One January I traveled to the idyllic island of St. John to teach in a weeklong personal growth program. The ocean waters there were a superb shade of aquamarine. The sunsets were a magnificent palette of rainbow hues. And I was a crispy critter... irritable, exhausted, and disheartened. I had traveled more than 200 days the previous year, with too little support on the work and home fronts. Then, to ice the burned cake, a long-time employee left suddenly under difficult circumstances. My annual Christmas break was all about fielding phone calls, preparing tax materials, and finally hiring and training a new staff person. By the time I got to the Caribbean, I was running on fumes.
One afternoon I went for a sail with some of the people from the group. A vivacious redhead by the name of Donna and I got to talking. A corporate trainer and coach, Dr. Donna was also used to a heavy travel schedule, but she'd learned to manage it. At one point, she leaned in close and took my hand. "Do you know that the life force is almost gone from your eyes?" she said. I could only nod affirmatively and sniffle a little. "Would you let me help you?" she asked.
One of the most important questions Donna asked was elegant in its power and simplicity: "On a scale of 1 to 10, where one is empty and ten is full, how full is your well?" (I've since come to think of it as my gas tank). But I knew immediately what she meant. Was I joyful, creative, rejuvenated, and frisky, or was I despondent and dragged out.
I answered immediately, "I'm sucking mud." This, I knew from long training and experience as a mind/body medical researcher and psychologist, was dangerous ground. My immune system was at low ebb, my muscles were achy, and I felt poised on the brink of physical disaster. By failing to pay attention to my energy reserves, I had let myself wander into hazardous territory.
Developing a habit of checking my energy reserves was a step toward taking better care of myself. Awareness is the prerequisite for change. Realizing that you're out of gas is a wake-up call that leaves you with two choices: fill up or let the engine die. Take it from me, the latter is most unpleasant.
If I have a single favorite gripe with nature it's this: Good habits are so hard to maintain, while bad habits are a breeze. Most of us have times when we forget everything we know about taking care of ourselves, and then we have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Reform was mandatory. I started exercising again, eating well, and saying no even when it disappointed people. Several times a day, I would check my virtual gas tank, and once a week for several months I'd report in to "Dr. Donna."
"Hey, I'm a 5, a 7, or even a 10." Over the next several months, it became clear that 7 was the cut-off point for feeling juicy, alive, and productive. Below that, anxiety and obsession kicked in, and creativity was a thing of the past.
Fancy scales aren't required to measure your energy reserves. The simplest way to find out how you're coping is to draw a horizontal line on a sheet of paper. Mark the far-left point "1," and the far-right "10." Then put a vertical line wherever you think it belongs to represent how full your tank is. Your objective is to stay aware of the level and fill up when necessary. This week, start keeping track of your energy reserves. At least three times a day (to make it easier try this after each meal) notice how full your tank is. What is the cut-off point when you start to fade? Figure out what raises the energy level for you quickly and take action when you need to revive yourself. Taking a ten-minute walk instead of returning the next phone call can change the course of your entire day.