How do busy leaders deal with “languishing?”

KarenBusiness success, Client Success, Leadership

An artist's palette and paint brushes representing creativity

“What are you seeing and hearing from other leaders these days?”

I often get asked this question, usually as I am wrapping a session with a client. I find that the leaders I work with appreciate the fact that I have multiple points of contact at the senior levels in organizations across many different functions and industries, and they are curious about whether what they are experiencing and noticing is what’s happening elsewhere.

When the question was posed to me most recently I paused, not wanting to default to the standard list of leadership challenges I hear frequently. We are living in unusual times, to say the least, and leaders have been carrying an inordinately heavy load as a result. (Note: I flagged “leader burnout” as a risk about two months into the pandemic).

I also know that many leaders are feeling especially lonely and I wanted to be sure I responded thoughtfully with, ideally, something this particular leader might find relatable.

As I reflected on recent conversations, and considered the situation for the leader who asked the question this time, I came up with one specific trend that I thought was noteworthy and actionable.

Most of the leaders I know who have managed to do more than survive in the past two years have a creative pursuit that they enjoy with some degree of regularity. Not necessarily for long periods, and not with the intent of being brilliant or even producing anything, but something that they can connect with easily and that gives them a little infusion of positive energy. MICRO moments of inspiration or creation. No mess, no fuss, no scheduling needed – accessible experiences of joy and lightness and positivity.

So how is this different than other advice you’ve heard?

In April 2021, Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote a widely circulated New York Times article that sparked adoption of the word “languishing” as a way to describe the combination of dull, lethargic feelings many of us have been experiencing. And to offset languishing he suggests finding “flow” – an immersion in a pleasurable challenge or pursuit.

But the idea of “immersion” in something other than the already daunting array of responsibilities and obligations facing a busy leader is, at least in my experience, getting some pushback. Sure, it’s easy to agree in principle that immersion in something fun or pleasurable would be great, and would no doubt have benefits. But getting there? Another question entirely.

And the definition of “something fun or pleasurable” was, in Grant’s article, inclusive of word puzzles and Netflix – anything that the individual enjoys that generates a feeling of escape. However my anecdotal data doesn’t support either deeply cognitive tasks or passive exposure to entertainment as having the same impact as what I’m about to suggest.

I’m suggesting something really simple. Something everyone can do on a moment’s notice, squeezed in between Zoom meetings and online school (but not at the expense of exercise and sleep, please).

I’m suggesting that regular AND frequent but MICRO connections with a truly creative pursuit – something that engages a different part of the brain than what’s in most use, and that allows for the release of imagination and, ideally, play – can help mitigate some of the effects of continuous stress and relentless demands.

I’m talking about moments. But moments that are recognized for the value they offer. Moments that can be accessed easily and released as smoothly. And maybe – just maybe – moments that are reminiscent of simpler times.

Some examples:

The client who asked me the “what am I hearing” question has a passion for interior design and home renovation. She and her spouse always have a project underway. Most of the time it’s her spouse who’s taking charge of the actual work, given she’s got an executive level role, but she’s always connected to what’s going on. Whether it’s a quick video tour of her newly constructed and decorated laundry room before we start our coaching session, or the immediate identification of the paint colour in my own recently renovated kitchen (from a photo, via Zoom!), she gets quick hits of positive energy from quick hits of her creative interest.

Another client loves photography, but given the lack of photo opportunities she’d normally derive from travel and seeing friends and family she’s let her cameras gather dust for two years. She’s recently committed to taking one photo a day – a photo she thinks about and mentally composes over the course of her day, but that actually requires mere minutes to execute. A quick hit.

Yet another loves to do puzzles featuring beautiful visuals of landscapes or great art so she’s exposing herself to something in contrast to her business day’s text and charts. The current puzzle is always set out on a table in an adjacent room. A couple of minutes of puzzling and she’s cleared the remnants of her previous meeting from her mind.

And another plays the piano. Again, a practice that was largely ignored for a long while, partly because the client had typically played for an hour or more when he did sit down, and finding that hour has been hard (do you suffer from the “If I can’t do it right I’m not going to do it at all” syndrome? Let that go please…). He’s now playing one song a day, and very much enjoying that momentary escape from, well, everything else.

Me? I doodle. Sometimes in colour. While pondering the meaning of life…

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So here’s my challenge. Find a fun thing – any fun thing – that you can do in very small bits. Something you can have fun with. Something you can pick up and put down without a lot of fuss or mess. And ideally something that has no “good” or “bad” but that allows you to engage the creative part of your brain in teeny, tiny bursts. If you have never had a creative outlet, experiment with a new one – allowing yourself to both be terrible and to have fun.

And see what happens.