How to Know When You Are Overdoing It

overdoing it

One of my early forays into therapy was in 1997 when I became the Executive Director of GLAAD. I remember my first day in my new therapist’s office and of course she asked, “Why are you here?” My answer came quickly. “I like to solve problems for people – I’m a helper – but I’ve gone overboard. Now I feel like I have to take care of all the gay people everywhere.” 

I bet many of you feel this way. Not necessarily about gay people. But about all the cats who haven’t been adopted, or the community center you know would benefit so many, or the marginalized groups you lobby for, or the communities of faith you support with your work.

It’s a lot of pressure. And as I have been known to say, a profound privilege.

I wish I had the antidote for the tremendous pressure and overwhelming responsibility.

I don’t. And I’m really sorry I don’t.

I know I have written posts and recorded podcasts about how to manage it but ok, I’ll say it. I am highly imperfect.

I pulled a fortune from a fortune cookie a few years back. I keep it with me. It kinda said it all. “The best advice to follow is the advice you give to others.”

My team will tell you I’m frequently overdoing it. I feel like so many people are counting on me. I remember thinking about all the gays and it would stress me out. Now staff and board leaders of 1.5 million nonprofits? OY. And that’s just here in the U.S.

It takes its toll. I work at the expense of my hobbies, my health, my relationships.

Crazy, right? People I don’t know take priority over my loved ones.

And so my wife and I (just the two of us) spent the last two weeks at a health boot camp. It wasn’t fun. And I am abundantly aware that only Type A workaholics select ‘vacations’ of this sort. Well, and also folks whose health is at risk. My wife and I check both boxes.

We reset our health. We ate without salt, sugar and oil. We were up at 6:30 am daily. An hour of cardio, an hour of strength training, an hour of yoga and then lectures about what happens to your body with age, with stress.

I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned. Few folks will have the privilege of spending two weeks as we did but I can share the lessons. Some of them are personal – most of these unflattering. Some more global – educational and hopefully helpful.

And while I write about these lessons from my own perspective (female of a certain age) they apply to all of us.

PERSONAL LESSONS FOR THE MID-CENTURY MODERN EXECUTIVE

  1. If you are constitutionally unable to totally stop working, then just own it. Just the thought of completely unplugging during my time away and returning to mountains of digging out from two weeks of absence was beyond overwhelming to me. So I worked during my holiday. Maybe more than I should have.
  2. If you love what you do, give yourself permission to do a little work while away. The work I do is rewarding and I did not resent doing it. And to her enormous credit, my wife didn’t resent my choice.
  3. Create boundaries and stick to them. The reason my wife didn’t resent it is that I created a daily 2.5-hour block for work. Each night I made a list of what I would do during that block so I could be as efficient with that time as possible.
  4. Exercise makes you clear headed. 1 hour of cardio twice daily clears your mind. I was more focused during my 2.5 hours. I believe I made better decisions. And an extra bonus: I muted the TV during the HGTV commercials and percolated. I made some decisions about my work, my priorities and the important priorities of my team. Sometimes I used Voice Memo to capture them for my relatively brief evening set up time.
  5. Read – but not memos or work-related books. And yes, this means you probably shouldn’t read my book while you’re on vacation. I started to read a work-related book and stopped myself. Clear-headedness allows for discipline. I read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson. Solid books, worth reading, and not terribly long.

