What to Do When You’re Feeling Exhausted

Posted 12.08.2020

Last week I got a question from one of my all-time favorite executive coaching clients. At the beginning of the call, the first thing he said was, “I’ve got to ask you a question. Is everyone you’re talking to feeling exhausted?” I didn’t need to think about that one at all. My answer was an immediate, “Yes, absolutely. Everyone I talk to, me included, is flat out exhausted. You’re not alone.”

He’s not alone; I’m not alone and neither are you. This has been the mother of all exhausting years. Even for those of us who have been fortunate enough to stay healthy and employed during the pandemic, 2020 has taken a huge toll on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual reserves of almost everyone I know – family, friends and clients.

So, that raises a practical question – what do you do when you feel exhausted? I’m not asking for a friend; I’m asking for myself. Last week, because of an innumerable range of business demands all coming down at once, was the most exhausting week of the year for me. You’d think that since I wrote a book on how to get past being overworked and overwhelmed, I’d know what to do to get myself back on a healthier track. But, news flash, I’m human just like everyone else. Sometimes we get so exhausted that we can’t find the bandwidth to make the simple choices that will help us feel better and be better.

Fortunately, I’m married to the best person I’ve ever met at coaching herself out of a funk. My wife, Diane, is highly, highly skilled at assessing her own problems and then taking simple, practical steps to bring herself back to being at her best. Two weeks ago, she recognized that she too was exhausted. And then, as she almost always does, she recognized what was going on and took some quiet time to make a list of the steps she needed to take to bring herself back. Last week when I was close to crashing, she was at her best.

Last night, as we sat by the fire pit, I asked her to go over with me what she’d done. She reminded me that she had already done that twice but I was so stressed that I hadn’t processed what she’d said. She agreed to tell me again if I took notes this time. So, I did and, with Diane’s permission and encouragement, I want to share them with you.

(By the way, the publication date of this post, December 8, is Diane’s birthday. I’d love it if you’d send your wishes to her on LinkedIn. Thanks, and don’t tell her – it’s a surprise!)

Admit to Yourself That You’re Exhausted – This is the key starting point. Instead of putting your head down and grinding on even though you’re exhausted, cry uncle and acknowledge that you can’t keep doing things this way. It’s not a long-term strategy for success. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of that. You’re not creative. You’re not doing your best work. You start overlooking critical things. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else by grinding it out all the time. When you’re feeling exhausted, you need to step back and assess. For Diane, that came through her daily practice of journaling each morning. That’s when and where she does her self-observation of what’s working in her life, what’s not and what adjustments she needs to make. I’d say that this is the secret super power that fuels her effectiveness. The cool thing is that it’s a super power that almost all of us could adopt if we chose to.

Get Things Off Your List – After she realized she needed to make some changes, the first thing Diane did was go through her to-do list and calendar for items and events that could be postponed, dropped or cancelled. One example was an idea we had for a virtual Zoom party of past and current clients and colleagues to help us celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Eblin Group and to thank them for being a part of our history. That was definitely a nice to do but not a have to do. After I wrote a heartfelt blog post early last week that said a lot of what we would have said at the party, Diane concluded that trying to pull off the party was just more than we have capacity for this month and we needed to drop the idea. So, we have. We still love and appreciate our clients and friends (we do and you know who you are!) but Diane rightly concluded we’d be much more ready to serve them if we didn’t have the stress of bringing them together for a party. What’s on your list right now that’s a nice to do but not a have to do? If you’re exhausted, give some strong consideration to dropping at least some of them.

Change Up Your Input – Diane recognized a long time ago that to change what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, you need to feed your brain with different input. Changing up the input changes up the thinking. Changing up the thinking changes up the action cycles that left unchecked lead to exhaustion. Instead of constantly obsessing over all of the personal and professional stuff that remains on her to-do list, Diane has been intentional about giving her brain fresh input. For instance, when I came downstairs from my office a little while ago, I heard a familiar voice and heard her laughing. It wasn’t a conversation; she was listening to a funny story in the latest chapter of the Audible edition of Barack Obama’s new memoir A Promised Land. The 44th POTUS has been her companion recently on long walks and when she’s doing odd jobs around the house. It’s hard to think about what’s stressing you out when you’re immersed in a good story.

Do Things That Are Fun and Bring You Joy – In her self-analysis, Diane realized she wasn’t taking time for things that are fun and bring her joy. Once she recognized that, she immediately started doing some of them. For her last week, that was wrapping Christmas gifts, connecting with friends and sending a Christmas cookie decorating kit to our oldest son and his girlfriend. (They sent pictures of their cookies. They’re awesome.) What’s been fun and joy inducing for me this year that I’m getting back to this week is also connecting with friends and family and continuing to learn how to play my Stratocaster.  What will it be for you?

Pick Something You Can Finish Quickly and Easily – One of the reasons this year has been so exhausting is it feels like it never ends. One way to counteract that is to pick simple and entertaining things that you can finish quickly and easily. This, of course, is why Netflix was invented. For us, consuming the latest season of The Crown in about a week and a half served the purpose of finishing something quickly and easily. We’re all doing important work, but it if it’s always about work, the work is eventually going to suffer. Choose something like a TV series season, a good book or a hobby-type project that you can finish in relatively short order. It will absorb you enough to give your brain a break without adding the stress of “When am I going to find time to finish this?”

Eat, Move, Sleep – When you’re exhausted you tend to short change your best practice routines related to eating, moving and sleeping. Diane recognized this in herself about a week before I did with myself. Her water intake was down and her wine intake was up. She was going to bed later. She was cutting corners on her 10,000 steps a day goal. Check, check and check on all of those for me as well last week. Once she got clarity and a handle on what was going on with her exhaustion, she started making the changes I outlined above. The stress reduction that resulted from doing those things made it a lot easier for her to get back on plan with her eating, moving and sleeping. She would point out that you don’t have to make every change at once and you don’t have to be perfect. For some ideas on how to set your trend in the right direction, check out my post from a few months ago on simple physical routines for successful stress management.

For your use and future reference, here’s a handy dandy summary of Diane’s checklist for what to do when you’re exhausted. Just clip, save and break glass in case of emergency!

Action Step Checklist for When
You’re Feeling Exhausted

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.