I’ve heard many people say the pandemic is our chance at a “Do-Over.”
Although I understand the sentiment, I disagree. That mindset seems backward.
Instead, I suggest this is our “Do Better” opportunity.
It’s not just semantics.
A ‘Do-Over’ mindset suggests that we erase away the past and begin anew.
But the risk of this mindset is that we approach the future from a place of fear, cynicism, and scarcity in an attempt to avoid the losses, hurts, heartaches and mistakes of the past.
A ‘Do Better’ mindset suggests that we build on and use our learnings, losses, and acknowledgments of what was and wasn’t working to get stronger.
It challenges us to accept our mistakes, take a hard look at our beliefs, be thoughtful about our decisions, and honest with the consequences of our actions.
It allows us to approach the future with courage and bravery. To use empathy to connect our differences and to extract meaning and knowledge from our adversities.
As we start to prepare for opening back up, I challenge you to think about how you can take something that has impacted so many people in so many different ways and hashtag#DoBetter in the future.
Let’s make our new normal a better one.
Why it’s time you put the “push through” mindset away.
If you are one of those people who can get focused quickly and maintain concentration even while distractions are competing for your attention, this article may not be for you.
If you are great at proactively scheduling breaks into your calendar and taking those breaks throughout the day, keep doing what you’re doing.
If on the other hand, you find your legs going numb from sitting too long, your eyes crossing from staring at your screen and you’ve moved your coffee maker onto your desk to save getting up throughout the day, and still find yourself exhausted and somehow further behind on your most crucial work, then this article is definitely for you.
Before COVID-19, the research arm of my company, BrainAMPED, uncovered some interesting data. We found that leaders who proactively build breaks into their day (and took them), self-assessed themselves as being more focused throughout the day, less tired at the end of the workday, and in the case of having a partner at home, felt more present with them outside of work hours.
None of that was surprising. The data on working in 90-minutes cycles followed by a break is well documented. What was most surprising was that the difference between leaders who were scored as being “good” and those being “great” by their manager, direct reports, and their partners at home, wasn’t dependent on the quantity or length of breaks. Instead, it was much more connected to the quality of the breaks taken throughout the day.
Our research shows that high quality breaks consistently have five key elements. I’ve organized them into an easy to remember mnemonic, we call them P.O.W.E.R. breaks. These are short (typically 15 minutes at the low end and an hour at the high end), reset breaks taken throughout the workday.
Let’s look at the key elements of a P.O.W.E.R. break:
P: Proactive Pause
By far, the biggest difference between those that took breaks throughout the day and those who didn’t was if they proactively scheduled them and diligently worked to keep them free, even when a request came in that would overlap.
When asked why people don’t take breaks throughout the day, even when they knew they are helpful, the most consistent answer was, “because I was too busy.” This is all a matter of brain science. The longer you work, the less time it will feel like you have to take a break. This is because your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), the part of your brain that helps you keep things in perspective, fatigues when constantly engaged – and is less able to recognize when a break would be most beneficial.
The second key piece is that it is a “Pause.” This means you “pause” doing work. If you schedule a 15-minute break following two meetings and you fill that time checking email, you have proactively scheduled a work execution break – not a pause break. The goal is to give that hard-working PFC a break allowing it to function best and therefore serve you best.
This element is about consciously slowing and deepening your breath to oxygenate your brain and body. If you’ve worked with me before, you know that “Oxygenate” is a part of many strategies.
The reason for this is simple – it is necessary. For many of you, much of the day feels fast-paced, pressure-filled and demanding. This stress kicks in the ‘fight-flight’ system resulting in quick, shallow breathing.
Slowing down and deepening your breath activates your vagus nerve. This nerve bundle is critical to turning off the ‘flight-flight’ stress response system. It instead, activates the relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.
To build this into your reset break, take a minute or two and just focus on taking some slow breaths. When done throughout the day people report lower frequency of headaches, less muscle tension and more energy.
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, one of the biggest contributors to dehydration is immobility. When you are sitting most of the day away, water delivery to the cells is slowed which in turn decreases the flow of waste particles out of those cells – dehydrating the system and increasing the feeling of fatigue.
This is often further exacerbated by attempting to get that ‘second wind’ by replacing a glass of water with a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to further dehydrate you.
But it’s not just that you feel tired. Because your brain functions via electrical impulses between synapses, the brain requires water to serve as the conduit. When you are dehydrated the connection between these synapses slows down impacting on your ability to concentrate and think in a nimble way.
Simply adding in more water throughout the day will have a huge impact on energy, focus and attention.
If your initial reaction is, “I don’t have time to exercise three times a day!” rest assured, I am not suggesting that. In the context of a P.O.W.E.R. break, think of exercise as simply standing up and extending your limbs.
However, if you want to amplify the impact of your breaks, add in some actual exercise that will increase your heart rate such as brisk walk. There is a reason people often say “I’m going for a walk to clear my head.” It is because the brain is optimized when we move our bodies. Focus on adding additional movement to your day, especially if you attend a lot of virtual meetings (because you don’t even need to walk to those ones!).
Now that you’ve taken some breaths, sipped some water, disengaged from your work and moved your body, now it’s time to get back to work. Before diving back in, use that now rested PFC to re-evaluate your approach, where you are putting your time, and how you are using your energy.
This can be done by asking some simple questions such as, is this a priority? Would a phone call be a better option? Who should I engage in this decision or communicate my decision to?
Who hasn’t finished a day and thought to themselves, where did the day go? What did I accomplish today?
When busy, most people become reactive. They end up prioritizing answer emails and focusing on low value, easy-to-complete tasks. This is inevitably at the cost of high-impact work. A rested brain will question your choices, a tired brain will not.
The P.O.W.E.R. break strategy is simple, executing on it may not be easy. Your day will fill up and it will feel like you don’t have time. Remember, these are exactly the times you need a break the most.
Leadership is hard.
As someone who studies, writes, coaches and speaks about how to develop exceptional leaders, I have seen how a crisis can distinguish the best leaders from the rest.
Never are strong leaders needed more than amid crisis. This is also when it is hardest to be an exceptional leader.
In crisis is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ when it comes to leadership. This is when a leaders proclaimed values are tested. It is much easier to be a good leader when everything is going well. But that’s not when we need leadership. Leadership is tested in the tough times – when the tide goes out.
Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. ~Warren Buffet
Earlier this week, I had a coaching client who was distraught about a decision that needed to be made about letting people go.
I have heard some of the most beautiful and compassionate stories of how companies have executed this hard decision. Unfortunately, I have also heard other examples that I’ve had a hard time understanding.
Today, I would like to say thank you to all of the leaders who’ve lost sleep trying to figure out how to save businesses and jobs;
Who are sacrificing just as much as they are asking their people to sacrifice;
Who showed up and engaged human to human, even though most were forced to communicate these difficult messages through screens;
Who made sure their people understood the contribution they had made to the company’s success;
Who pushed for their people to be able to say goodbye to colleagues and clients because the decision was due to circumstance not performance;
Ultimately, those who put people over process and did it with care, kindness, and compassion.
In crisis, the majority will over-focus on what needs to be done and under-focus on how they will do it.
It is these leaders, who focus on how to demonstrate their values, who take ownership of their impact, who will make the hard decisions but communicate them in a way where people feel seen, heard and valued; these are the leaders whose positive legacy will stay with us long after the crisis is behind us.
Following our call, my client realized he had been fighting the wrong battle – the decision that had to be made.
Accepting it was leadership of the business.
But his leadership was on full display when he started fighting for how he was going to communicate it – that is the leadership of people…even after the tide goes out!
my computer, you’ll find a folder called “File of Funnies.”
is what the actual file is called. As you might expect, this is where I keep
videos, pictures, memes, stories, and basically anything that I find funny.
Some are just for me and others I share.
you have ever been in one of my audiences, you know that I love to use a funny
video, first to make people smile but also because I believe that when we
laugh, we let the learning in.
turns out the science would back this up. Laughter raises our overall
Increasing perspective and creativity.
Decreasing stress hormones such as cortisol.
Triggering the release of endorphins, our body’s natural feel-good chemicals.
In fact, my research on exceptional leaders and what differentiates the people that experience higher levels of Leadership Vitality versus Leadership Fatigue, (appropriate) humor and laughter are consistent contributors.
This makes sense as laughter inspires hope, it strengthens relationships, it is grounding in the midst of chaos, and it can lessen our burdens, even if only for a short time.
I’ve seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful. ~Bob Hope
I have been filling up my “File of Funnies” lately, not just because there is a lot of funny things being shared, but because with the accumulating impact of social isolating, I need to go into the file a little more often.
Every time I scroll through, I am reminded never to underestimate the power of humor.
could make you laugh today?
How to handle COVID-19 working from home.
With all of the uncertainty everyone is facing, there are three guarantees that you should expect :
1. Everything will take longer. Conferencing everyone in, trying to call into a customer service center, or waiting in line at the grocery store, expect everything to take longer.
2. Emotions will be running high. Everyone is facing uncertainty, but each person’s circumstances are different. It serves us to remember that as empathy is often the first causality in stressful situations. Even if you can’t see emotions, they are there and will influence people’s effectiveness and productivity, hence point number one.
3. Your colleagues, employees, and direct reports are TRUSTWORTHY. Please don’t make people earn your trust – start by giving it. Even if you can’t see them at their desk, even if they don’t respond immediately to your email, assume that points one and two are contributing to any delays, not that they are slacking off, untrustworthy, and lacking commitment.
It’s natural when dealing with sudden change and uncertainty for our brain to look for shortcuts via assumptions and expectations.
Shift these positively to strengthen relationships and help people be at their best.
We owe that to one another.
How to stop to them from filling your day and draining your energy
I once read a story of a college professor who
became stranded in the desert after Google Maps directed him to turn left –
onto a non-existent road. He obediently followed and ended up stuck; for 11
days. This was a professor! I’m guessing that those reading this are thinking,
You’d never do that, right?
Maybe not with Google Maps, but what about meetings?
Have you ever blindly accepted a meeting invite?
At the start of a workshop a couple of years ago, I
opened by asking what had brought the attendees there that morning. One woman
joked “my calendar!”, which was followed by knowing laughs from her colleagues.
Following a hunch, I asked how many other people had automatically accepted the
meeting invite to be there that morning. Hesitantly, nearly half of the people
put up their hands.
Much like the professor who blindly followed the
Google Maps directions, these intelligent, busy, senior leaders automatically
accepted a two-hour meeting invitation simply because it was in their inbox. This
example isn’t an isolated incident.
Excessive meetings are consistently named as one of
the most prominent organizational vitality drainers. Studies suggest as high
as 73% of
people say that they attend too many meetings too often.
In our research at BrainAMPED, we have found that
there are two primary reasons people automatically accept meetings.
First, because they feel that they
don’t have a choice, believing the meetings are mandatory.Supported
by research that suggests that the busier people become, the less choice they feel they have,
even if they have the authority to say no.
Or secondly, they feel they don’t
have the time to make a different choice at
the moment, so they default to automatically accepting the meeting. Put another
way, people believe that it would take too much time and effort to decline or
negotiate their attendance, so they make the most straightforward choice available at that moment,
which means simply saying yes.
Though understandable, each of these tendencies will
leave you spinning in a self-created, negatively reinforcing meeting vortex.
More meetings leave you with less time. Less time leaves you feeling like you
have less choice. Less choice and less time will drive you to automatically
accept more meetings – spin and spin.
So how do you ensure you don’t
get stranded in the meeting desert even when your calendar is trying to divert
you that way? Here are two strategies to break out of the meeting
When you feel like you don’t have a choice, turn on your high beams.
Typically, your car’s automatic daytime running
lights are designed to show the objects on the road in front of you. When you
turn on your high beams, it illuminates the objects around you.
Depending on your company culture or role, there are
undeniably specific meetings that you are expected to attend. That is the road
in front of you.
However, what possibilities on the periphery do you
have some discretion to make decisions around? If declining a meeting isn’t an
option, then take control of how you manage your energy, actions, and time
around those meetings.
Perhaps, you go in and block the hour following a
group of back-to-back meetings. This predetermined time block ensures you can
address follow-ups while things are fresh in your mind. Or maybe you pre-plan
some portable snacks to take to meetings to keep your energy up.
I like to put my favorite kickboxing class on my
calendar at the end of a day filled with meetings. This commitment forces me to
leave my work and helps me clear my mind. I am always more efficient the
following day or if need be, later that evening, if something urgently needs to
Push back on the feelings of
meeting overwhelm by turning on your high beams to see where you can take
deliberate control of your choices around future meetings.
When you feel like it’s easier just to accept, create a fork in the road.
This strategy is meant to force you to slow down,
analyze the terrain ahead, and make a thoughtful choice before automatically
accepting a meeting invite.
The decision fork is derived by asking yourself a
series of questions before accepting the meeting. Examples of the ones we use
at BrainAMPED when helping our clients deal with meeting depletion include:
- Are you clear on the purpose and what is expected of you in this meeting?
- Do you have the physical time and energy to be fully present and effectively contribute?
- How will attending this meeting impact on your productivity and critical priorities?
The goal of the
first question is to help you take personal accountability in collecting
Too often, people complain about meetings without
taking action to change them. If you don’t have these necessary details,
graciously ask for them before accepting it.
Remember, the meeting organizer has included you;
assume they see you as a valued attendee. In your request for details,
acknowledge that and let them know that your questions are to ensure you can
contribute best to the success of their meeting.
The goal of the
second question is to push you to be proactive with your time and energy
Take a step back and look at where this meeting
falls within your calendar. Consider both that day of the meeting and perhaps
that entire week. How many meetings do you have?
For example, maybe you need to let a meeting
organizer know that you are in back-to-back meetings in different locations, so
you will be late or may need to leave early. This clarification can help them
proactively adjust the agenda so that you can still contribute or be present
for decisions critical to your work.
I often choose a different location to take a
conference call to decrease distractions. Challenging yourself with these
considerations motivates you to manage your time and energy.
The goal of the
third question is to help you to think about goals and workflow more
When you feel overwhelmed and time-deprived, your
brain disconnects from strategy and future consequences. Instead, it defaults
to over-focusing on the most immediate, and often low-value tasks that are
directly in front of them (hence the meeting vortex). This question forces
your brain to consider a broader range of essential decision-making variables
by refocusing on the bigger picture, differentiating the important goals from
the immediate requests, and helping you to prioritize your energy and
If the answers to these questions suggest that your
attendance isn’t ideal from a business perspective, now you have a thoughtful
conversation template to have with the appropriate people.
And if it turns out you still need to attend, go
back to strategy number one and turn on your high beams.
Reframe the first part of the question to “What can
I do to ensure”…I am clear, I have the time, and it has the best
impact possible on my productivity and priorities. You will be surprised how
creative you can be when you make intentional decisions.
Whether Google Maps or meeting invites, you always
have some choice, so double-check before proceeding. It will surely help ensure
you don’t end up stuck somewhere you shouldn’t be!
Ross is a leadership expert, speaker and the Chief Vitality Officer at BrainAMPED,
a leadership strategy firm she founded to redefine how people succeed at work
and thrive in life. Through their research, workshops, coaching and keynotes,
Sara and her company help organizations build their Leadership Vitality
Quotient to create high capacity performers by strengthening their skills of energy
management, emotional intelligence, and resilience.
You can find out more
about Sara Ross and her work at www.brainamped.com or www.sarajross.com.