Why you’re always exhausted (it’s not your to-do list)

Think about these two different scenarios.
You left the house 10 hours ago and now you’re on the way home. You feel great. All day long you had a great sense of purpose about what you were doing. You planned out your day in advance. At each stage of the day you were focussed on output. You did exactly what was on your calendar, even though some of those tasks were monotonous and boring. You attended the meetings you were invited to and participated wholeheartedly. One meeting in particular required all your diplomacy, nonetheless you had the conversation you needed to have, kept to the facts and didn’t make it personal. In between meetings, you were working down other tasks that you had prioritised. You were very deliberate about not allowing yourself to get distracted. You weren’t gossiping or standing at the water cooler chatting for long period of time. All day long you had a sense of purpose about what you were doing. You remember why it was you chose this job and you’re so glad you did. You feel like part of something really dynamic and you are proud.
You get home and have a lovely evening. You eat with your family, bring the kids to bed, you even enjoy telling the bedtime stories! Then you relax for the rest of the evening. You go to bed feeling tired but in the best possible way. it feels great to have your head hit the pillow knowing how you showed up today. You killed it!!
Now compare that day to another day that you may have had. Maybe this day came at the end of busy season or maybe you were up half the night with a sick child. In any case, you didn’t take the time to plan out your day and came into the office with a vague sense of what might need to be done but no real focus. Nothing is high priority so you don’t feel any particular push to one or another item on your to-do list. You check the news online, then the weather. You start some work but can’t really get into it so you go for a walk around the office to stretch your legs. You meet a colleague and get drawn into a gossipy conversation about another colleague. You then have a longer-than-was-strictly-necessary coffee break at 11am. Then into a meeting. It's boring. You check your phone a few times. Your colleagues are asking you what you think and without really engaging you go along with the consensus for ease. The meeting goes on way longer than necessary but you don't leave. You check your phone a few times, facebook, the weather, the news... Lunchtime rolls around and you feel lethargic despite having completed almost nothing all morning. Straight after lunch into another meeting. Your colleague says something that you can only interpret to mean that he thinks you aren't an asset to the team. You leave the meeting annoyed and flit from task to task all afternoon and are only really getting into things at 5pm at which stage it's time to leave You get in the lift feeling like a wrung out rag. Not only have you nothing to show for a day in the office, not only are you exhausted, you are cross with yourself for wasting a day. You know very well that your contribution today wasn't great. Maybe your employee was right in what you think he was saying. You aren't a great asset to this team.
You get home feeling exhausted. You are thinking about getting dinner and bedtime done as quickly as possible. You leave your phone on and check it while the kids are getting ready for bed. You are desperate for the bedtime stories to be over as quickly as possible and get snappy when the children ask for more stories. Finally they fall asleep and you leave their room feeling sad. You really are feeling exhausted and now guilty too. You hate it when you snap at the kids.
If what you had to do was the exhausting thing, how could this be? If we were exhausted by what we had to do, then we would be exhausted at the end of day 1 and fresh as a daisy at the end of day 2.
Friend, I’ve had both of these days. I now see that what I do in my day has relatively little bearing on how I feel at the end of the day. Its how I think about what it is that I do that is the differentiator.
This is what I mean. When you look the day you had in the first scenario, you can begin to imagine what kinds of thoughts you were having as you went through the day. These were likely thoughts like like:
I know exactly what to do and will stick to my plan.
My contribution here is valuable.
I can have difficult conversations.
I’m in charge of my own time.
Some work is more interesting than other work. That’s the way of it.
I love my life.
I feel so grateful for the love of these children.
I am so glad that I get to spend this time with my children. They are so cute!!
When we are thinking thoughts like these then they inspire feelings like focussed, energised, professional, committed and engaged. From these feelings, the actions that we want to take flow like water from a tap. This action feels easy and almost effortless. Far from being exhausting, it’s energising! Do you have thoughts like these as you go through your work day?
What kind of thoughts are you having on a day like day 2?
I don’t have anything urgent to get to today.
I’ll come back to that, when I have had time to think about it.
I wonder who’s in the office today and what’s going on?
Why say anything here? It won't make a difference here anyway.
This meeting isn't really going anywhere but I might as well stay to be seen.
I’ve been so busy these last few weeks, I’ll take a breather.
Today’s a long day.
I deserve a break this evening. Today was exhausting.
I would love some peace and quiet.
Why do they always have to push the absolute limit no matter how many stories I tell.
I am a bad mother. I shouldn’t have snapped.
These thoughts are likely to have created feelings like unmotivated, disengaged, apathetic and plain bad. At the end of the day where we have been thinking these kinds of thoughts, our mood is low, resolve is low. At this point, we might snack despite resolving not to snack, drink another glass of the wine you had with dinner after the kids are in bed, and then another… You go to bed feeling wiped out, the day felt hard. You know that life is good in theory but you’re far from thinking about all you have or counting your blessings when you feel this way.
In reality we have days that are a combination of day 1 and day 2. Sometimes you might find you have a great morning but then your engagement with what you're doing dips off sometime mid afternoon. Watch it and see that it's your thoughts that change, not anything around you. For sure, sometimes work really is busier than other times, projects will have tight deadlines and you want to deliver. For sure, lots of long nights will take their toll. It is exhausting sometimes. But does it need to be a semi-permanent state?
Here is what I know, for sure, to be true. What we have to do is not nearly so exhausting as how we approach doing it, in other words what we think about it.
It’s never our amazing colleague, it’s our thoughts about how amazing she is. If it was about how amazing she is, we would think exactly the same thing about her all the time but remember that time she more or less took credit for the work you did? You didn't think her amazing then.
It’s never the work that’s boring, it’s our thoughts about the work. Our jobs have many components, many different tasks contribute to the roll. Some tasks we find more interesting than others. Some things even fascinate us. In these cases, how you look at the work makes you see it quickly to be fascinating but what if putting in timesheets was fascinating too? What could you see to be fascinating in that process? A fascinating look at how you spent your time this week? A fascinating exercise in how efficiently you can do the task of timesheet input?
It’s never the conversation that’s difficult, it’s our labelling of the conversation as “difficult” when necessary for development or “the next step” would serve us so much better.
It’s never how cute our kids are (yeah yeah, I know I don’t understand because I haven’t met your kids ;)), it’s our thoughts about them. Think about it, if our kids’ cuteness determined our thoughts about your kids then we would never ever have an impatient or angry thought about them. And we know this just is not the case.
What thoughts do you have about your work day that make you feel exhausted? Tell me in the comments.
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