A CEO shares private, “I have been racing around lately. My head is spinning a little.”
A director suddenly suffers from a mild stroke and is out of action for 6 months.
Yesterday, I saw on the newspaper, “CEO passes away suddenly, in his late 50s.”
This is a stark ending. Of course, ordinarily we don’t think such calamities will befall on us. However, many of my friends and clients in their 40s or 50s share of some form of ill health that debilitated them for a period, before they could resume their usual load at work. Many of them shared it’s actually fortunate that the health scare happened. It was a wake-up call to change their lifestyle and take care of their health.
Personally, I was admitted to ICU in my late 30s. Then my attention, energy and life was fragmenting, with the ceaseless pounding on the treadmill of work and life. I stopped travel for a year. I took 50% load and graduated regained my full health over 2 years. Now in my 40s, I ran my first marathron last year and am more productive at work. The ICU is one of the best thing that happened. Facing death teaches us how to live.
We don’t necessarily need a health scare to teach us these lessons. In my recovery, I thought hard about life, work and family. A key question I had was, “What’s the alternative to this fragmentation?” I dug into philosophies in East and West and interviewed business leaders who seem to have it together. After miles of reflection whilst jogging, it occurred to me that perhaps wholeness – our sense of completeness and balance within ourselves and the world around us, is a way to help us sustain good work in the long haul.
Here are some suggestions to busy leaders who want to do that and still enjoy their lives.
Ride the natural rhythm of work and life.
Tsun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, provides a metaphor for natural rhythm. In spring, farmers plough; in summer, they weed; in autumn, they harvest; and in winter, they store away the grain. When attended to in the right order, the grains will be replenished cyclically, and an abundant supply of food is guaranteed. This thinking tells us there is a rhythm for everything – work, rest and learn, to have continuous supply of energy.
Block out time for work, exercise, learning, personal priorities and rest, otherwise the never ending work spills over into all of our lives. What are the priorities? What is your work and what is not your work? How are you investing time to develop your people?
It’s not productive to “push” ourselves to work, when the energy is low. Rather than reach out to coffee, cigarettes or chocolates to keep going, switch. It could be a different topic or task at work. It could be managing by walking around, exercising, playing a game or learning from someone or simply going to bed. Think of productivity not as a push but a flow.
Do one thing at a time
Sometimes people ask me, “How do you manage?” They refer to me writing, conducting workshops, working with clients and taking care of three young children. My reply, “do one thing at a time.”
This sounds incredibly simple. But I see leaders checking their phones when they talk to their team. Or thinking about a work problem while with their family. Or responding to emails and sending text messages, whilst crafting their strategies. I too am guilty of “multi-tasking”. When we do that, we split our attention and energy into parts.
Try an experiment. Wake up in the morning, do some exercise, jolt down your priorities for the day or new thoughts. Refrain from checking your emails or text messages within 1 hour of waking up or at least till you have internal clarity for the day. This clarity helps us spend our time productively, rather than let our day be hijacked in different directions.
Act and reflect
We tend to associate action with work – meetings, presentations, coaching staff and responding to emails. Work seems to be about doing. Walking, exercising, driving, meditating are considered as non-work. We do that in our little spare time. But do you get new creative ideas during these “non-work” activities?
Here’s the catch – productivity is an outcome of action and reflection. More of yesterday will not create a different tomorrow. Without new thoughts on how to improve or a different strategy, at best, we maintain status quo, not innovate.
After an intense work activity, take a walk to the pantry or around the office. After a meeting, drive to your next destination without interruption. At the end of the workday, commute home without looking at your phone. Create space in your daily routine to reflect and go within. When do you make space for reflection?
Generate energy as well as consume energy
Most activities such as work and exercises consume energy. Do you engage in activities that generate energy? Of course, sleep is one key activity. Breathing is the other. Western exercises consume energy. The physical body feels tired, though one may feel the satisfaction of burning 400 calories. On the other hand, Eastern exercises, like Taiji and Qigong, generate energy.
Whilst recovering after my ICU days, all I could do was to say a few words or take a few steps, and then I had to pause and breathe. Energy is ‘qi’ in Chinese, life force. Not being able do my usual exercise, I turned to Taiji and Qigong. At first, it didn’t seem like a worthy exercise with little perspiration and no increase in heartbeat. One evening, feeling spent, I practiced Taiji for 15 minutes and felt a renewed energy to last me for the evening. I felt the ‘qi’ moving in my body and realized simply breathing intentionally creates energy.
Do you know how to breathe to generate qi? Take up a class on Taiji or Qigong.
Within these ideas, you probably notice I pair opposites. The coming together of opposites gives us wholeness. Wholeness is the alternative of fragmentation. Try these ideas and let me know how they go!
Wendy Tan is founding partner of Flame Centre, a speaker and author of “Wholeness in a Disruptive World: Pearls of Wisdom from East and West”. Wendy_Tan@flamecentre.com.