What To Do When You’re Overworked

“No one takes their foot off the pedal when they’re in the game.” 

Be forewarned, this idiom tells us, you need to go full tilt without letting up if you’re going to be successful, meet the deadline, or delight the client. As the belief goes, maybe those people who slow down “just don’t think like champions.”

That’s what a new client of mine said was the reason why he was exhausted at work. It resonated with me because my own work ethic used to be driven in this way. When I used to work intensively for years, I didn’t see the point of pausing or celebrating my milestones. It just slowed me down. When people around me insisted I take better care of myself or leave time for other interests beyond work, I felt they were distracting me from getting things done. My resistance seems nonsensical to me now, all this time later, but for many, this is still their reality.

For so many leaders, keeping your foot on the accelerator is an admonition not to slow down no matter what. Although giving up may not be a great idea, the belief in going without stopping can be dangerous. I’m not referring to the few who end up fully burned out and hospitalized, but there’s an agreement in the workplace that ceaseless change and churn will never stop, and we all know that it’s unsustainable. Just yesterday an executive told me that although it was crazy at work, he was going to take some time off to re-energize because “it never stops.” The charged-up velocity of change has many more people lamenting and asking themselves how much longer they can go on this way. The “slow season” is no longer. There’s only one season — it’s full-on.

Leaders often say that they don’t want to pull back because they want to model productivity. Ask yourself what you are really doing when you stay at work yet again dragging yourself from meeting to meeting with your head down, shoulders rounded, and maybe even shutting yourself away to “get work done” in your office. It’s easy for others to see when someone is working late most of the time and is tired and frustrated. Your emotional skills as a leader are what we know now as a social contagion. This means that if you are grouchy, showing stress and frustration, you’ll soon see it spread and reflected in the culture.

You don’t need an executive coach to tell you that this is real. You or someone you know probably lives this. The question on leaders’ minds is what to do about it. There are many good strategies to consider. Consider these three.

  1. If you’re feeling that you are doing too much, you most likely are. Capture your activities in an audit of your own making, documenting how and with whom you’re spending your time. I’ve observed many leaders discover that they have been over-involved with their team, for example. There’s an opportunity to pull back and nudge your rock stars forward without your full involvement. Too often, CEOs who are new to the role or leaders who have assembled a brand new team have let close stewarding go on for too long. Think about efficiencies for you while nurturing those around you. Where else can you elevate yourself to fly at the right altitude doing high-value work while providing new opportunities for others?
  2. How do you start your day? Do you set yourself up to be hooked by urgent matters? If you’re searching for business problems and urgent matters, as many do, you are looking to be helpful, but ask yourself if your work is really moving forward. Instead, begin with your strategy and then reverse engineer it so that your daily to-do list sets you up to achieve strategic objectives.

A client of mine was a fastidious list maker and then gave it up, priding herself that she could store her to-do’s in her head. It was one thing she started doing before she became a CEO for the first time. Then when she took a job as CEO, she continued to keep much in her head until she realized that she was prioritizing fighting other people’s fires. Without a written list she committed to of what she wanted to accomplish each week and day, she was easily taken off track.

She’s back at list-making now, and it didn’t take much effort to restart the daily habit. They say that our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction. It can be much easier than people imagine. Consider the productivity hacks that have worked for you and assess if it’s time to bring them back. Winging it just means you are receptive to whatever comes up. There’s not much strategic thinking in that.

  1. It’s necessary to give yourself a break, no matter how strong you enjoy your black coffee or how long you claim you can keep going on with little sleep. What often holds leaders back is their belief that they’re indispensable. Don’t believe your own good press. You wouldn’t tell your own team to postpone their vacations indefinitely, would you? Or encourage them to avoid organized social activities at work because it’s busy? Start planning so that you can absent yourself from a meeting or take the two-week vacation you are owed.

Perversely, if you don’t let up, you’re likely underperforming and dragging your people with you.

This article was first published here on Forbes.com. Photo credit: Matthew Henry.

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