Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have –– you.
Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
As summer comes to an end here in the U.S., many of us will enter the fall reinvigorated and ready to strongly finish the year.
But if you’re like many of my clients, your summer wasn’t as peaceful as it could’ve been and the rest of the year poses continuing challenges for your emotional and physical well-being.
You may be feeling burned out, and you’re not alone. Research shows that significant numbers of workers suffer from severe stress related to their jobs, with almost 80 percent reporting that they “regularly experience physical or psychological symptoms caused by stress.”
Even as the job market in the U.S. continues to thrive, giving workers options to move to better jobs, workplace stress is continuing to take its toll.
Stress has increased, as workdays have become 24/7 with global responsibilities and unlimited communication access through email, calls, and texts. The harmful effects of constant work in overdrive are visible everywhere, at every level of organizations.
Elon Musk burnout
The recent burnout of genius innovator Elon Musk serves as a tale of warning. In case you’re not aware of him, Musk is the CEO simultaneously of two major companies – electric carmaker Tesla and rocket company Space X. His vision is to colonize Mars to give the human race options to survive if Earth becomes uninhabitable.
I love Musk and view him as a modern-day Thomas Edison. Musk’s vision and energy have seemed boundless since he started Tesla in 2003.
But his recent public behavior has proven he is all too human. Working self-professed 120-hour weeks to achieve auto production goals he set for the public company Tesla, Musk began acting erratically, particularly on Twitter: he accused a diver, who helped save Thai boys from a cave, of being a pedophile; personally attacked short sellers of Tesla’s stock; and, most harmful, Tweeted while driving to the airport that he had secured funding to take Tesla private.
Musk’s statement drove up the company’s stock, but apparently was news to Tesla’s board. His claims triggered a federal investigation as a possible violation of securities law as well as private lawsuits.
This led to the seemingly indestructible Musk’s tearful interview with the New York Times last week, in which he shared the physical and emotional effects of business stress on his life.
Musk’s travails should serve as a warning to leaders and other high achievers who often position themselves as superheroes able to thrive under massive stress with only a few hours of sleep.
The truth is that we are all human and sooner or later, unabated stress may result in mental errors, emotional breakdownsand depression, or severe health problems, among others.
The phrase, “Sharpen the Saw” in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to a carpenter who uses a saw continuously so that the saw becomes dull and doesn’t cut properly. As the saw must be sharpened regularly to be effective, so must we take care of ourselves to be “sharp.”
Here are five tips for keeping yourself sharp and avoiding job burnout:
1) Take a personal audit: It all starts with awareness. You really can’t deal with a problem until you acknowledge it and understand its depths. How are you doing? Are you stressed out all of the time? Are you unable to relax or focus? Sometimes we have blind spots and need to ask others whether they see the warning signs of stress and potential burnout.
2) Balance your diet and exercise: I’m not going to go into detail because there’s no lack of information available on these practices; rather, there’s a lack of mindset and execution. The evidence is clear that whole foods are necessary to fuel for our body’s health and well-being; it’s also clear that exercise provides energy, stress relief, and mental and emotional clarity.
3) Set priorities: Too many organizations set long lists of “priorities” that must be accomplished – but when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Steve Jobs had been fired from Apple and when he made his return in 1997 to revive the failing company, he found that the company was producing a huge, confusing range of products, including twelve versions of the Macintosh computer.
Jobs reduced the entire product line by 70 percent, including a focus on just four versions of the Mac. This kind of focus has resulted in Apple becoming the most valuable company in the world.
Of course, this applies to us as individuals as well. Have you ever gone home after a long day of meetings and emails and realized you made no headway on what was important? I know I have. Every day, we face a choice of limited time and energy to accomplish our goals. Dedicated focus on real priorities is the key to real results.
4) Rest, relaxation, and sleep: The benefits of sleep have been well documented. The problem is that many of us don’t take the necessary steps to protect and promote effective sleep. Also, it’s critical to take breaks regularly and learn to relax. Many people find meditation and journaling in the morning to be helpful in starting their days.
5) Take a technology break: We are all distracted and, for many of us, compulsively addicted to our phones and other screens. This constant pinging in our subconscious, this yearning for drops of dopamine in our brains, doesn’t allow our stress levels to subside. We need to learn to control our smartphone addiction.
How about you?
How do you monitor and control your work stress?
Have you asked people you trust if they see signs of burnout in you?
Too many of us respond to work’s demands, like Pavlov’s dogs, without thinking. We need to step back, reflect and act in ways that will preserve our physical and emotional health while improving our results.
Give it a try. It might be the most important step you take this year.
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