I'm a big fan on analogies, metaphors and living examples of abstract ideas. The right analogy can help me connect with a coachee to better understand what they are going through.
But as we all know, some lessons are painful, and this one was no exception. It was however, one I will not forget, and is such a clear example of the value of energy management and knowing when to stop, that I want to share it here.
A few months ago I took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It was something that had interested me for a while, and when it was pointed out to me that I had no hobbies (Netflix doesn’t count apparently), I decided to give it a try.
I was 6 weeks into my Jiu Jitsu journey, and loving it. Of course, I am still a novice, and so have no real skills, but I’m getting there. I know a couple of moves (ish) and when sparring against similar level white-belts I was beginning to win once in a while.
This success went to my head a little. One day I went up against a few more experienced players. Unsurprisingly things didn’t go my way. When the techniques I knew didn’t work I did what every novice tries to do — abandon the theory and just try to “out muscle” the opposition.
When pinned down, I thrashed and flailed.
When defeated, I dragged myself to my feet before my opponent heroically, thinking
“I’ll show them I’m less tired, I’ll just keep pushing. I’ll outwork them”.
As it turned out I was more tired, and I didn’t outwork them.
Not only did I lose, (a lot), but by the end of the session I was hypoglycaemic and close to vomiting. Hardly able to stand, I had to wait a full hour before I felt able to drive home.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Working myself to exhaustion was pure ego. I wasn’t getting the desired result so my reaction was to put in more activity. And what did that extra activity bring me? Failure.
But here’s where comes the point to the story.
I know better.
This has happened before.
Like a lot of people, I used to push myself to exhaustion regularly at the gym. Why? To get fitter and stronger. To be tougher. This of course is not just hubris, but ineffective. It took a GP telling me that all that extra effort was getting me nowhere before it clicked for me.
Not only is this an unhealthy way to exercise — it is unsustainable. Any gains made will be lost when the time inevitably comes that you just can’t face another session, and give up (or are forced to by illness or injury).
So why push myself so hard again?
Parallels to over-training can be drawn to the world of work. We push ourselves to the maximum day in, day out, wasting energy and burning ourselves out. We pay lip service to planning out a more intelligent, sustainable approach but when our backs are agains the wall and deadlines loom, we lose our heads and just make a mad dash for it.
“There’s no time for planning,” we think, “let’s just get on with it”.
But what would happen if we took a more strategic, longer term approach, and applied our energy more efficiently? After all, as Abraham Lincoln said:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Admittedly the above quote is more about preparation before an event. But I think there is much to be said for taking strategic “axe-sharpening” breaks during the project as well; for managing our energy levels.
There are of course times when we have to just sprint for the finish line. But most of the time we don’t, we just think we have to. Part of ourselves even wants to.
My Jiu Jitsu instructor recently told me that the hardest thing to teach beginners is not aggression, but the opposite — restraint. Every newcomer thinks they can succeed by sheer force of will and bursts of energy.
Sooner or later though, they learn that success in Jiu Jitsu, like everything else played to a high level, has much more to do with good technique than strength, and that skill, strategy, self-awareness and efficient energy management will triumph every time.
Why do we do this? In an earlier article I talked about why working smarter, not harder, was easier said than done. Ego is a a big reason why.
Most of us know what the best or optimum approach to work and productivity is. Most us know the ‘right’ way. But when we’re in the heat of battle, when we’re already tired, our rational brain gives way to our emotions, to our ego, and we regress back to trying to prove to the world how superhuman (we think) we are; that we can do it all, and most of all that we are not weak.
This of course creates a vicious cycle, in which the more tired we are, the more we push on, the more tired we are, the more we push on…
Prevention is better than cure
So what can we do about this? How can we keep our more egotistical sides at bay in the hopes of avoiding burnout, and better managing our energy levels?
For me, half the battle is prevention, rather than cure. The answer lies in developing our self-awareness to be able to recognise the physical, mental and emotional cues that our bodies send us when we need to take a break (or ‘tactically disengage’ for those of you who don’t have time to bleed).
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to achieve this. The bad news? There are no quick ways to achieve this.
So what now?
These three ways are personal recommendations of mine for anyone who wants to break the cycle. They are only suggestions. My work as a Mindset Coach has taught me that there is no panacea that helps everyone in the same way. Each suggestion has its own benefits and limitations, but all go a long way to helping you know yourself, and your limits, much better.
Meditation — Admittedly this one comes with some negative connotations of sitting crosslegged in a Himalayan temple, but I have found huge benefits from just 10 minutes most days. Personally, I use Headspace, but I know that there are other ones out there.
Coaching — A great way to get some perspective and spot where you are going wrong is with the help of a well-trained coach. If they know their stuff, they will provide the right conditions for some deep introspection, and help you develop more beneficial strategies to manage your personal responses to the daily demands on your time and energy, and help you train your mindset to a much more self-aware level.
Counselling — Sometimes we all need a bit of extra help, and whilst huge progress has been made, there is still way too much stigma around seeking the help of a counsellor or psychotherapist. Coaching is good for some things, but it cannot (and should not) diagnose. Counselling takes a much deeper dive into why we do the things we do and can really help us to get back to our best selves.
I hope these help.