work in shorter sprints, taking short breaks between each. Think of your work day in terms of time rather than tasks, and be proud of the chunks of time you have invested in getting something done.
- Identify major stressors in your life and work to remove them or distance yourself from them. E.g., turn off your phone to keep from checking the news, or request that you be allowed to turn your webcam off during a remote meeting.
- Focus on the Here-And-Now
- Get in touch with the present moment: what does this day need from you right now?
- Deliberately reminisce with teammates family members about a great day that you thought would end in disaster. Discuss the efforts you made to change the destiny of that day.
- Ask Who You Want To Be
- At the end of the day, reflect and ask yourself: “How did I show up today?”
- Mentally “sit on your porch” and imagine yourself interacting with other people on your street. Or, imagine watching yourself during a work day. Do you like the person you see? What advice would you give them?
- Before you go to bed, imagine your ideal version of yourself—the person you hope to be in 5 years. Then, write down 10 ways in which that version of yourself would tackle the day that you have to deal with tomorrow.
- Take Radical Ownership of Real Life
- Declare—to yourself and to others—what is out of your control; then double-down on your ownership of what you can control.
- If helpful, schedule “worry time”: give yourself a strict time limit of 10-15 minutes to ruminate about all the things that might go wrong; let yourself experience all the anger and anxiety you want. When your timer goes off, declare that you have “clocked out” of worry time, and leave it behind.
- Defuse From Unhelpful Thoughts and Habits
- When you feel you’re getting ready to lose your temper over something, consciously say out loud, “I feel XYZ,” or “I believe XYZ” or “I am afraid of XYZ.” Naming these feelings will keep you from presenting them as facts, giving you some distance.
- Take 5 minutes to write down every feeling you’re having right now, without any filter. Then, read back over what you wrote, and re-write it without any loaded language, catastrophizing, or mistaking feelings for facts.
Further Reading on Stress, Resilience, and Mental Health
- The Center for Workplace Mental Health, curated by the American Psychiatric Association.
- Recognizing symptoms of mental health issues, and how workplaces can respond, from Harvard Medical School.
- Solutions and Success Stories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- “How to Create a Workplace that Supports Mental Health,” from Forbes.
- Founders, CEOs, and HR leaders are stepping up all over the country as business costs, stress-related burnout, and suicide rates continue to rise.
- Employees experience a severe disconnect between their mental health support systems outside of work, and work cultures that treat mental health as a non-issue or actively denigrate those who struggle with it, leading to even greater under-performance.
- I highly recommend Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, as well as her TED Talk.