Put Your Own Mask on First

Posted 11.14.2011

If you’ve flown on a commercial airliner, you’ve heard the flight attendants say something along the lines of, “In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, yellow oxygen masks will deploy.  Put the strap of the mask over your head and breathe normally.  If you’re travelling with passengers who need assistance, put your own mask on first before assisting other passengers.”

That line came up last week in one of our Next Level Leadership™ group coaching programs.  The lunchtime guest speaker was a fantastic executive who shared a lot of personal wisdom and stories about what it takes to make it as a leader over the long run.  She told us that her older brother is a pilot for United Airlines and that, when the demands of life get her feeling a little frantic, he always says, “Remember, put your own mask on first.”

Her point, of course, is that you have to take care of yourself to effectively take care of others.  It’s what I call in The Next Level, picking up regular renewal of your energy and perspective and letting go of running flat out until you crash. In the world beyond the cabins of airliners, the issue isn’t so much a loss of pressure but, rather, the accumulation of pressure.

What does putting on your own mask look like in the rest of the world?  Here are three ideas to get the conversation started.  What taking care of yourself tactics would you add to the list?

1. Schedule your self-care time first:  If you stop and think about it, you probably have a few routines that are critical to your ability to take care of yourself.  It could be exercise, quiet time, reading or something else.  When you’re planning your calendar, schedule those times first.  For me, it’s yoga.  I’ve learned in the last year that it’s my killer app of self-care as it provides physical, mental, relational and spiritual benefits.  Yoga classes are the first things that go onto my calendar.  It has to be something really important for me to skip.  Otherwise, I’m showing up on the mat at the appointed time.  The return on time invested is worth it in maintaining my ability to serve others at work and at home.

2. Get your sleep:  The idea that real leaders are Type A warriors who get by on four hours of sleep a night is a myth. Most of us can’t do that on a sustained basis without a serious degradation of performance.  The research (as summarized in the New York Times) proves it.  When I had the opportunity to go on patrol with the crew of the US Coast Guard Venturous earlier this year, I was impressed that the Captain was disciplined about when he went to bed.  He told me that he never knew when he’d have to get up in the middle of the night to deal with something unexpected so he made sure he got to bed most nights at a reasonable hour.  When emergencies come up, you want to be operating at your best.

3. Eat right and regularly.  There’s an old law of computer programming – garbage in, garbage out.  The same rule applies to our bodies.  Grabbing a fast food meal and a cup of coffee or a soda when you can squeeze it in is not a great strategy for long-term health or success.  For a straightforward approach to the healthy alternative, follow the advice of Michael Pollan and make fruits, vegetables and lean protein the staples of your diet.  If you’re looking for simple and tasty recipes for healthy meals, check out my wife, Diane’s, blog at thewholegang.org.  She has more than 500 of them there.

OK, those are three tips and some resource links to get the conversation started.  What’s your best advice for “putting your own mask on first”?