Protect the Asset

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I knew a guy in graduate school. Let’s call him Tom. Tom ruffled his hair every time he walked down the hallway in our department. When Tom saw a professor, he made a conscious effort to move quickly, look down and exasperatedly mumble something under his breath. He mastered the art of appearing busy and overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of being rude. Why? Because Tom was convinced that our professors would assume he was working hard. And he was right. Tom had a reputation among the faculty as a hard worker, a serious scholar. [I'm pretty sure Tom got this idea from this Seinfeld episode].

Tom was ridiculous. But he was also on to something. He was tapping into, and subsequently gaming, a ubiquitous belief that imbues busyness with virtue. He was harnessing the power of the wide-held conviction that serious and ambitious people put themselves last. That the real winners, the ones who get ahead, put work first and squeeze everything else in—be it their health, relationships, and recreation—whenever they can. In fact, as this article argues, we live in a time when people have taken to flaunting their busy schedules much like their wealth. 

Leadership guru, Michael Hyatt, calls this belief “the hustle fallacy.” He argues that many of us believe we only have two choices: either work 100+ hours and be a winner or give up on our ambitions and engage in self-care. If we prioritize our needs—be it the need for nutrition, movement, rest, or, God forbid, play and creativity—we’ll be losers at work. But this is faulty thinking. To excel, we need time to recharge.

I knew this other guy in graduate school. Let’s call him Marc. (And just for fun, let’s say I married him years later). He was incredibly disciplined. He woke up every morning at the same time. He was religious about getting 8 hours of sleep. He’d wake up, make his coffee and sit down and write for 4-5 hours. Every morning, right after he woke up. He spent the rest of the day exercising, reading, attending talks, going to meetings, and catching up with friends. Marc seemed to breeze through graduate school. He had fun and was fun to be around. There was a certain lightness to him. 

Marc also finished his dissertation in record time, got a few prestigious, highly competitive grants and scored an awesome job. Marc intuitively understood that he was his biggest asset and that running himself into the ground would be counterproductive. He knew that to succeed at his work, he needed to take care of himself—that he was at the center of everything that mattered to him.

What if you woke up every morning and took care of yourself first? What if you took the time to prepare and then mindfully eat a nutritious and delicious meal? What if you made sure you could exercise every morning, or meditate or engage in some other activity that recharged you? What if you vehemently protected your eight hours of sleep every night, no matter what? And what if you decided that having some fun every day was more important than doing the dishes, folding the laundry or staying up all night to redo that report?

Of course, this is not always possible. There are projects to deliver. Meetings to attend. Appointments to be scheduled, and so on. But what if you flipped things around? What if you came first? And then you scheduled everything else around your need for self-care? Would you be embarrassed? Would you feel guilty? Would you worry about what other people thought? 

The thing is, if we take care of ourselves--if we are selfish--we have more to give.

And the most recent research on productivity and efficiency is saying pretty much the same thing. It’s telling us to do just that. Be selfish. Flip things around. “Protect the asset.” What's the asset, you ask? It’s not the stuff you own. It's you. It’s pretty simple, really. If you are not well, everything else suffers along with you--your work, your relationships, and your community.

Still having a hard time seeing why you need to protect the asset? Try this: Make a list of your top 5 goals in life. What’s important to you? Maintaining a happy relationship with your partner? Spending lots of quality time with your kids? Excelling at work? Effecting social change? Growing spiritually and emotionally? List them in order. Now identify your “push goal.” The idea of a push goal comes from Chalene Johnson. It refers to a goal that makes all the other goals possible. 

When it comes to the big picture, when you think about your top 5 priorities, then your “push goal” will inevitably be your well-being. Think about it. How can you enjoy your relationship with your loved ones to the fullest, if you're not feeling well? How can you generate new ideas and excellent products, if you feel run down, exhausted and unhappy? What will come of your social activism if you’re too run-down to get out of bed? 

You. Come. First. Protect the asset.

Want more food for thought? Here are some articles and podcasts on the theme of self-care that I found particularly interesting:

On why self care isn't selfish.

On why people in leadership positions should take care of themselves.

On how being happy makes you more productive.

On the importance of rest and reflection for boosting creativity.