How leaders thrive when the going gets rough

The best leaders understand that they need to care for themselves, as well as the people they lead. Otherwise, they run the risk of higher levels of stress and lower levels of performance.

Ultimately, personal health and organizational effectiveness suffer when leaders don’t make time for self-care. This is especially true if an extended period of volatility and uncertainty occurs, as our experience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us.

So, what does ‘care’ mean? For leaders, and their teams?

As in my article about how leaders can help their teams thrive when the going gets rough, this article features five practical ways leaders can care for themselves. Each one contributes to the foundation you need for strong physical, emotional, and cognitive fitness.

Perhaps most notably, these practices help you invest in strengthening the health and functioning of your pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that regulates your executive functions, influencing your critical cognitive abilities for skills such as decision making, problem-solving, emotional awareness and management skills.

As these are the skills you need to lead and perform consistently at your best, shoring them up in more challenging times is essential. Here are five simple ways to do it:

Commit to the Fundamentals

There are five essential ingredients leaders need to be at their best every day:

  • healthy eating,
  • good hydration,
  • physical movement,
  • adequate sleep,
  • and restorative practices.

You will be more resilient if you have eight hours of sleep every night and include a restorative practice such as mindfulness, yoga, or your favourite creative pursuit each day.

Think of these essentials as the basic building blocks of your health, well-being, and performance.

The daily fundamentals are even more critical when you find yourself leading through turbulent times and the decisions you make may have so much more riding on them—decisions about people, operations, investments, and more.

When you need to be at your best, physically and cognitively, your daily practices should be non-negotiable.

Manage Distractions

Distractions are a reality in everyone’s day. However, many of them can be reduced or eliminated when you take the time to notice your daily habits—and make conscious choices about how you will work and interact with information, social media, and colleagues.

If distractions are weighing you down, pay attention to all the ways you are interrupted each day and begin to make conscious choices about when you will be focussed on a task and when you will be available.

During ‘available’ times, you can take calls, meet virtually or in-person with staff, or allow incoming notifications on your computer, phone, and mobile devices. During the ‘unavailable’ time, all of these can be turned off!

Monotask

Our brains are not wired to multi-task. Rather, they are master ‘switchers’, allowing us to switch back and forth between tasks.

Regardless of whether you are processing an incoming message, text, notification, or phone call—each one distracts your attention and causes your brain to ‘switch’. Then, it must switch again to return to what you were attempting to focus on.

There is a cognitive cost each time you switch your focus, as neuroscientists such as MIT’s Earl Miller have confirmed, and it can quickly add up. The more switching you do, the greater the cognitive load you place on your brain’s daily reserves. This leads to brain fog and a marked decline in your ability to make good decisions or complete tasks effectively.

The best strategy? Mono-task: focus on doing one thing at a time and devoting the first few hours of your day to your most important work, especially anything requiring executive functioning skills like problem-solving.

Give yourself 90 minutes of dedicated time, free of distractions of any kind, and see how much more focussed and effective you can be. Even better, turn off all your devices and set a timer. Try it for a week or two and see what happens.

Pause with Purpose

Your brain gets tired throughout the day, just like your body. The corresponding drop in physical and cognitive energy is even greater if you’ve not investing in the fundamentals (enough sleep, exercise, nutrition, hydration, and restoration).

When you build purposeful pauses into your routine, you can help your brain refresh throughout the day. For example, if you sit at a desk most of the day, schedule regular breaks to get up, move around and get a glass of water. Even five minutes an hour can make a difference.

Another easy option? Try this simple practice I weave into leadership effectiveness workshops; I call it ‘look out; look up’. Set aside your tasks for a few minutes and go to a window—or better yet, go outdoors. Look out and up, focussing entirely on what you notice outside the window. Pay close attention and allow the outdoor setting to occupy your thinking brain, inviting your thoughts to drift like clouds. When you return to your desk, you may be surprised how much ‘fresher’ your brain feels as you move on to your next challenge.

Get Outdoors

Time outdoors, especially if it involves green space of some kind, is emerging as a powerful practice for restoring our cognitive energy. We also know it makes a positive contribution to physical and mental health and well-being. Public health researchers from the University of Minnesota found that nature has a positive impact on our overall well-being.

With researchers now finding clear correlations between time in nature and reduced blood pressure, heart rates and overall levels of stress and anxiety, to name a few—here are a few simple ways you can add the restorative power of nature to your day:

  • If you are lucky enough to live or work near a park or green space of some kind, visit it daily.
  • A brief walk at the start and end of your day (perhaps as part of your commute or instead of it if you are working from home), or a 10-minute stroll at lunch will do it.
  • Schedule a walking meeting if the weather permits.
  • If nearby green space is not an option, bring the green space indoors, with a plant or two.
  • Or hang a beautiful nature photo or painting near you and return your gaze to it throughout the day.

There is a compelling case for making healthy, self-care practices your top priority as a leader. Your physical, emotional, and mental well-being will remain strong because of it.

Even more importantly, your cognitive skills will continue to serve you well as a leader. You can rely on the five simple, proven self-care practices described above to help you do it.

I encourage you to incorporate these self-care practices into your day for the next few weeks and notice what happens, to your well-being, and your overall effectiveness as a leader. As you do, I would love to hear which practice serves you best.

Michelle Lane

Michelle Lane is a leadership development coach, consultant, and facilitator with 40 years of diverse leadership experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Michelle can be reached at mlane@vibrantleaders.ca.

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