GLOBAL LESSONS FOR THE MID-CENTURY MODERN BODY

  1. Stress really does make you sick. Our boot camp included lectures about how your body works (or doesn’t) when it hits middle age. Upon arrival at the boot camp, folks on blood pressure meds get it cut in ½ by the med staff. Same with meds for any other illness that is stress related or that isn’t. Stress makes things worse. Doctors treat symptoms with pills. But far too often the root cause is stress.
  2. Regardless where you go, stress is in your suitcase. One of our grown kids struggled while we were away. We have learned that when you agree to be a parent, you can never resign from the gig. But it could also be an ailing parent or any number of life situations. Work with others to help you figure out how to approach it. That will reduce your stress. Let them help you determine if a rescue is warranted. And by the way, if you are taking good care of yourself, the drama decreases and you just make better and clearer choices.
  3. Take really good care of your feet. Your body is built around a thin pole (spine). On top of it sits a big heavy thing (head). And all the weight travels from your head through the pole and right into your feet. Pay really close attention to the shoes you buy. Have someone show you how to walk properly. The whole feet thing impacts your knees and your hips. I’d like to hold on to my own hips and feet for as long as possible. And if you think about your feet and your head and how it sits on the spine pole, guess what? You’ll have better balance. Better balance, fewer falls and fewer hip and knee injuries.
  4. Breathing exercises come in a close second. Try this sometime. If you have a Fitbit or something with a heart monitor function, take a look at your heart rate after a stressful meeting with a donor, board member, or staff. Then just sit down, close your eyes and try 10 minutes (or even just 5!) of an app like Headspace. Then check your heart rate again. It’s magic.
  5. Be ‘Type A’ like me and strategically select a sport. 5 years ago, I decided that elliptical machines were fine but kinda boring. So I created a mini-strategic plan, geek that I am. I loved sports when I was a kid but all that fell away as I got older and traded my mitt in for a laptop and a Type A career. I decided to learn a sport. My criteria: (1) year-round (2) only one other person (3) 45-minutes. Do this and you’re just a dishrag from an awesome cardio interval workout. For me, the answer was clear: racquetball or squash. I picked racquetball because I knew someone who could teach me. It’s the perfect sport for me. I can even put little faces on the ball when I smack it really hard. Recently the face has been the same every time but it does change. 🙂

So there you have it. I wrote this blog post on the plane ride home. Some combination of advice and lessons learned. And yes, some true confessions as well.

Did you get away at some point recently? I hope so. What advice do you have for other board and staff leaders who might be reading? What lessons did you pack in your suitcase and bring home with you? Are you overdoing it? Let us know in the comments below.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Laura Zielke

    The fact that you took two weeks out of your life to go take care of yourself is inspiring and convicting all at the same time. Thanks, I think!

  • Holly McGregor Anderson

    Curious about the boot camp. Can you say? (And thanks for the great advice!)

  • Kari Pepper McKeone

    I’ve read ‘Another Brooklyn’, really enjoyed it. I hope you did as well. Thanks for this blog. I took up bowling a few years ago, but recently told the league I was sitting out this fall because I was too busy…. I might rethink that. 🙂

  • Cassandra Agredo

    Thank you for this Joan. It was perfect timing for me. I had a meltdown after I arrived at work today because I didn’t give my information to a man on the train who was asking for help in time. The doors closed and I watched him as the train pulled away and felt I had failed him and myself and my career. I’m thinking I’ll be Googling “health boot camp” in about 5 minutes… 🙂

  • Kathy Ahearn-O’Brien

    i needed this today – thanks 🙂

  • annie5555

    I’m coming up on a funding cliff next year, we are getting ready to go through an accreditation process, and after one year into my ED gig I realize how much “ancient history” needs to be caught up for our organization to move forward. Having to do lots of organizational “looking in the rear view mirror” when I need to be looking “through the windshield.” The stress is getting toxic, so this is timely, and need to get back to some habits to control, and manage, the stress. Continually trying to do TOO much, and that eats away at at me, to no good end. Thanks!

  • Paula

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    I take two weeks every summer and go to a peaceful place at a lake that is completely unplugged! My dad taught me this many years ago when I had been in Chamber work for a few years. He said one week is NOT ENOUGH time to de-compress and relax. And he was so right!
    The stress in my life has created a me who cannot sleep more than a few hours a night. I really need to figure this out because, at my age, the lack of sleep is equally as bad as the stress.
    We type As are our own worst enemies!

  • Self-care is the number one thing I continue to share with our readers… It’s a must for Mental Health balance.

  • Catherine Coats Musselman

    This is good timing! It is budget time where I get to go to government entities and convince them they need to continue to fund us. Talk about the weight of the world on ones shoulders! Although I have great board members, I still take on a lot of responsibilities. Always looking at the next project and new revenue sources. A couple of things I find that helps me reduce stress (even if it’s just for 10 minutes) is to eat healthy and relax by the water. I find that bringing my lunch instead of eating out is much better for my health and mind. I am lucky enough to live and work with a view of a river. Just being able to see the ripple of the water is soothing for me. And another is to get out and enjoy nature and sunlight. What would be ideal is if I took my healthy lunch and sat next to the river, instead of eating at my desk! Thank you Joan for your blog!

