Too overwhelmed for self care? Make it easier with these two skills.

If you ask, most leaders know what they need to do to improve their well-being. They’ll tell you they need more sleep or to reduce their stress or eat healthier or get more exercise. But many struggle to do those things consistently. In this fourth article in my series on The Leadership Long Game, I explore the knowing-doing gap and how we can bridge it.

Why is knowing not enough? Typically, leaders tell me they don’t have enough time to take care of themselves. Sometimes, they say they just aren’t wired that way – “I’m not a morning person” or “I’m not good at sticking to routines.” They beat themselves up for not having discipline or willpower.

The great news, and I can attest to this in my own life, is bridging the knowing-doing gap isn’t about time, discipline, or willpower; it’s about knowing how to work with your own very human nature instead of against it. In my practice, I’ve found two invaluable skill sets we can all learn that get us from knowing to doing.

Skill Set #1: Choice Proficiency: The Practice of Essentialism 

Choice proficiency comes from practicing discernment and making conscious trade-offs so you are doing more of what matters most and less of what is not essential. This skill set enables you to make room for the things that will enhance your well-being and serve your long game.

Get clear about what is essential

The book I most recommend to my clients, particularly those who struggle with overwhelm or poor work-life balance, is Greg McKeown’s, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. According to McKeown, essentialism is being clear about what is essential, eliminating what is not, and building a system that makes execution as effortless as possible.

Long-game leaders tend to be essentialists at heart. They understand that their time and energy are precious resources that need to be protected. They consider how their choices will serve the impact they most want to have.

Accept that you can’t do it all

Discerning the essential few from the trivial many is a critical skill for improving and protecting your well-being. Choices have consequences and require trade-offs. When you accept that you can’t do it all, you begin to make strategic trade-offs that serve your highest agenda.

Long-game leaders tend to take more time in the discernment process. They ask different questions. When presented with an opportunity or request, most people will ask themselves, “Can I do this?” or “Do I have time to do this?” The better questions are “What do I have to give up to make time for this and is it worth it?” By definition, being discerning means pursuing less.

Say no in a way that is clear and engenders respect

To build your Leadership Long Game, you need to say no more often than you say yes. This is where leaders tend to struggle most and why so many are over-taxed. Whether it is fear of jeopardizing an important relationship, guilt about not pitching in, or simply not wanting to miss out, many leaders do not say no when they need to. Saying no in a way that is clear and engenders respect takes practice. First, you need to believe you have the right and responsibility to say no because you are serving a higher yes. For a more in-depth look at the art and skill of saying no, read my post 10 Ways to Say No Gracefully.

Conscious choice IS leadership. McKeown says it best, “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution toward the things that really matter.” This is essential to the Leadership Long Game.

Skill Set #2 Habit Mastery: The Practice of Continuous Improvement

Like a lot of people, I always believed that I was no good at building healthy habits. For years, I tried without success to incorporate a healthy exercise routine, meditate, write in my journal regularly. Now I do all three of those things every weekday morning without fail. I discovered two things that were game-changers for me. 1) Building good habits and breaking bad ones are skills that can be learned and 2) discipline is more a muscle than a trait. The more you train it, the easier it gets.

An easy and attractive way to build new habits

Two excellent guides for developing good habits and breaking bad ones are James Clear’s Atomic Habits and BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits.

James Clear came to his study of how we form habits through necessity when he survived a catastrophic accident and had to slowly rebuild his body and his life. Clear sums up the process of establishing a habit into four simple and memorable laws – 1) Make it Obvious, 2) Make it Attractive, 3) Make it Easy and 4) Make it Satisfying. To break a bad habit, he reverses the laws: Make it invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying. He shows his readers how to design the conditions and the environment to make incorporating new habits and routines easy and attractive.

People change best when they feel good

According to behavior scientist BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, our failure to incorporate good habits is not a character flaw, it’s a problem with our approach. He asks us to stop judging ourselves. “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”

Fogg has designed an approach that works with our natural tendencies. He explains the process of behavior change with the mnemonic B=MAP, “Behavior = Motivation, Ability and Prompt converging at the same moment”. He has created an ingenious device for adding new small habits by attaching them to existing ones.

Pair new habits with existing ones

Here’s how Fogg used this approach to develop a strength training regimen. He wrote down “After I brush my teeth, I will do two push-ups.” By pairing an existing habit (teeth brushing) with a new one (two push-ups) and adding a celebratory fist pump at the end, he put together all the components of behaviour change in a way that made the change easy. Over time two push-ups became three, then five, and before long he was doing 20 push-ups first thing every morning. I’ve used this approach successfully to start a new yoga regimen, to incorporate a daily outdoor walk, even to establish a regular writing practice.

On Fogg’s website, you can find free videos for incorporating habits specifically to support you during the pandemic including habits for working from home, staying positive in the face of challenge, strengthening friendships, and even habits for health and hygiene.

Serving your highest contribution demands you take care of your well-being

The key takeaway here is that at times like this, leaders need to pay attention to their long game. This means being clear about what your long game is or as McKeown puts it, your highest form of contribution and building habits and rituals that will sustain you over the long haul.

~ Photo by Anna Tarazevich from Pexels

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About the author:

Cathy Jacob

Cathy brings a unique skill for deep listening, an unwavering belief in her clients and a gentle sense of humour to her coaching practice. She opened a full time coaching practice in 2004 and in 2009, she co-founded Fire Inside Leadership to expand the impact of leadership development and coaching in her community and beyond.

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