In our last article, we acknowledged that many of us walk a tightrope every day. Personal relationships. Work demands. Mounting stress. Overload. Burnout.

And now, while we walk on the tightrope, we find that our very careful balancing act is jolted by the weight of the impacts from the coronavirus, working from home, businesses forced to close, and the demands of new routines.

As we fight to regain control and balance, it is easy for us to lose sight of the fact that we’re still walking on a tightrope. We have awakened to new stressors that, for many of us, outweigh our greatest concerns from earlier in the year. We must find a way to adapt. For those of us who lead others, or perhaps those of us who lead organizations, we need to take all the right steps and seem to have no room for error.

As of several weeks ago, most of us had a plan or a strategy for how we would approach the coming year and our greatest challenges. But as the great boxing champion, Joe Lewis, said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” And we have just been punched. So, how do we regain our balance and get back on our path to peak performance? Disruptions to strategy call for a response grounded in sound principles to help regain focus and clear perspective. This is called “culture.” As we regain focus in this crisis, our principles must enable our peak performance, delivering our best in the moments when we need our best.

We walk a fine line between giving our very best for our careers versus overloading ourselves until we fall off our tightrope. While we want to accomplish as much as possible to make our business stand out, the more we overload ourselves, the less room for error we have. And that’s stressful. As you tense up, your tightrope starts to shake more and more. As Dr. Richard Swenson, M.D., explains, the “margin” between our physical, mental, and emotional capacities and our load diminishes the more we approach our limits. We are then more vulnerable to allowing each catalyst event to explode way beyond its intended scope.

Each catalyst becomes magnified in its perceived complexity and burden, yielding a much stronger reaction from the one experiencing the event or request. Small issues become the cause for big disagreements. Crises impede working relationships just because the people involved are overcome with anger or resentment at times of significant strain. These can shatter the relational aspect of a company’s culture, which forms the foundation of any healthy business. In order to maintain the team’s peak performance, it is especially important that leaders add margin into their schedule to prevent this vulnerability from arising within their teams. Executives are in it for the long haul. Scheduling time to rest and regenerate will enable better focus, higher quality work, and higher efficiency and endurance.

To achieve our goals, we need to first achieve our peak performance. By this point, especially during this crisis, most business leaders reading this are probably envisioning doing more, increasing the pace, or going the extra mile to outdo competitors. But we’re here to play the long game. And to do that, we need “margin.”

Business leaders often feel there is insufficient time to do everything they want. From one senior executive to another, I’m sorry to say there’s no secret to changing this. Simply put, humans have limits. At some point there’s nothing more you can do to work harder. But that’s why our goal is to achieve peak performance. We need to establish the conditions for each team to deliver its best work under a strategy aimed at achieving a shared mission. That said, many companies stumble building culture and practicing intentional habits that cause teams to be engaged and more highly motivated. If we want to look at the root of that stumble, I suggest to start by looking at time and how it is used.

We can grow beyond certain limits, yet others inevitably bind us. Learning to work smarter and prepare better will result in greater productivity and higher work quality. Merely taking on more work or working more hours, however, results in less sleep, increased stress, and, in the long run, lower productivity. Instead, focus on long-term progress, not perfection or an immediate outcome. Consider how the dynamic of the team will change if they are clear eyed versus fatigued. Breaking the first type of limit is an indicator of growth; breaking the latter is a sign of imbalance. Which one will be more productive for the long term?

Recognizing limits is a surprisingly tough concept to grasp. Dr. Swenson notes that marathon runners are amazingly talented, but physically limited. Take for example, Eliud Kipchoge, who broke the once-believed human limit for a marathon of two hours in Vienna last October in 1:59:40. Yet neither he nor anyone else could run a mile in a minute. Similarly, teams have performance limits. If your team is burdened with too many responsibilities, take on new employees. With time to breathe, they will thank you not only with enthusiasm, but with better quality work.

Margin is key to sustaining growth. We need extra time in our schedules to account for dealing with unexpected problems that arise, especially during these uncertain times. We live in a chaotic universe subject to Murphy’s law. The added margin provides the extra time and capacity, mental and emotional, to deal with emergencies as they arise at home or the office. Without margin, it is easy to get overloaded and burn out in doing damage control. We have to resist the tendency to constantly seek to do more. Instead of leaving our schedules ninety percent full, we take on new commitments to fill it right back up to 100%.

Separate time for rest and work. Melding the two leads to an inefficient, half-conscious work-life that ceaselessly drones on until it decays into burnout. People think that if they always work, they will get more done. But it’s very hard to keep grinding constantly. People need rest—to actually stop and rest. For me, finding quiet or solitude refreshes my mind, preparing myself to operate with more focus. Ultimately, taking the time to rest enables me to do more things than if I constantly worked.

Based on observations throughout my career, when I became a business coach, I anticipated that the most common issue among clients would be related to time. The DC metro area has always been a hotbed of hyperactivity that generates intense pressure in one of the world’s most powerful cities. A common bond between us is that this strain stares us in the face every morning. If we really want to get better, we must master our use of time.

Here is the bigger question: When overloaded, and the scope or significance of problems seem magnified, no one wants to talk about relatively small things, let alone confront big things. This is especially true right now. It is hard work to examine our use of time. For that reason alone, most people refrain from doing it. Leadership draws upon courage, and much strength is derived from the willingness to take on the hard things that others do not or cannot. Our successful walk across the tightrope depends on how we examine and then adjust our use of time in the course of meeting our challenges. Let’s rise to meet our future.

If you’d like help to examine the use of your time and make adjustments, contact us to begin the conversation.