  • Andrea Pauls Backman

    Thanks for this. So pertinent today. I have a board meeting tonight (no staff attending but me), I prepared and sent all the board materials and will take all the minutes, I woke up today feeling like I was coming down with something………and my son’s wedding is in 2 days! I intend to step away from email at 9 pm tonight for a few days and enjoy this moment in my family’s life.

  • Mary Gorham Malia

    I appreciate the sharing of your experience. I’ve recently given my resignation and will leave my ED position on the 31st of this month. I’m beat, beat up and decided for my mental,emotional and physical health it’s time to head back home. I’m from Maine but have been running a struggling LGBT youth organization for 2 years. It’s in much better shape but I’m in much worse shape. I’m heading back to Maine to be near family and close friends. I moved to take this position and spend so much time working that I’ve not had time to make friends, go to a gym or take care of myself. I’m single so there’s no one at home to argue with me about how much I work. And no time to create a new relationship. When I recently had to come up with an emergency contact name but had no one to put on the paper, it was a turning point. The organization has been around for 27 years, I’ve been here for 2. I’d like to live 27 more years as I’m now at the ripe old age of 61. My health has to come before the organization and taking action to make this change wasn’t easy but sometimes “I’m done” is the right answer. The board is doing a great job working on a transition plan and a couple of extremely qualified candidates are in sight, who can take the organization from the great place its currently in (compared to 2 years ago when it was dying) to an even better place. Sometimes leaving is the right thing.

  • Working in the theatre, or any performing art form, is a collaborative art — one that always permits me the opportunity to remember that I am NOT alone! Without the contributions of those at all levels and areas of expertise (including the dedicated and over-worked staff and volunteers), no performance could be mounted. Even though I work on the administrative side, whenever I step into the rehearsal hall or the theater, I am reminded that I am but one member of the team. Sharing the experiences that the performing arts afford us enriches my life and the lives of those around me… And I am reinvigorated!

  • GuestED

    I was in a dual role at my organization for about 9 months a couple years ago, and 6 months in I suffered a neck injury in my sleep (from sitting too much, too much stress and tension, and likely grinding my teeth in my sleep). It felt sudden at the time, but it built up over time due to what was probably deterioration (I sat 13-15 hours per day all summer), and burn-out (not having energy to do anything about my stress or lack of activity). I am still in a lot of pain and it’s likely to be an ongoing issue for me. I’ve recently started making sure I exercise regularly again, spend time with friends, and find opportunities for little adventures (even if it’s just going to the park with the dog); and I have to say it’s like I feel like myself again. I’m finally coming around to the idea that I can actually have balance if I prioritize it; though there’s a lingering bit of guilt that I’m fighting off. Massive improvement in my productivity output per hour, by the way. I’m getting the same amount done in 80% of the time because I have energy and I feel happier, and I’m sleeping through the night instead of ruminating on work. The other night I solved a work problem in my sleep, and this morning I woke up having discovered a new angle to an issue that I didn’t even realize I was thinking about (what the hell is happening? Sleep is amazing!). My (now retired, formerly Type-A) mother used to always say: “my priorities are my health, then my family, then my job”. I think it can feel hard to live that, but in applying it I can see that it leads to a fuller life where you have more energy to give to all of those things.

  • Frankie

    A year ago I had my first ever series of panic attacks. I went on a low dosage of anti-anxiety/depressants and started seeing a therapist. Bottom line is that I was totally overwhelmed – ED, three young kids, trying to maintain a marriage, etc. I actually stopped working out b/c something had to come off my plate. It was a good move because it was a relief not to worry about trying to fit it in. I gave myself that permission while I focused on stabilizing. Five months ago I started playing tennis again after a 20 year hiatus. Yesterday my Development Director told me that since I started playing again, I seem happier. Yay!

  • Frankie

    Oh, and I’d love to know the name of the boot camp too 🙂

  • Joan: Your story is yet another application of the oft-quoted bit from the airline safety spiel: “Remember to put on your own oxygen before you assist others”. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t possibly help anyone else. Like most everyone else who has commented here, I identify as a total Type A, and 90% of the time I thrive on it. But that other 10% is misery and cause for meltdowns and binge eating and stupid arguments at home, unless I’m paying attention to the underlying problem, which is unwillingness to just “let it go” for a bit and relax, read, stretch, sing, or simply sit on the front porch and watch the cars go by. Thank you for the reminder! (And PS: if you haven’t read “Girl With a Pearl Earring”, please do. It’s not at all current but I think it’s the most luminous writing ever.)