How can you fly your plane with your fuel tank near empty? Or when your autopilot is incapable of meeting the dynamic challenges at hand? What do you do when you’re feeling drained, uninspired, and just plain meh? Given that I’m a fighter pilot, you can probably guess what I am going to tell you to do.
You’ve likely experienced burnout at some point in your career—a sense that you are overwhelmed, struggling to feel a sense of professional accomplishment or efficacy, and lacking support and empathy from those around you. In the past couple of years, many of us have seen up close the symptoms of burnout in our colleagues, and may even have felt them ourselves: low energy or exhaustion or feeling negatively or disconnected from one’s job.
You already know about those typical responses to stress, exhaustion, and overwhelm called fight, flight, or freeze. In the first, your self-protection mechanisms activate to meet obstacles head on with an eye to overcoming or overpowering the stressors. In the second, your inclination to escape kicks in and quickly moves you away from stressful triggers.
In my work with executives and managers across industries, I often hear stories about people feeling as though they’re teetering on the edge of a breakdown, more commonly called burnout, from extreme or chronic stress. All too often, they’ll imagine that the solution is to eliminate stress as much as possible. I absolutely understand the need to avoid burnout, but eliminating all stress should not be the goal.
The refrain among leaders across industries is much the same: we’re all feeling called upon to do more with less. There are a number of good recommendations out there for improving the way our brains manage that stress. How can we prevent task overload? I want to add one more critical tool to the mix—a concept I learned in Naval Aviation training called “The Bucket.”
During a crisis, we can start to feel time compress. That means time seems to speed by out of control. Feeling time compress can lead us to fall back on thoughtless knee-jerk reactions and bad decision making. How can we make better decisions under stress?
Most of us, especially us Type A’s, like to think we’re great multitaskers. We check our email and text messages while listening in on a Zoom meeting, working on a spreadsheet, and scrolling Twitter or a news site. In this age of distraction, multitasking seems like a useful superpower to have. Unfortunately, it isn’t even real.
You might already be familiar with the term Span of Control in the corporate world, where it’s used to designate the number of direct reports you can effectively manage at one time. Over the years, I’ve expanded that term to include everything you can, and should, control at any given time.
Maybe you’ve familiarized yourself with the science, probably you’ve had an experience that it neatly sums up, and likely you’ve heard the saying: Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.
You’re used to thriving in a high-pressure, high-performing business environment, but what happens when there’s even less time, even more stress, a workplace that has grown more chaotic, and goals that seem more complicated and difficult to achieve? If you’ve felt the extra pressure of rapidly changing circumstances, economic upheaval, and increased limitations on your day-to-day activity, you’re not alone.