There’s a word that comes up often in my work with clients and that is tired. We are all feeling tired right now. A mistaken assumption about grit is that you must plow through exhaustion, ignore it, or push it to the side. But if you are feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, burnout might be around the corner. This means that what you really need to do is to take a break.
Professionally, it’s unlikely that anyone is ever going to tell you to slow down or stop. People tend to be rewarded for doing a good job by being asked to do even more work and take on even more responsibility. Why? Because you’ve proven you can handle it. And, as a society, we hold up “busyness” like a trophy.
But how do you—or your employer or colleagues—know when a healthy challenge crosses the threshold to being overloaded? How do you know when you are headed for burnout?
Workplace stress and burnout are becoming all too common. The American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-Being survey revealed that 79% of US adult employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Furthermore, the effects of work-related stress (like cognitive weariness, emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue) have increased over the last several years.
Don’t “grit” yourself into a place you didn’t intend to go. Instead, incorporate rest into your growth system.
In her book, Grit, Dr. Angela Duckworth reminds us how much we love the idea of a “natural,” someone who appears to reach high levels of achievement effortlessly. In reality, achieving excellence and becoming a high performer come from repeating mundane tasks or actions until you master them. This notion of repetition as the route to perfection is the focus of Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book Outliers, in which he states that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert.
Many of us are enthusiastic and passionate when it comes to our work and our desire to do it better, but Dr. Duckworth warns us that constantly striving for ultimate performance can also exhaust us. How do we endure? We rest.
This might be a counterintuitive concept for many of us who often rush toward something. But what if we took our time, took baby steps instead of leaps? What if we fully lived each phase of growth instead of rushing to cross the next task off the to-do list, reach the next phase, or secure the next title?
Try these steps:
- Build in accountability. Check in regularly to make sure you’re heading in the right direction.
- Build in reflection. Ensure there are appropriately spaced rest stops to reflect.
- Build in adjustment. Take opportunities to adjust or redefine success if you’ve experienced circumstances you weren’t anticipating.
- Build in rest. Understand that periodic rest is a critical element of success.
“Build in rest.” Have you ever felt so tired that you couldn’t even get yourself to bed?
Research shows that humans can spend at most 3-4 hours per day on work that requires creativity or other forms of intense focus. On top of this, we need a break of 15 minutes or more after 90 minutes of this type of work.
If you’re like me, sometimes you willfully ignore this human truth and push on. And it becomes a cycle of rapidly diminishing returns. An hour of intended productivity turns into a three-hour slog of low-quality work and growing frustration. What might seem like grit or discipline in pushing through tiredness is actually the opposite: a squandered opportunity for rest to fuel new effort.
What if you were to reframe the concept of “discipline” to mean that you create and stick to a growth system in which rest is a critical element? And what if your organization practiced a similar discipline, building in time to experiment and reflect for important projects?
Here’s another question: Think back on your best ideas, the ones you’re most excited about. What were you doing when you had these ideas?
I’m going to bet you were not seated at your desk in front of your computer typing them out on deadline. I bet you were doing something indirectly related—or maybe even completely unrelated—to your idea.
When I was in college, I was usually doing something like brushing my teeth when I got my best ideas for papers and projects. Today, when I’m seeking a new idea, I’ll ride my bike on gravel roads, occupying my physical self while allowing my mind to roam. New ideas and perspectives need time to wander the inner corridors of the brain and find new connections and meaning before surfacing.
In fact, brain researchers will tell you that we need a balance of two types of concentration and interpretation, a balance of conscious and unconscious interpretation of all that we take in. While, by definition, we don’t control our subconscious, we can establish discipline through which we create time and space for the subconscious to do its work.
Groups or organizations are similar: they need processing time to allow the strongest ideas to surface. When I start working with a new organization to tackle a challenge, I make sure I know how much time the group is willing to take for the process. Not time-on-task, elapsed time. Insight, learning, and change simply cannot happen completely on demand. New input requires focused and unfocused attention and processing. The most effective organizations create time and space for both.
This is an element of the strategic part of “strategic grit.” It’s understanding the process needed for achieving the goals and behaving with discipline to follow that process. As Holly says, effective organizations and groups don’t “grit” themselves forward at all costs. Doing this often leads to more of the same old thing, rather than movement toward a new desired future. Instead, organizations that build time for rest and reflection into their project cycles are much more likely to succeed in building the new desired future.
Putting it together: This month, challenge yourself to opt out of the Busy Olympics. Turn your focus away from the to-do list and toward the time and space in between action items: pay attention to the moments of rest. Challenge yourself to sustain those moments, experience them fully. We’re going to bet this makes you feel a lot better—and that your to-do list is A-OK, too. Let us know if our bet is well placed!
About Holly: Holly works with individuals and teams to help them forge and refine purposeful leadership and authentic collaboration as they navigate planned routes and unexpected detours. She is a certified Human Resources Professional and Mental Toughness Trainer. Learn more at https://hollyadamsconsulting.com/.
About Jennifer: Jennifer helps businesses, nonprofits, community coalitions, and governmental entities with strategic evolution: tackling complex problems, determining strategic direction, and developing a discipline of action to create a new future. She is a Fellow of the Strategic Doing Institute. Learn more at https://bluebirdskysolutions.com/.
About Strategic Grit™: Strategic Grit was born of the lessons (sometimes painful, sometimes joyful) we learned thanks to pandemic times. We learned some of these lessons on our own through research, study, and personal experience; others we learned through our work with clients. But the theme that stands out is this: Those best equipped to ride out tumultuous times are agile, persistent, and forward-thinking. These are people and organizations with Strategic Grit, a resilience that is not random but planned, effective, and durable.