Let me guess. You feel like you really need to de-stress.
2020 has been unreal, and almost unbelievably trying—far different than any year you’ve led through before.
Every leader I talk to is tired. Well, more than just tired. Stressed. Deeply stressed.
And kind of exhausted.
There’s a fatigue that comes with crisis that’s a little hard to describe.
The adrenaline that got you through the first month gave way to the sustained drone of decision after decision, assault after assault, and disappointment after disappointment.
So you’ve lived for your summer break. I get it.
Now the bad news. And as tough as it is to hear, your time off this summer probably won’t be enough to refuel you or even fully destress you.
Yeah, I know.
In fact, if you look back on your leadership, you probably already know that you rarely if ever completely destress on your time off. If you’re not sure about that, just ask your spouse or kids. They’ll tell you what it’s like to vacation with you.
And even if you get a few fleeting glimpses of peace at some point in your weeks off, they usually evaporate the moment you head back to work. It’s like two weeks of progress get erased within minutes of heading back to work.
So two questions:
And second, “what should you do?”
Let’s tackle each in turn.
WHY DOESN’T TIME OFF ‘WORK’?
1. TIME OFF WON’T HEAL YOU WHEN YOUR PROBLEM IS HOW YOU SPEND YOUR TIME ON
The problem with most leaders is not how we spend our time off. It’s how we spend our time on.
I learned the lesson of time off that doesn’t refuel you the hard way. The worst summer of my life happened back in 2006.
Personally, after 11 years in leadership, I was burning out. I suspected burnout but I thought I could stop it with a vacation, because, you know, I’m strong like that and only weak people burn out. (Yes I know, but tell that to young me who didn’t listen well.)
I took three weeks off that July. I was convinced I would heal and everything would be back to normal by August 1st.
What scared me to death that year is that instead of getting better during my vacation, I got worse.
I moved into a deep slide and cratered out in August…a burnout deep enough that it took me months to get out of and then a few years to finally shake.
You know what I learned in that season (along with about 1 million other lessons)?
How I spent my time off wasn’t the solution, because how I spend my time off wasn’t my problem.
Your time off can’t save you if the problem is how you spend your time on.
The problem for most exhausted and depleted leaders isn’t how you spend your time off, it’s how you spend your time on.
Back in 2006, my crisis was personal. I was living at an unstainable pace. As the church I led grew, my formula was more people equals more hours. And that’s fundamentally unsustainable.
Today, the crisis is global and we’re all going through it. If the formula is more crisis equals more hours, we’re all doomed as leaders. Sure, the initial stages of a crisis require long hours and hard decisions. But when you head into a prolonged crisis, well, you need a new strategy.
Which takes us back to this summer: when you’re exhausted, how you spend your time off isn’t the solution. How you spend your time on is.
2. THIS IS WHY SABBATICALS AND LEAVES GENERALLY DON’T SOLVE BURNOUT
You might be thinking, Exactly, Carey—which is why I need a sabbatical or leave of some kind.
Well, maybe. But probably not.
For years I’ve puzzled over why so many sabbaticals and other forms of leave generally don’t solve burnout.
I can’t tell you the number of leaders I’ve known on the verge of burnout who have taken a sabbatical to deal with their stress or fatigue, get better, and then come back only to feel as bad or worse within months of their return. And then often, they leave—for good.
Although I’ve never taken a Sabbatical or extended leave, I think they can be great when they have a defined purpose and you’re not running into them or back out of them into a frantically unsustainable life.
A Sabbatical isn’t the solution for an unsustainable pace. A sustainable pace is the solution for an unsustainable pace.
When the way you’re living and leading is broken, all the time in the world off won’t fix it.
SO…WHAT WILL HELP?
If the problem is how you spend your time on, here are a few things that can help.
First, when you’re off, take some time to take stock of what happened.
You have been through so much and my guess is you’ve hardly stopped to process it.
I found myself unusually tired a few weeks ago. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with my schedule. I’d taken a full weekend off, and my day wasn’t jammed full with meetings.
I actually had writing time scheduled in my calendar, which is something I love, and it was designed to help me finish writing a new course on leading a better team we’re launching in a few months.
But I was struggling to get motivated. I was far more tired than I should be.
When I wondered what was going on, I realized that although I love writing and producing online courses for leaders, I was writing my fourth course in four months, something I’d never done before.
That, on top of all the crisis leadership all of us have been through left me feeling, well, not myself.
In the end, the course production and filming went really well, but the lesson wasn’t lost.
What’s the best thing to do about that? Well, name it, surrender it and make a note to file for the future you that writing and producing four courses in four months is super taxing.
Until you understand why you’re tired, it’s hard to figure out how not to get that tired.
So what’s making you tired?
