Updated: Jul 26
It’s almost August. While I’m sure most of you have been prepping all summer, August typically means long days, even more stress, and going into overdrive to make sure everything is ready for the students coming back to campus. I’m sure the stress and dread have been building knowing August is just around the corner. Yikes, I’m getting stressed out just thinking about it. August is your last chance to get everything in place before the students arrive for the fall. If you want to make sure you and your team don’t just survive August, but are more productive and less stressed, you’re going to want to make sure you’re doing this one thing, so keep reading.
Imagine if you will August, but not your typically Higher Ed August. This August is one where you and your team have plenty of time and energy do get everything in place for your students without the overwhelming stress and exhaustion. You come to work and leave at a reasonable time. Your to do list suddenly feels more manageable. Imagine everyone being more productive, making better decisions, and having a sense of wellness that typically evades us during this month.
Impossible you say? How dare I mock you in one of your most stressful and vulnerable times? I know it sound hard to believe, but here’s the thing. It can be. Not that there won’t be a long list of things that do need to happen; there still will be. But if you do this one thing, you and your team will be able to get through that list more efficiently and giving you enough space to have the balance you need to stay healthy.
“OMG, Anne. Just tell us what the one thing is already!”
Fine, fine. The thing you and your team MUST do in August to both get done what needs to be done AND decrease the massive stress and exhaustion is more self-care.
“You’ve got to be kidding, right? I don’t even have time for self-care September – July and you want me to ramp it up now. You’ve lost your bleeping mind.”
I know, I know. It sounds ridiculous, but when you really understand the impact of stress, it makes perfect sense. Now, I’ve done several articles on stress in the past. You’re welcome to check those out, but I will run through some basics here.
As I’m sure you know, some stress is good. If you felt no stress, you wouldn’t be motivated to do anything. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here. I’m talking about so much stress that it becomes counter-productive. At Higher Ed levels – especially in August, it’s the stress itself that starts causing problems.
The stress response, otherwise known as fight, flight, freeze, or appease. Although, I’m going to just say fight or flight from now on, because who has the time? The stress response was designed to keep us safe. And by safe, mostly that means keep us alive. Imagine you’re a prehistoric man – or woman – and it’s your turn to go and gather the berries. You’ve been to that spot before, so as you go to there, your body is in a state of relaxation, otherwise known as rest and digest. When we’re in a relaxation response, our bodies are focused on growth and repair. Most of our blood is in our viscera – aka our gut – and our brain. So, as you’re walking, you’re simply focused on getting those delicious berries and perhaps enjoying the lovely day.
Suddenly you hear a twig snap. Your brain immediately goes into high alert. Your body is suddenly flush with adrenalin and fear. What could it be? Now this is the subconscious at work here. Your conscious brain doesn’t process information fast enough to keep you out of danger, so this is all on autopilot. Your brain immediately adjusts the hormone levels in your body to give you the best chance possible of surviving this situation.
Your blood rushes away from your viscera and brain to your arms and legs, so you can – wait for it – fight or flee whatever might have snapped that twig. You know the butterflies you get in your stomach when you’re nervous? That’s literally what you’re feeling – the blood rushing away from your gut. Likewise, all of your focus is on this situation. You’re focused on your environment, both so you can see where this awful thing is and where you might hide. You’re focused on time because you’ve got to move quickly enough – and fast is key here. You’re ready to do everything possible, as quickly as possible, to save yourself.
You quickly run behind a tree for protection then peer back across the field to see what’s out there. Lol. It’s just Becky! She decided to come help you pick berries. She didn’t call out because she too was enjoying the beautiful day. You laugh to yourself, shake off the adrenalin, and tell Becky about how you thought she was a saber tooth tiger. After a bit, your brain switches back to the relaxation response and you two have a lovely day picking berries. Now, the two of you DO need to gather as many berries as possible, so it’s not that you’re not focused at all. But there’s nothing draining or stealing your energy. You can focus on the task at hand while enjoying the day.
That’s how your nervous system was designed to work. You’re supposed to be in the relaxation response most of the time. The stress response is for emergencies. It’s to keep you safe and alive when there is danger. But as soon as you’re out of danger, the subconscious kicks in your chill mode and you can rest and repair your body and mind. The way we live today, feeling like we’re constantly in danger and thus constantly under stress, isn’t healthy. It also keeps us from being creative and productive because so much of our energy and focus is distracted by these stressors.
