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Put on Your Oxygen Mask First: 6 Tips for Self-Care on the Job

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I travel frequently for my work as an executive coach. And, recently, having been running on fumes (and feeling like the pot calling the kettle black as I help my clients with their demanding jobs!), I found myself paying more attention to an old familiar message from the flight attendant at the start of the flight. "In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others."

It's a message most of us have learned to tune out -- take care of yourself in order to be effective especially in high crunch situations -- and yet, one which can make a significant difference in our effectiveness.

So while many of my clients ask to work on topic areas such as leading change, executive presence, or building a high performance team -- an underlying piece of the coaching work always involves understanding the self-care for that person to sustain high performance and endurance for the job.

In your next crunch, considering grabbing one of these "oxygen masks":

1) Focus on the physical. Nothing gives a boost like returning to the basics. Sometimes what we need is one good night of sleep or eating well for a day to feel like we've hit the "reset" button. The intent is not to add more demands to the to-do list but rather taking one small baby step to feeling physically more refreshed. Self-care on the job can quickly turn into self-neglect when we lose complete focus of our physical bodies and what we need.

2) Reach out and talk to someone. There's some truth to the old adage, "it's lonely at the top." When faced with tough decisions or business transitions, we need to have trusted people to lean on. This includes a strategic network of people you can discuss important strategic, business or career decisions. And, a set of people (might be the same people) you can privately process frustration, concern, and share candidly what is happening for you personally in the organization. Often, we buffer all the stress for our colleagues or teams without any release valve for ourselves.

3) Block-off time on your calendar. Part of the difficulty is the sheer number of meetings we attend in a given day. We open our Outlook calendars and see "back to back" meetings where we're moving from one thing to the next. At a minimum, give yourself the first 15-20 minutes of the day to look at the day in total and consider which meetings are the most important to do some minimal preparation for. If you're really in need for some "oxygen", block a two-hour work block for yourself (it will feel like a luxury!) sometime this week for some focused, uninterrupted time. Complete or move forward the one item on your to-do list causing the most anxiety.

4) Renegotiate a deadline or give a timing heads up. Sometimes we assume people need something sooner than they really do. We say yes or break our own mental flow to meet other peoples' requests. Part of self-care on the job is having the courage to clarify incoming requests, negotiate deadlines, or give people a "heads up." Often a simple message of, "Confirming receipt of this. I'll be able to get back to you in a couple of days on that" or offering to set up a time to discuss versus responding right away. The "heads up" offers the acknowledgement your colleague is seeking and buys you some extra time.

5) Do something non-work related you care about or enjoy. Even for work we might love, too much of a good thing can take its toll. Even when you don't feel like you have the time, doing one non-work related thing that you care about or enjoy can help to ease the pressure. Go for a hike, make it to your kid's basketball practice, or spend time with friends on Saturday night. Engaging in something relaxing or fun can often be just enough of a step away to appreciate the role or work you have.

6) Anchor in your integrity and values. Work demands can create discomfort or periods of uncertainty. Rather than feeling "blown around" due to the external circumstances of your company, we take care of ourselves by coming back to who we are and what we stand for. One of my all-time favorite articles comes from Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton M. Christensen entitled, "How Will You Measure Your Life." He asks us to contemplate "how to live a life with integrity" and to make sure we're choosing the "right yardsticks" against which we'll measure our impact. I've seen clients slip from self-care to something that looks more like self-preservation where we're wearing the oxygen mask in service of preserving a territory or turf versus in service of a mission or purpose we believe in.

In my work with clients, I've seen each of these tips help to ease a period of high stress or offer just enough space to catch one's breath. Those who have embraced the notion of self-care on the job -- a mindful attention to what one needs to be effective -- and made it a part of their daily lives have certainly reaped the benefits of greater peace of mind, strong results, and better relationships.

What "oxygen masks" do you reach for, anchor in, or use that might be helpful to others? What ideas have you found increase your effectiveness?

I'd love to hear about your own stories or thoughts on putting on the "oxygen mask." Please write your suggestions here in the comments section, tweet me at @amyjensu or send an email to our firm, Isis Associates.