If your answer is everything, take a little more time to break it down. You’ll likely discover some things weigh more heavily than others.
Finally, grieve your losses. A mentor once told me that ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. Oh man, is he right.
When he shared that with me I realized how many losses I’d experienced that I never grieved (as small as someone leaving your church, which isn’t that small).
Ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. So is life.
Do you know how much loss you’ve experienced since March?
Take some time to pray through them, grieve through them, and maybe even sit down with a good friend or therapist to process it all.
You’ll be glad you did.
With all that processed during the relative quiet of summer, how do you avoid being eaten alive heading back into leadership?
While I have a deep and robust strategy that’s helped me deal with everything life and leadership have thrown at me for years now, here are three things that can help right now.
1. MAKE SOME CATEGORICAL DECISIONS
Categorical decision making is a superpower for leaders who have too much to do, which these days is most leaders.
By default, you make decisions one by one in leadership…as they come at you or need to be made.
One of the best ways to simplify decision making is to think in categories.
For example, when the COVID crisis hit, I had a lot of internal decisions to make as a leader (things my organization needed to do to survive), and soon I was faced with a bunch of requests for podcast interviews, webinar appearances, online events and even to join staff meetings virtually.
At first, my team and I looked at each request individually, but as they piled up (often a half dozen requests a day), we moved to categorical decision making. I decided to politely decline all podcast interviews, virtual events, webinars, online events of staff meetings.
Done, decision made.
We made a couple of exceptions, but not many.
The result? My team had clarity. I had clarity. And people understood.
Plus, I had time to work on some big projects I needed to get done.
Heading back into leadership, what things can you categorically eliminate?
This will take you a while to think through, but over the years I’ve done things like categorically eliminate doing weddings and funerals, pastoral visitation, breakfast meetings (I’m most productive in the morning), lunch meetings or even meetings over an hour (and much more).
This will also force you to create systems for these important things that are not dependent on you and far more deeply empower your team.
I always get asked Do you make exceptions? And yes, I do.
I’ve done a few weddings, some visitations, a few funerals and even the odd breakfast meeting. But the exceptions are so much easier to manage than the deluge of yesses that probably should have been nos. And if I participate in your wedding, it’s probably because you’re on my staff or are family, a pretty easy exception to explain.
And ideally, your elimination of one category should free up time to focus on something more important or strategic. Another way to think about it is to reach more people, I need to eliminate X.
If you’re skittish or worry about FOMO, try this: make it time-limited. In other words, for three months I’ll do no breakfast meetings. Or until the end of the year, I won’t do outside projects or requests.
Categorical decision-making saves mental energy and a tremendous amount of time because you already made the decision. Case closed. Move on.
2. SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY, SIMPLIFY
This one’s easy to understand and very difficult to do.
At the best of times, complexity is your enemy. And many leaders have a strategy that’s overly complex.
Complexity doesn’t scale, and at a certain level, it’s also exhausting.
Simple is not simplistic.
As Woody Guthrie is quoted as saying, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”
Great leaders stick with a problem or idea long enough and engage it deeply enough to clear away the fog and reduce the concept to its simplest forms so anyone can understand it and implement it.
Ask yourself, what things can you stop doing so you can start doing more important things?
A simple, leaner model will likely help you thrive in complicated times.
One easy cut from most churches or organizations is anything you have to ‘manufacture’ energy for (I explain that here).
The more complex the world becomes, the simpler your approach to it needs to be.
3. DITCH THE ENDLESS WORKDAY/WORKWEEK
If you haven’t worked from home as much in the past as you are presently, the boundaries between work and home and likely as blurry as they’ve ever been.
I’ve been working from home part of the time for much of the last 25 years and full-time for the last five. It took me years to figure out how to do it well, but I’m more convinced than ever that you need a strategy to make sure your work doesn’t envelop your life.
Technology has not made this simpler.
You’re watching Disney+ with your daughter after dinner and a co-worker texts you about your expense report.
You used to go to the office, but thanks to technology, now the office goes to you. And it’s fully capable of interrupting you any time, anywhere, even on vacation.
Because I love what I get to do, I’ve had to force myself to make hard stops, putting my laptop away, turning off all notifications on my device, moving my phone out of my bedroom at night, and deciding that some things can wait.
Want a good little hack to help you break your work/technology addiction? Get a hobby.
You’ll get so engrossed in it that you’ll lose the desire to even check your phone.
SOMETHING TO FOCUS ON
Since I burned out, my mantra has been to try to figure out a way to live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow.
I think that’s a good principle. I don’t always get it right, but when I do, things are so much better.
If you’re not thriving—and many leaders aren’t, even in the best of times—adjust today to improve tomorrow.
Living in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow will help you win the marathon ahead.