Let’s say it wasn’t Becky who snapped that twig. What if you ran behind the tree, peered out, and didn’t see anything? You waited for a while but didn’t hear anything else. Your body is still on high alert, but you know you’ve got to pick berries, so you reluctantly walk back to the bushes. How productive are you going to be? You’d probably be trying to pick them as quickly as possible so you could get out of there ASAP, right? You’d feel like you were moving quickly and getting a lot done, but your focus would be divided between the berries and staying safe. Most berry bushes have thorns. How well will you navigate all those thorns if your attention isn’t completely on what you’re doing? When you’re in fight or flight, even your vision field narrows, so you might even miss entire bushes full of berries that you hadn’t noticed before which would have made your picking task easier and quicker.
Instead, stress makes you hyperfocus on the problem or the thing you THINK is the solution to that problem. You stubbornly insist that your solution is the best because your brain can’t expand enough to assess other solutions. In this case, you’d only be focusing on the berries right in front of you, which feels like the only solution to getting enough berries and getting home alive. But you’d be missing out on the big picture. In fact, if you hadn’t been caught in fight or flight, you might have wandered closer to where you heard the twig snap and notice that there was a family of rabbits nearby. At that point, you would have been able to relax completely since you knew it was most likely the rabbits who had snapped the twig. Or rather I should say, your brain knew you were safe. Instead, your ability to see the whole picture would be compromised.
Let’s put it another way, have you ever been running late so you’re rushing to get ready. You feel like you don’t have enough time, so rather than stop to make sure your sock is turned the right way or your shoelaces are untied and loose enough for your foot to easily fit in, you just jam your foot into them. It takes forever and it’s just not working. If you’d just slowed down enough to correct the actual problem, you’d easily get your foot in, but you’re all worked up – freaking out about being late – so you just keep jamming and cursing. Ironically, it would have taken you less time if you’d slowed down to adjust the sock or the shoe, but you kept wrestling with them instead. That actually happened to me the other day. I was so frustrated, but I told myself, “You have to slow down to make this work.” I took a breath and did but doing so took a lot of energy. It actually made me feel more anxious because I was fighting my own reaction. It wasn’t until I got my shoe on that I calmed down enough to realize I was right about slowing down. Lol
That’s the stress response at work. You’re trying to do the things you normally do, but you’re too frantic to do them successfully which makes the whole process take longer. Not to mention, your ability to accurately trouble shoot the situation decreases. Your brain is going “What the bleep is wrong with this sock?!?” But in reality, there’s nothing wrong with the sock. What’s wrong is what you’re doing with the sock. This happens to you and your team every day in August. And left unchecked, it means that you and your team are wasting tons of energy missing the big picture and frantically trying to do things in a way that’s not very efficient. You’re all trying to jam your foot into situations to make them work, instead of slowing down and seeing things more clearly, which would get you better and quicker results.
I can’t emphasize this enough. When you and your team are under constant stress, you are in fight or flight all the time. This LITERALLY makes it harder for you to be efficient or effective. It LITERALLY makes you dumber. Remember, that blood is being diverted from your brain and your gut to your appendages. We don’t have time for me to dig into how your gut has its own brain. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Trust your gut,” right? There’s a reason for that. All my Learner and Input friends should Google “enteric nervous system” for more info. Under chronic stress, your blood is LITERALLY flowing away from both your head brain and your gut brain. At that point, the only thing you’re using to respond to people, issues, and crises, is your subconscious programming. That means you can only do what you’ve done before, whether it’s effective or not. You’re not open to new ways of doing things or new perspectives. Your conscious mind cannot stop and assess the situation or your actions, because you’re caught in this cycle.
Now, part of that subconscious programming is how your talents show up. I’ve talked about this before in other articles but remember that your talents can show up as strengths OR weaknesses. That’s right, your talents can show up in ways that get in your way. They can show up and prevent you from being effective. When you’re stuck in fight or flight, your talents are more likely to show up as weaknesses. August is the time you really need you and your team to be effective and efficient. Folks need to be operating in their Strengths Zone. None of you can do that when you’re getting in your own way. None of you can do that when you don’t reset that fight or flight response. Pushing yourself harder, is not the answer. It actually makes your performance worse.
So, what’s the answer? Oh wait, I already told you. It’s self-care. When you take the time to refresh and reset, you can turn off that stress response and allow that blood to go back to your gut and your brain. You can think more clearly and work more effectively. When you don’t, things will just get worse and worse. You’ll feel like you’re getting a ton done, but in reality, it’s not as much as you could get done.
