Staying sane and productive in an overloaded world

In the last two issues, I talked about prioritisation. In May, I described the four most widely accepted approaches to prioritisation and explained why each tends to fail. In June, I described a different approach which overcomes these problems.

But what do you do when you can’t do any more to reduce the workload? How do you keep yourself and those around you from getting so overloaded that the work you do is compromised – or, worse still, that your heath suffers? In short, how do you cope better when all options for reducing the load have been exhausted?

Coping is not a dirty word

Many of the leaders I work with are struggling. The environment they work in is so tough that their work is being seriously compromised, their physical health is suffering, and they sometimes feel so desperate that tears are not at all uncommon when they get a chance to talk about how they really feel.

They soldier on because they know that there’s a limit to what they can do to change the pressures around them. Whilst all have ways that they cope with those pressures, most would admit that those only go some of the way, some of the time to deal with what work and life throw at them.

So what is coping? Let’s keep it simple. Coping is striking the right balance between what wears us down (let’s call that ‘Load’) and what boosts our internal resources (let’s call that ‘Recovery’).

Given how ubiquitous these issues are, why is it that we’re not better at dealing with them? Why do we talk so much about ‘stress’ but fail to do enough to manage it? A big part of this is a lack of real insight and understanding about the Load/Recovery balance. We know only some of the things that increase Load (the actual range of things is surprising). And we need new and different options for Recovery that are do-able in our busy, modern lives.

Some things you may not know about how you’re put together

There’s an important, but little understood, part of us called the ‘Autonomic nervous system’. This controls the automatic systems and processes in our body that keep us alive – breathing, heartbeat, digestion, temperature regulation, etc. Because these functions are automatic, they happen largely unconsciously.

Critically one of the many things the Autonomic system is responsible for is the production of adrenaline.Adrenaline is an ancient response to threats and which once equipped us for ‘fight or flight’. Unfortunately, today pressures of many kinds can lead to adrenaline production. Without fight or flight activity to dissipate it, it stays in the body and creates the symptoms of tension, tiredness, etc., that we call ‘stress’.

Your Autonomic system has two distinct modes:

  • The ‘Sympathetic mode’ in which your body is gearing you up for what’s happening. This takes many forms but may include, for example, elevated heart rate, faster and shallower breathing, increased mental awareness, dilated pupils and adrenaline production.
  • The ‘Parasympathetic mode’, in which your body is regenerating itself, and in which activity is directed to internal functions such as digestion and cell repair, with other features including decreased heart rate and mental relaxation.

Our coping equation corresponds closely with these two states. ‘Load’ is when the Autonomic system is in the Sympathetic mode and ‘Recovery’ is when it’s in the Parasympathetic mode.

If Load exceeds Recovery – overload, stress and decreased productivity are inevitable.

The problem is that few of us know when we’re in Load or Recovery. We certainly know when the balance is wrong and we’re under stress. Without insight into our state, however, it’s really hard to improve the balance.

A brilliant innovation

The great news is that there’s now a way to find out exactly when you’re under Load or in Recovery. It turns out that our hearts beat slightly differently in the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic modes. It’s not about your heart rate in beats per minute. Rather it’s the tiny variability of the beats. In Sympathetic the beat is very regular and in Parasympathetic it’s very slightly irregular.

The even better news is that we can now measure this variability. And by doing so we can create a detailed map of exactly when you are under Load and when you’re in Recovery – minute by minute through the day. A simple test over a 3 day period creates a detailed report. Comparing this with your diary of what you were doing in each moment is illuminating – and sometimes shocking.

The test we’re using is rapidly being widely adopted. From elite sports to the boardroom, people for whom the highest levels of performance are essential are using it to better balance load and recovery so that they can produce their very best more often and more consistently.

Understanding has power

You’ll be surprised and enlightened when you know which state you’re in at different times. Some things are obvious, but others far less so.

I was surprised to discover that when I’m in a really good coaching conversation, I’m not under Load as I’d expected . I’d expected this to be a drain on me because of the degree of attention and focus I’m putting into it). It turns out that I’m in Recovery mode when coaching – even though it’s some of my most demanding work! (Probably because I enjoy it and have to be really relaxed)

There are seven areas that influence whether we are under Load or in Recovery at any given moment:

Psychology – What are we thinking and feeling?

Environment – What’s going on around us? (work pressures, people and all sorts of other things)

Recovery – When, where and how effectively are we deliberately ‘recharging the batteries’?

Fuel – Food and drink impose a load on the body for digestion. Alcohol is a toxin!

Organisation – Our practical strategies for dealing with all that is on our plate.

Responsibility – How in tune is what we’re doing with our values and spirituality?

Movement – Our degree of momentary physical exertion and general fitness.

Each of these can be a factor both in increasing Load AND in promoting Recovery. Even things that you might think are obvious can go both ways. Sleep, for example, can be in both Sympathetic and Parasympathetic modes (Load and Recovery) – explaining why we sometimes wake feeling rested and refreshed but other times, even after a long sleep, find we’re tired and irritable.

When you know what’s increasing the load , and what’s helping you recover – getting into balance is so much easier. Working through the detailed report that test produces allows you to make small changes to the way you organise and approach your day – to leave you feeling better and being more productive (at home as well as at work).

Would you like to improve your balance?

If I sound like an evangelist, it’s because I’m excited about the potential of this test. I know from personal experience that seeing the report is both surprising and enlightening—and that it’s incredibly helpful for finding simple ways to get a better balance. When you do that, your performance will improve (at home as well as in work), you’ll be healthier and feel happier.

If you’d like to improve your ability to deal with what faces you, do get in touch. All that’s involved is to fill in some details and wear a monitor for three days. You’ll then get a report, a debrief to help you understand the report and make your own plan – and ongoing support to implement it.

To find out more, please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email.

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson