You Can't Run on an Empty Tank

We expend huge amounts of emotional and mental energy every day at work. You need to replenish periodically to avoid crashing and burning

One time about 10 years ago, for no apparent reason, I broke out in hives. I couldn't for the life of me imagine what I'd eaten or drunk or rolled in that would have caused these awful red spots to appear. I asked my wise voice teacher, Winifred, for advice, and she filled me in on the Barrel Theory of allergy. Your body is like a barrel, she said. We can only take so much exposure to allergens without any trouble. When the barrel is full, that's it: One more chemical in the dry-cleaning fluid on your suit or the wrapper on your ballpark hot dog, and you've got hives. Often, it's not any one thing that does it, but the accumulation of toxic stuff that just fills the barrel to overflowing one day.

At work, we have things to do and people to see and deadlines to meet all day long. And as we work, we expend tremendous amounts of mental and emotional energy. Some days are productive and empowering; others are frustrating, boring, or crazy-making. The good news is that the energy doesn't all go in one direction; our work can fill our fuel tanks up as easily as it can drain them. Little things like praise and companionship and encouragement give us the energy to keep going.

Ever notice how there's one recurring meeting or event (often connected with budget time!) at your job that sucks the energy out of you—while other activities give you extra juice? It's good to pay attention to these energy-giving and energy-draining aspects of your job. The truth is, you can't run a race on an empty tank, and if your job is taking more fuel than it's giving you, you're going to hit empty.

Find a Sounding Board

There are a few ways to keep the needle on your fuel tank out of the red zone. One of them is to spend time with the people who are the most supportive of you. If your boss isn't one of them, look for a colleague who can band together with you in a two-person mutual-support society. It sounds trivial, but an empathetic listener is a powerful energy source when you're frustrated or stuck at work. Even if you're not a small-talker or someone who naturally makes friends at work, I encourage you to invest in one relationship that will help you on those days when your gas tank's nearing the red line.

Another way to manage your mental/emotional barrel on the job is to plan your day so that the most negative events don't happen when you're tired and ready to go home. If you have an awful task to accomplish—say, battling with the IT director over your team's network support—don't leave it until 4 p.m., when you're already fried. Look at your schedule with an eye toward your barrel's capacity. If the always-draining weekly sales meeting is at 3 p.m., give yourself a break afterward before trying to hash out the new marketing brochure copy with your control-freak copywriter. Or make sure you plan a coffee break at 4 p.m., or something enjoyable for after work. Managing your emotional energy isn't just convenient; it'll make you more effective on the job.

Support Others by Supporting Yourself

When people ask us the casual question, "What do you do?" we say things like "I manage risk for a small bank" or "I design document-imaging systems" or "I train nonprofit leaders in financial management skills." But none of these are the real answer. It would take too long to say "I soothe bruised egos at 10, talk my hysterical boss down from the ceiling at noon, and duke it out with HR at 2:30." They call it knowledge work, but there's at least as much people-management to do at work as there is knowledge management, and the emotional toll is enormous. Some of us should get hazardous-duty pay for managing the tantrums, rages, meltdowns, fears, jealousies, delusions, and insecurity attacks of the people around us. Just remember: You can't help anyone else unless your own barrel is full of gas. You'll do yourself a favor if you approach your job with an eye toward replenishing the fuel you spend so freely, all day and every day, and if I'm not mistaken, probably even as you read these words.

If you run out of gas on the job, you won't necessarily break out in hives, but you may burn out and do something regrettable. And trust me, no one will say, "Well, he was giving so much to all of us, the poor thing just crashed." At least not in any company I've ever heard of. Better to manage your intake and output of emotional energy and keep your tank full enough to get you over the finish line.

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