I’m pretty sure I did an episode about self-care you can do in five minutes or less, so I’m not going to give you a bunch of examples here. But I will tell you that self-care doesn’t have to take a long time. It just has to be long enough to let your body and brain reset and come out of the stress response. If you’re starting a self-care habit, you’ll know from previous episodes that you should start any new habit by doing it for two minutes at a time. You just need to do them consistently. If my math checks out, that’s even less than five minutes!
Maybe you have something you love to do but feel like you just don’t have time for a 5-mile run, an hour of yoga, a 30-minute walk around campus, or even to relax with a cup of tea and read all afternoon. That doesn’t mean you can’t do that thing. It doesn’t have to be ideal to be effective. You could do five minutes of yoga in your office. You could take a walk across campus to the other café for lunch. You could take five minutes to enjoy some tea and read a few pages. That all counts as self-care.
How much time you spend doing your self-care matters less than the quality of that act. That means when you’re going for that walk across campus or enjoying your cup of tea, you need to focus on those things. It’s not, “Oh I guess I’ll walk around campus for a few minutes thinking about my work problem.” Then you’re just focusing on the thing stressing you out in a new location. You need to get away from the problem – or rather perceived problem, even if it’s just for two or five minutes.
Now doing some self-care during the day doesn’t mean that you won’t become stressed again, but the break allows you to recenter and see things more clearly. It will allow you to refocus on your work instead of it being wasted energy on high alert. More energy pointed in the right direction means greater productivity. And now that you better understand the stress response, you can develop a plan to deescalate the process when you feel yourself getting stressed. You can force yourself to reset, because you know not doing so actually means you’re going to get less done and make worse decisions.
When you and your team incorporate more self-care during August, you’ll get better results. Let’s dismiss the belief we all seem to have that August just be crazy and there’s nothing we can do about it. The more you let yourself get swept away by that false narrative, the more stressed you become and the worse it gets. I’ve done articles on both about strategically cutting things out of your to do lists and complementary partnerships. When you aren’t stuck in fight or flight, you’re more open to seeing ways to combine and cut tasks. You can better see how to delegate and work with others to get things done quicker and better.
When you aren’t stuck in fight or flight, you’re a better supervisor. Even if you haven’t had a lick of supervisor training, you’re automatically a better supervisor when your mind and body isn’t caught up in the stress response. You’re able to help your team see new, better ways of doing things. You can coach your team, so they do more self-care and use their talents as strengths instead of weaknesses. You can help your team prioritize and cut unnecessary tasks and projects. And you can get your other work done more effectively.
Now I realize, I probably convinced many of you but at the end of the day you’re going to say, “Nah, better safe than sorry. At least I know stressed me gets it all done.” Well, that’s because the idea of doing less in August – and potentially looking like you’re not working as hard as other folks – is stressful. Afterall, your brain doesn’t like change. And this is a big change. Ironically, the only way to calm the bleep down about the idea of doing more self-care, is to do some self-care.
So, I challenge you to do just that. I further challenge you…no wait. That’s lame. I double dog dare you to commit to doing one 5-minute self-care activity each day at work during August. Furthermore, I triple dog dare you to have your staff do the same. You can even do something as a group or set up self-care accountability partners.
To make it even easier on you, Alicia and I are doing a 14-Day Self-Care Challenge for the first two weeks of August. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that doing more self-care will actually make you and your team MORE productive during this stressful month but getting started can still be hard. So, if you want to participate in the challenge, just sign up here - https://strengthsu.kartra.com/page/selfcarechallenge. Every day we’ll email you a self-care activity you can do in five minutes or less. We’ll be posting them to Instagram and Facebook, as well.
Even though self-care is a win in and of itself, we thought we’d add a little extra motivation by giving away some prizes. Just post a picture or video of yourself doing some much needed self-care during the first week and tag Strengths University. On August 7th one person will win a free coaching session and get $100 off their registration for the fall Supervisor Strengths Institute. Post during the second week and on August 14th we’ll pick one person to a free coaching session and 50% off their registration to the fall Institute. And if you want to go all in, post yourself doing your self-care each day of the challenge, and we’ll select one person to get a FREE registration to the fall Institute.
There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. Sign up for the challenge. Have your team sign up. Do it together and make sure you and your team are investing in your productivity and your wellbeing this August.