Scott Eblin, a leadership coach based in Santa Monica, Calif., has specialized in helping executives to move to the next level. But over the past five years, in working with those clients, he has learned that gaining that new status comes at a price: They become overworked and overwhelmed.
As he tried to help them, he was also trying to help himself. Diagnosed in 2009 with multiple sclerosis, he was encouraged by his wife to take yoga. Through exercise and mindfulness meditation, he kept his disease at bay and found new energy and focus. He's fond of a quote by the late John Wooden, a perceptive and highly successful basketball coach: "Little things make big things happen." He has seen it with yoga, where he started off quite woefully, practised diligently, and after years suddenly could do a headstand.
He shares that measured approach with his clients, encouraging them to try meditation. Most initially demur, worried it will gobble up huge chunks of their precious time. But he tells them even three deep breaths are a form of meditation – and very helpful.
Most professionals, he says, are in a constant fight-or-flight frenzy, as they check e-mails every few minutes and deal with never-ending meetings and apparent emergencies. To balance that unhealthy stress, he suggests rest-and-digest, or what has been called the relaxation response. "You need fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest in tandem," he said in an interview. "Otherwise, your life is like driving only with an accelerator."
So try yoga, tai chi or a walk interspersed into your day. Take three deep breaths when feeling overwhelmed, to activate the rest-and-digest response. Be aware of what you're feeling, and find some balance.
Not that he's big on the word balance when talking about work and life. He prefers the term work-life rhythm, or simply life rhythm. Sometimes we need to focus on one aspect far more than the other. Sometimes we need to speed up, and other times slow down. You'll never find, or at least hold, an optimal balance, so get over that possibility and find proper rhythms.
To help, he recommends establishing a "Life GPS," planning your intentions for the coming year and then establishing the routines – John Wooden's small things – that will get you there. He asks you to consider when you are at your best at home, work, and in your community activities – what are your behaviours at those moments?
You might remember time with the kids exploring a new conservation area for the home element; partnering with your team to come up with a creative solution to a client problem at work; or volunteering on Thanksgiving at a homeless shelter for community ventures. Remember how each of those situations felt and then look for common denominators within them.
For his new book Overworked and Overwhelmed, he interviewed 19 people about their "at best" characteristics, including:
Adam Grant, Harvard professor and author of Give and Take. The professor said he feels he is at his best when he is completely absorbed, in flow, or helping someone else in a meaningful way.
Caralyn Brace, vice-president of Unisys. Her best features? Being confident, clear, intentional, honest, genuine, and calming to others.
Jim Campbell, former CEO of GE Appliances: Feels strongest when he's positive, sending the right signals, bringing the pieces of the plan together.
Monica Oswald, vice-president of a financial services company: Identifies herself as calm, happy, joyful.
Words such as calm, confident and focused came up repeatedly in his interviews. Whatever your best features, it's a helpful reference point to identify them. "If you know what it looks like and feels like, you can recognize when you're not there," he says.
The next step is to look at what keeps you from being your best and develop what he calls "killer apps" to overcome those obstacles. Movement, for example, is a physical killer app, to get you out of your head and be more productive. Breathing is a killer app for clearing the clutter from your mind and providing focus. Listening is a killer app for relationships. Reflection is a killer app for discerning purpose and boosting the spiritual dimension of your life.
Dealing with being overworked and overwhelmed also requires effective time management. Despite his emphasis on mindfulness, he warns you to recognize and overcome the "tyranny of the present." Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who directed the response to Hurricane Katrina, uses that phrase to highlight that you could spend all your time responding to the many requests from others and never accomplish what truly needs to be done. The solution, using a metaphor from poker, is to ante up just enough to stay in the game – handle enough of those requests to keep others happy – while actively pursuing more important activities.
In that vein, ask of items demanding your attention, such as meetings and writing reports: "Is this even necessary?" In some cases, it is – but not now, so reschedule the task.
He also urges you to understand your operating rhythms and schedule your day so that you are tackling your most important tasks when you are likely to be at your best. As well, take breaks: "All of the successful people I interviewed understand that they have to lose some time every day – even if it is only five or 10 minutes – to be at their best."
Rest and digest is vital in a world where almost everyone is overworked and overwhelmed.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter