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The number one way leaders sabotage themselves

Imagine your car has a custom 25 gallon maximum capacity gas tank but someone sabotaged it to stop filling at 12 gallons. No matter what you do at the pump, as soon as it hits 12 gallons, POP! The pump stops. ARGH! That would be so frustrating. You'd be at under half capacity all the time. You couldn't go as far. You'd be running on fumes more often. You'd be at the gas station refueling constantly. How can you find that evil saboteur and wring their scrawny little neck?!?

Well, you have a gas tank just like a car. Neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, calls this your "body budget". Things like rest, passion, fun, nature, and meaningful relationships fill up your tank. Other things like stress, anxiety, thankless chores, being micromanaged, and sleep deprivation drain it. For many of us, our gas tank stops filling before it reaches maximum capacity. This isn’t because an evildoer has sabotaged it. We sabotage ourselves.

Take a client of mine, we’ll call her Marilyn. She was recently promoted to a prestigious leadership role and now finds herself working 10 hour shifts with a new baby at home. She’s not eating lunch, not taking breaks, and can barely function by the time she collapses on the couch at the end of the day.

She resembles me when I was a newly hired school principal. Back then, learning my new role felt like learning a foreign language. Everyone depended on me at work, yet half the time I had no clue what I was doing. At home I had two kids ages one and five depending on me too. When I was at home, I was worried about work. When I was at work, I worried about not being there for my kids. I wasn’t exercising, sleeping, or thinking clearly. Not. At. All.

My client and I limited our own capacity, running on a half full tank. Our body budget was constantly depleted because we didn’t take good enough care of ourselves to be able to fill all the way up to maximum capacity. Just like a car that’s never full of gas, we couldn’t go as far, were running on fumes, and needed to refuel more often.

And here’s the kicker: we had nobody to blame but ourselves. Sure, we told ourselves that it was because of the demands of our jobs and families at home. We blamed it on circumstance. But if we were totally honest, it was our own mindset and choices that sabotaged our tank.

The Energy Audit

Before you read any further, take this 5 minute energy audit to measure your capacity.

What was your score?

If you’re 20 or over, pat yourself on the back. Your capacity is high and can be your best self. Go! Keep up the good work. Shine bright. You got this. (Please, stop reading here and go about your day.)

If you’re 15-19, you’re doing well, but may I challenge you to pick two items that you don’t have nailed yet. Make those two a priority and experiment with ways to change those into a TRUE. See below for some specific tips that might help.

If you’re 14 or below, you have a sabotaged gas tank. The good thing is, there are clear, specific actions you can take today, things that are in your control to change, to improve your capacity. (If you want support, I guarantee that my mastermind group will increase your capacity by 50% in the first 30 days or your money back! See below for details.)

Top Ten Tips

Here’s my top ten tips for some of the most common trouble spots on the energy audit:

  1. I am good at focusing on one thing at a time, and am rarely distracted by e-mail, texts, or social media. → In today’s world of constant connection, it is often our smart phones that cause the greatest amount of distraction and disruption. If this is an issue for you, experiment with keeping your phone in another room or zipped in a bag or purse when you want to focus. Habit guru, James Clear, calls this aspect of breaking a bad habit: “Make it hard.”

  2. I spend most of my day on activities with long-term value that I’m passionate about rather than immediate demands or a long list of to do items. → Pick three priorities for the day or the week. These should be activities that move you forward to long-term goals that matter. My client decided to pick three things weekly: one helped her be a great mom, another a great wife, and a third a great leader. She would do these first (immediately after checking in with her assistant at the office), or in specific time blocks (like a weekly date night with her husband) to keep them sacred and make sure they happened.

  3. I can turn off my thoughts when I want to sleep or focus on something important to me. → Practice mindfulness. I call it Jedi mind training for normal humans. Really. Even just five to ten minutes a day can offer a dramatic improvement.

  4. I never skip breakfast or lunch, and I rarely ever eat on the go or at my desk while working. → Your mom and third grade teacher told you this when you were eight and it’s still true today. Breakfast and lunch are necessary fuel for your body. And while the nutrition alone is a good start, it’s a great excuse to…

  5. I take regular breaks throughout the day to renew and recharge.Brain breaks are quick twenty second to two minute strategies to calm the mind and body. They bring you into the present moment and away from the past and future where intrusive negative thoughts tend to dwell. They interrupt your body’s fight or flight stress response. They open the door to greater awareness of what’s going on around us.

  6. I have enough time for deep reflection, for nourishing my spirit (through prayer, meditation, communing with nature, etc.), and for creative thinking. → This is often a huge challenge when there’s too much to do and too little time (and come on, be honest, when isn’t there too much to do and too little time?) Just like brushing your teeth is necessary for the health of your body, setting aside time for creativity, reflection or spirituality is necessary for the health of your soul. Block the time on your calendar and hold it sacred.

  7. I frequently express my appreciation to others or to savor my accomplishments and blessings. → Our brains have a negativity bias which makes us hold onto the negative. It requires a conscious effort to notice the good. So celebrate it! Lots of research has shown that a daily gratitude or “good things” practice leads to a long-term increase in happiness that lasts for weeks even if you stop the daily gratitude practice.

  8. I surround myself with things that I love and that make me happy. → Positive memories are often triggered by the littlest of things: special smells, pictures, colors, and objects. Moreover, decorating your environment with personal touches makes your environment feel safe and comfortable, thus reducing stress and increasing resilience.

  9. I rarely compare myself to others, or worry about what others think of me. → Impostor syndrome and fear of failure is extremely common. Some suggest that up to 70% of individuals will experience impostor syndrome in their lifetime. It is particularly common in high achievers and perfectionists. It’s more common in women than men. One research-backed, effective strategy is to become clear and grounded in your successes and strengths. Name them or leave them posted where you can see them.

  10. When things are really difficult for me, I ask for help and reach out to the people who care about me. → Organizational researchers define trust as a willingness to be vulnerable and one of the easiest ways for leaders to earn the trust of their teams is to be willing to be seen asking for help.

After working with Marilyn for just two weeks on several of these key shifts, she jumped from a 12 to an 17. She was happier. Her work felt lighter and more purposeful. Her husband commented that she was "back to her old self". Another client of mine said that after making an effort to increase her capacity for just one week, it resulted in the best week of work all year.

Final Quote

For myself, a single quote was the key to making me change from merely surviving to thriving. Writer and speaker, Katie Reed said, “self-care is giving the world the best of you, not what’s left of you.” Reframing self-care as filling my tank to maximum capacity so that I could give the best of me completely changed how I think about taking breaks, having fun, staying present, and many, many other things. If I truly wanted to offer the world my best and live to my full potential, then I needed to fill all the way up to max capacity and not sabotage myself. Initially I scored a miserable 9 on my own energy audit.

Today, I’m hovering at 22 to 23. Exercise, staying present, and turning off my brain to sleep are lessons I learn, forget, and relearn over and over again. And that's okay. I too am a work in progress.

Read More

Or if e-mail is the bane of your existence, try this one on managing your email.

Going Further

I can’t put it any more plainly, the Collective Wisdom Mastermind offers six months of group support specifically designed to shift leaders from surviving to thriving. The first 30 days is devoted to increasing your gas tank’s capacity by 50%. For instance, if you start at a 10 on the Energy Audit, I’ll get you to an 18 (50% of the way to 25) in the first 30 days of the mastermind or I will give you your money back, and you still get to be part of the program all the way to the end. But we don’t stop there. Once you have the additional capacity, let's use it to take your leadership to the next level. You will set an intention – a big challenge to overcome or a big dream to create – and the group and I will support you all the way to the finish line. Leadership can be lonely and overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be. Reach out ASAP at before the application period closes.

If you know of a friend who needs this message right now, please forward this blog post to them.

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