Burnout. Exhaustion. Mental health. Low energy. Low motivation. Low productivity. Lethargic.
These are the topics that are coming up more and more in my conversations with individuals, clients and teams. And these are individuals, clients and teams who are not used to using these terms to describe themselves. The ongoing effects of pandemic living are creating a state of general exhaustion from unrelenting demands – both professional and personal.
Several factors might be contributing to these ongoing feelings of exhaustion and burnout for you: new demands placed on your time (for example: home-schooling and virtual schooling children), restrictions on your habits and the rituals that you usually use to manage your energy (for example, no access to the gym, limited ability to socialize), and lack of recovery time (for example, no distinction between work and home).
My guess is these factors are not new news to you. We’ve been living with them for a long time.
So, what the heck do we do about this ongoing exhaustion?
Managing your energy
Researchers have pointed to the idea of managing your energy, not your time, for a while now (there’s a great Harvard Business Review article on this topic). But what, exactly, does that mean? Especially when we have real time constraints – deadlines, meetings, children to get places at specific times – to contend with?
Time is finite, but our energy is renewable. How we manage our energy throughout that finite amount of time is where the magic lies.
Understanding your energy drains
We have four types of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Evaluating yourself against each of these four energies is a great way of establishing some of the root causes of your exhaustion (I talk about this in my earlier blog post Feeling Drained? Four way to build your resiliency and replenish your energy), and can give you clues about how to effectively recover and replenish your energy.
Physical energy is the one that most of us are familiar with. It relates to the quality of your sleep, your nutrition, and movement. Checking in with yourself: how are your sleep habits? Have you been over- or under-doing it physically lately? How are you managing your glucose levels throughout the day? Simple adjustments on this front can make a significant difference: not skipping meals, establishing a “before bed” routine that can support better sleep, and giving yourself movement breaks throughout the day (even if it’s only for 5-15 minutes a day).
Mental energy is another one that many of us pay attention to, but that we can often struggle to manage. Long hours, juggling multiple tasks, interruptions throughout the day, calendars that are triple-booked, and learning new ways to manage virtual and hybrid work. All of these factors can impact and drain our mental energy. When work feels all consuming, one of the best things you can do for yourself is minimize distractions and interruptions – especially those that you have control over.
One effective technique: working in 90-minute focused bursts can work wonders. This might require closing out email applications, and putting your phone and other devices in another room. Then, allow yourself breaks and “non work” moments in between those focused bursts.
Now, of course, there are also interruptions that we have much less control over – such as urgent calls from the boss, a team member in need, or a child needing help logging in to their classroom or with their assignment. For these types of interruptions that are less under our control, a proactive strategy can be helpful. Identify the most critical or challenging item that is essential for the day, and prioritize your time around that item. This way, when you do get interrupted, you’re at least making headway on the item that matters most. Too often, we can get tempted to tick some of the easier, less critical items off the list – which can feel good in the short term, but can create longer term mental stress when those more critical items aren’t getting done.
Emotional energy is one many of us can be somewhat oblivious or less attentive to, and yet our emotional experience contributes significantly to our energy throughout the day. Conflict, difficult conversations, or unprocessed emotions about events in our lives can serve as a massive energy leak. For deeper context, I recommend the work of Susan David (author of Emotional Agility) and Mark Brackett (author of Permission to Feel), who provide great research-backed techniques for understanding and processing your emotions. Bottom line: accurately naming, understanding, and processing your emotions has a biological and neurological impact.
One simple way to get started is to notice your emotional range throughout the day:
- Pause when you sense something brewing in you, and ask: what am I feeling right now? (feelingswheel.com can help you name the emotions specifically).
- Then notice what’s underneath the emotion: what has me feeling this way? This introspection can give you clues and insight into what action might be needed next.
- Sometimes, no action is required – and simply identifying the emotion and the cause allows you to process it.
Following these steps can help minimize your own reactivity, or auto-pilot response to a situation, which can lead to more constructive interactions and conversations. This, in turn, may prevent emotional energy drains later on, by having more constructive conversations in the moment.
Spiritual energy is one that often gets the least of our attention, but can be foundational to energy management. Spiritual energy refers to our sense of purpose, fulfillment, and how we are able to live into our values on an ongoing basis. With the ongoing demands of life, and the pace that many of us are running at, thinking about purpose, fulfillment and values can feel like a luxury or nice-to-do, as opposed to a must-do.
And yet – if you feel disconnected from what has meaning and purpose to you, you will experience energy drains. A simple way to assess your spiritual energy is to notice for yourself: when do you feel most purposeful and “alive”? (Think across your personal and professional experiences). What is the commonality among these experiences? How can you incorporate more of that commonality into your life?
Special Leadership note: This assessment of the four energies isn’t limited to individuals. If you are a leader, you can apply these principles with your team. And, bonus, having these conversations in a real and authentic way with your teams can help to create psychological health and safety in your workplace by helping you live into the 13 factors for psychological health and safety in the workplace. If you’d like support in structuring these conversations with your team, contact us.
Start in whatever way you can
I’ve shared a lot of information in this post. If you’re at a point of serious depletion and this energy assessment feels daunting, start small and in whatever way you can. Some suggestions:
- Create time to play or, put another way: “time spent without purpose” (source: Stuart Brown, MD, play researcher). This can do wonders for replenishing your energy. Think of things that you enjoy doing just because, and you can bring your family in on this as well. Then carve out time every week for these activities.
- Pare it down to essential tasks only. If you’re feeling burnt out and significantly depleted, identify the critical and essential things that must get done and give yourself permission to do only those things. Pace yourself according to your energy levels.
- Ask for support – either at work or at home. Team members may be able to help you brainstorm ideas, or serve as a second set of eyes, when your mind is feeling foggy. Children and partners can take on more responsibility around the house. Give yourself permission to ask for what you need.
- Identify repeat offenses – are the same people dropping work in your inbox last minute with urgent timelines? Are colleagues, or your boss, calling at the same really inopportune time every day? Are work volumes consistently unmanageable? Identify any repeated patterns that are causing drains for you, and consider conversations you can have. Talk to the team that always has last minute requests, and look for a way to calendarize work so that it isn’t always last minute. Talk to your colleagues and boss about timing for calls, and prioritizing unmanageable workloads.
Most importantly – listen to yourself, and trust what your body is telling you. If you are exhausted or depleted, your body needs attention. Get to know your constitution and what you need to manage your energy to meet your professional and personal goals, responsibilities, and desires, without compromising your physical and psychological health.
If you’re looking to do individual or team work related to any of these topics, reach out to schedule a complimentary discovery call to talk through your needs, challenges, and goals.