This past week, I’ve heard the following from colleagues and friends:
“I’m not accomplishing anything. What is the point of it all?”
“I’m supposed to have the day off today, but I’m attending this one important meeting. Is it okay if take the rest of the day after that?”
“I’d planned to be off last week but ended up working a few days. I can’t seem to catch up and I felt so guilty taking vacation when I’m behind on so many things.”
There were others, too, but these were the ones I remember most clearly, the most troubling to me. As I spoke with each person, and emphatically assured them of their own value and encouraged them to take some time for themselves, I was saddened again and again at the near despair of my colleagues. I also saw a bit of myself in each of them: these people who are a source of strength for others reaching the end of their own strength and needing a break.
At the same time as this was happening, I found a new-to-me blog site and blogger, with some great guidance on these topics. Here are the posts that helped me help them, and also helped myself in no small measure.
A challenge these days is perhaps that we don't get immediate or as much positive feedback from those around us. First, we’re not interacting in person as much as we used to, and those spontaneous or serendipitous moments that afforded the opportunity to sincerely ask how someone is and talk about what’s happening for them are now either planned and virtual or not happening at all. Also, everyone is so busy and stressed and focused on just figuring out our own way through that we don't see ways or time to express our gratitude for people and things that they do – even the small things, those things that maybe don't make things better but help them from getting worse.
I’ve been making a conscious effort to reach out and connect with people for reasons other than solving a specific problem. These are more than check-ins – they are check-ons, calls or Zooms that are about each other, rather than the work or world around us. And in each I make a point of finding some accomplishment or victory, however small, that I can celebrate with that person. In addition to hopefully helping the other person, these calls always make me feel better, just having that opportunity to relax and talk over tea with someone who’s in a different boat to my own but sailing the similar troubled waters.
Here's my follow-up with one colleague, after a Zoom-tea call:
“I've been thinking about you and worrying about you thinking that things are pointless or that you aren't accomplishing things. I hope you're feeling a bit better today and taking pride in the things you do and have done to make the world and the lives of those around you better.”
And for another: "You ARE a super hero! Don’t ever forget it!"
Leaders may avoid pursuing self-care due to the sense that they don't deserve it, that it is a reward rather than a building block. Sometimes, they feel like they need special permission to take some time – even time that they’re entitled to or even already booked as time off. It is challenging to get people past the idea that self-care is frivolous or that they're undeserving of it (with side of imposter syndrome, too). Leaders have to take care of themselves in order to take care of others.
By definition, leaders are those that people rely on. In today’s uncertain and disconnected world, good leaders can often be a source of strength for others, that steady and calm and decisive presence that is both familiar from the pre-COVID time and consistent. The consequence for the leader can be that they feel trapped into always being there, or worse, feeling like they cannot show weakness or people will feel let down.
A scary element of self-care for leaders (and sometime for those who rely on them) is the vulnerability that it both requires of the leader and reveals to those they lead. Neither of those elements is bad – quite the opposite, in fact. Both require courage on the part of the leader to acknowledge and expose their vulnerability, and resilience on the part of the team to be able to get along on their own for a while. With good leaders and teams, the experience of seeing the leader as human and open to taking time for self-care is both inspiring and empowering. Team members have the opportunities to step up and be supportive of the leader and their team mates, as well as have the example of someone prioritizing self-care, something that hopefully gives them the implicit permission to do the same.
Here are my replies to two leaders who needed encouragement and permission to take the time they needed:
“Absolutely yes – definitely take care of you. It is very important, especially when you’re seen as the 'rock' for others, that we don’t forget that we also need and deserve some self-care and kindness to ourselves.”
“I know it is hard to do, but you need to take some time for yourself. You should not feel guilty about taking the time you are entitled to for some self-care. It is important to step away so you can step back stronger.”
Too often, leaders think time management means, “doing more with less” or worse, “better multitasking”. When things get crazy, the tendency is to get more wound up about the limited time and the limitless work. When imposter syndrome creeps into the mindset, it is a perfect storm of anxiety, stress, frustration, and despair.
We cannot make time; we can only spend it. What’s important is how we spend our time and on what, to get the most out of our most valuable resource – ourselves.
Well known approaches to time and workload management include delegation and managing expectations, but one that can truly help us take control is what I call time blocking, a technique that goes by many names but essentially means identifying the bigger pieces of work on your plate that you are going to focus on, blocking out time in your calendar or day to work on those for fixed amounts of time, and fiercely protecting that time for your work.
This sounds simple but it takes consideration, awareness and discipline:
Here’s how one of my colleagues applied this to great effect:
“I feel like I’m letting my team down, but also getting frustrated because some important things just aren’t getting done. I will be okay – I am going to “pretend” like I am not working for the next few days and just buckle down and get things done.”
As leaders, we are regularly giving ourselves to others. We need to include ourselves in our compassion so that we will be present and ready to serve and support those around us with empathy, kindness, and respect. As some proverbs say, we cannot serve from an empty vessel. Self-care allows us to refill ourselves and be ready to keep leading.
Primum, cura te ipsum. Tunc vos can curam aliorum.
First, take good care of yourself. Then you can take good care of others.
Or as my pop used to say, "if you're not good to yourself, you're no good to anyone else".
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.