(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Are you working too long and too hard? Could you achieve more by doing less? Professional athletes are susceptible to over-training -- thinking they must run another mile, do more stairs, or do one more set. But there is a narrow band that the athlete must train within in order to operate at peak performance. If they fall below this line, then they are not physically prepared enough. Rise above this line and they risk injury and physical exhaustion. Are you any different from an athlete who needs to perform at your peak? My experience says no. In fact, it's a tricky balance I'm often helping my executive coaching clients find and sustain.
Dr. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz first introduced us to the term "corporate athlete" in their book, The Power of Full Engagement. They argue that the corporate demands placed on all of us to work more, do more and to operate at a constant level of peak performance requires us to think and train like athletes. That means managing your energy more effectively and not succumbing to over-training -- doing more and more and getting less and less.
How do you know if you are "over-training" and need to take a break? Here are five common symptoms of doing too much and not operating at peak performance:
1. Hopelessness. When you are feeling burned out, the optimism and goal planning for the future you once felt are replaced with apathy, pessimism and just a general feeling that tomorrow will not be better than today. It's hard to get motivated when nothing seems to matter.
2. Exhaustion. If you find yourself downing an ever increasing amount of coffee and energy shots just to stay conscious, chances are you're working too hard and need a break. Exhaustion occurs when the body doesn't have sufficient ability to rest and recuperate. Caffeine is just a Band-Aid -- it's covering up the fact that something is wrong. You shouldn't need 500mgs of caffeine to make it through the day. This is a tell-tale sign that you are performing beyond your limits.
3. Lack of focus. Another way to tell when you are pushing beyond your limits is when you are simply unable to focus on one thing at a time. Often this will creep up at home as well when you find that it's more and more difficult to engage your children or spouse without feeling compelled to text or email. If you find you are having more and more difficulty working on a project or communicating with your family without getting sidetracked, it's time to disengage from work for a while.
4. Irritability. If you are on edge and overreacting to every little issue, it's a sign that you have nothing left in the tank -- every bit of energy you had for humor, compassion, and creativity is gone and all that remains is blame, contempt, and frustration. If this describes you, it's time to do yourself (and your colleagues!) a favor and refill the tank.
5. Physical illness. Athletes are prone to injury when they over train, but while it's unlikely you will tear a muscle during your next presentation, you may experience physical maladies if you've been working too hard and too long. Common physical problems include headaches, digestion problems, back or neck pain and even getting colds or the flu. These are all signs that your body is breaking down from the demands and stress you are putting on it. Time to take a break.
The need to always be "on" and to work more and more hours can lead to over-training and burnout. While you'll still see results -- it's hard not to when you're working 12 hours a day -- what you do accomplish will take ever increasing amounts of energy and focus to continue to achieve. Instead, find your optimum performance zone where you feel rested, engaged and challenged so you can achieve more by doing less.