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 the shape of leadership

Lean in Without Burning Out

Finding clarity when you’re overwhelmed

Kent Ingle on April 9, 2018

I used to believe I had no limits. I didn’t think there was such a thing as too many projects, commitments or opportunities. The more, the better! But I was wrong. It didn’t take long for me to learn that everyone — even people who feel invincible — have limits. And it’s always a good idea to respect them.

One mentor called me out on this. I’ll never forget it. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but I do remember telling him about all the things I had going on. He had told me repeatedly that I was taking on too much. I give him credit. He warned me all along the way.

But I never listened. I kept pressing and pressing and pressing. Until one day I hit the wall. It’s a term that is hard to understand unless you’ve been there. You never know exactly when you’ll hit the proverbial wall. But there won’t be any denying it when you do.

I went from feeling excited, full of energy and optimistic to feeling overwhelmed, drained and skeptical about what I wanted to achieve in what seemed like a matter of seconds.

Just to clarify, nothing materially changed, and my mental state was fine. But if you’ve ever tried to take on too much, you know exactly what I mean. It’s the moment your perceived reality meets reality, and you come face to face with your limits as a leader.

Of course, I called my mentor and asked if we could meet. He smiled and tried hard not to remind me he had warned me of this all along. In some ways, I wanted him to say it. But that would have been easy to hear since it confirmed what was true at that moment.

What I didn’t necessarily want to hear was what I needed to change to get unstuck and start moving forward again.

Finding Clarity

I want to share four helpful steps he told me to take:

Physically crossing off items helps you connect with the feeling of pruning things back in your life.
  • Write down the most important thing you want to accomplish in the next 30 days. This should be more than just a simple task. It has to be an initiative or milestone that is critical to a larger project, goal or commitment — a part of the vision God has given you.
  • Write down all the steps that need to take place to make that one thing true in the next 30 days. Don’t overthink this part. Just write down what comes to mind. It could be a conversation that needs to happen, research you need to complete, analysis, etc. Just get it out of your head and onto paper.
  • Write down all the unnecessary tasks that are competing for your attention and draining your limited time and energy. Be honest. It’s critical when you hit the wall.
  • Eliminate anything that wasn’t essential to accomplishing that one thing in the next 30 days. Cross it off your piece of paper. Physically crossing off items helps you connect with the feeling of pruning things back in your life.

When you work through these steps, you’ll be shocked at how little is required to meet your one goal. You’ll be equally surprised at just how overcommitted you are and the percentage of that overcommitment that has little to no bearing on your goal overall.

This exercise was incredibly helpful to me. It took a few times of doing this to start feeling comfortable with it. But it has always given me one essential element for leading myself and others: clarity. In fact, clarity is one of the keys to avoiding burnout.

You never really know what’s in front of you. But if you can move forward with clarity, purpose and intention, you’ll find a path forward and the endurance to stay the course.

What to Do When You Hit the Wall

  • Give yourself a break. You are human. You have limits. Repeat that to yourself until you believe it.
  • Forgive yourself for expecting too much of yourself. It’s OK to let yourself off the hook for not being a superhero. No one ever expected you to be one.
  • Take the time to reset. The natural response to stress for many leaders is to double down and push through the pain. Sometimes you do need to do that. But more often than not, you need to step off the gas, reassess, spend some quiet time with God, and then start again.

While it’s important to lead, it’s not necessary that you operate in a constant state of hyperdrive. It’s healthy to pace yourself.

Every leader must learn to lean in without burning out. It takes effort and perseverance to lead people through change. But if you take yourself out early by failing to manage the distance between now and next, you will never reach your goals.

Change is an endurance sport. Know what you’re getting into, pace yourself, give yourself some grace along the way, and celebrate the small wins that always lead to big victories. I’m so glad someone spoke this message into my life, and I hope it breathes new life into you, too.

The world needs more change makers, so go change your world for Jesus!

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