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Putting Your Own Oxygen Mask On First

In a recent survey, I asked my readers what types of things they want to learn right now and what topics they never get tired of. Not surprising, stories from leaders rose to the top of the list. On the other end of the spectrum, most of the survey participants said that they are (understandably) tired of hearing about COVID-19 and welcome other topics with open arms.

It’s an interesting dichotomy considering that some of the most powerful leadership stories are being written right now. History books will soon contain big addendums and new leadership case studies will be inserted into business school curriculum. These won’t just be about the industry and financial implications about the pandemic but will include profiles about the humility and compassion with which the best leaders treated their people.

I realize I’ve already annoyed some of you because I’m writing about COVID-19 when you told me not to but that’s okay – this is a leadership story about but what I learned about taking care of myself during a crisis twelve years ago and how that's adapted to today.

Back in 2008, I had to lay off A LOT of people when Starbucks’ stock was an all-time low of $8. The company’s future was questionable and a reduction in force was one of many drastic measures to cut costs. I was the Director of U.S. Training and the last thing I wanted to do as a leader was dictate the fate of good people that had been doing good work. I felt horrible but not as bad as the recipients of the bad news.

This situation put additional pressure on me personally because the layoff notification date was set right in the middle of a long planned trip to Disneyland to celebrate my son’s fifth birthday with my cousin and her daughter who was also turning five. I was so torn about what to do – do I stay home and deliver the layoff conversations in person or go on my trip and leave the dirty work to someone else? I ended up going on the trip and conducted the layoff conversations from the back seat of our rented minivan, nursing a cup of weak motel coffee while my family was snug in their beds. It was a tough call and not an ideal situation but one I thought was the right balance for my family and my responsibility to my team.

The situation got worse when, two weeks after I returned from our trip, I got a call that my cousin I had gone to Disneyland with died of heart failure at age 36. I was shocked and devastated. It was one of the suckiest years of my life and of course, the grief has never completely faded but I was so glad I went on that trip – it truly was meant to be.

It's in thanks to the most challenging life and work circumstances that I've learned I need to take care of myself and look out for my own needs, otherwise I won’t have the capacity and energy to help others when they need me most.

Putting my own oxygen mask on first has never been more important than right now. With topsy turvy work schedules and weeks that are all blending into one another, it's sometimes hard to keep it all straight. It feels like there are even more demands on my time and everyone seems to need extra emotional support at work and at home.

That said, not investing in our own health and wellbeing as leaders at work and home is really not an option – we have to for our survival.

I’ve learned some new ways of looking at self-care these last six weeks that I thought I would share with all of you. These principles have helped me stay strong (most of the time) and sane (as much as I can although my family might have a different point of view).

  • Create some semblance of a routine which includes time for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time and it doesn’t always have to be the same thing. For me, it’s getting in at least an hour of exercise that can be done throughout the day. Some friends and I have a “100s” challenge (100 push-ups, sit ups and squats each day) and I break these up in sets of 25 when my mind is telling me I’m getting fatigued.

  • Broaden your definition of self-care to a multitude of activities that can be restorative. Journaling, art, gardening, snuggling with a pet, a five-minute mindfulness break in the day are all options. A few weeks ago, I had been on back-to-back Zoom calls and was getting fatigued and cranky. I took a ten-minute break to walk through my garden and take photos of everything in bloom. It was amazing what a few minutes outside and in nature did for my soul.

  • Be flexible. As much as having some sort of a routine is helpful, being flexible alleviates the pressure that sometimes comes with needing to get it all done. Earlier this week, I noted that a member of my household was having a rough day. I decided to cancel a meeting to go on a walk with them and it totally rebalanced the whole household afterward. I made up the missed work over the weekend without a big disruption.

  • Lean on others for support. Having an outlet of colleagues, friends or professional support is an awesome way to release some of the emotion but also get some perspective and advice on moving forward. I belong to a Mastermind group of fellow entrepreneurs and we’ve added a weekly optional check-in in addition to our usual monthly meeting. It’s been a great resource for me, sometimes a place to unload but always where I can and take as much advice as I need or want.

  • Opt outside. Yeah, I stole that phrase from REI but it’s so true. Most mornings, I’ve started taking my coffee out on my deck before I even look at my email. I wipe the dew off the Adirondack chair, wrap myself in a blanket and listen to the birds waking with the day. I’m also walking more than ever, choosing new routes in my neighborhood and city and seeing new things as a result.

There’s no time like the present to double down on taking care of ourselves. I know it’s hard to fit it all in but there are twenty-four hours in a day and even ten minutes of self-care is better than none. And it’s critical for our health and for the health of those around us.

Be well my friends.


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