Written by Lim Paik Lyn
Polly was a successful executive that has been performing exceptionally well in her company. However, the price of that was her overall well being as she worked long hours and did not prioritize her general well being. Her project was extremely demanding as it was a global project in different time zones and required her to work weekends. As a result, she would be so engrossed in her work that she would skip meals and not take adequate rest, resulting in her being moody at work, burning out and requiring 1-2 days to recover before continuing again. Before coaching, she had been working in this manner for several years. She realized that she needed to change her working habits as it was not sustainable; however, she had found it difficult to change her existing ways of working.
She was eager to be coached as she had not found a way to overcome her current working style and wanted to have a more fulfilling life.
Polly wanted to dive deep into the current issue she was facing, which was to have a better work-life balance. I took a step back and explored with her what was her vision for her working life. She mentioned it would be to be a better version of herself that takes care of her physical and mental well being while still doing fulfilling and meaningful work. I then asked her how would she like me to support her in this, and she mentioned she would greatly appreciate it if I could help explore ways to break the cycle of being so engrossed in work that she can’t create a well-balanced life. We then explored what would be an inspiring name of her goal, and she mentioned “A Better Me” was the name of her goal.
We then explored what would be the areas that would support her to be “A Better Me”
She mentioned that she would like the following.
- to have greater awareness during working hours to take breaks instead of pushing herself to complete the following task
- Setting boundaries in place to finish work at a specific time twice a week to spend time for non-work-related activities like playing the piano.
- Taking a day off every two weeks from work.
She mentioned that the first item would be the most important thing to work on as it has been an ongoing issue she has been facing for multiple years. She shared that having incompetent team members was a significant factor that caused her to overstretch herself beyond her capacity. She also shared some of the steps she took to handle the current situation but was still having trouble not overworking. She explained two main reasons for her to overwork was because
- She is so focused on her work that she doesn’t realize the time,
- She was anxious about the impact if she didn’t address issues quickly.
We then explored the two, which was the most significant contributor to her not taking breaks and she mentioned being anxious about not quickly addressing the issues.
Below is the conversation that we had”
Coach: What would happen if you allowed yourself to take a 5 min break before starting on the next issue.
Polly: I would feel anxious and can’t enjoy the break.
I could sense that constant state of anxiety was pushing her until she burned out and that she was in the continuous thought of rushing to close the next issue. I felt it would benefit her to slow down and pause a bit before moving to the next question.
Coach: Would the issue get any worse if you paused for five minutes?
Polly: (Pause) Not really
Coach: If you took a regular five-minute break to just pause and breath, how would you feel by the end of the day?
Polly: I would feel less tired and probably have better headspace.
I wanted to emphasize the importance of taking a break and see if I could leverage her motivation to do well at work.
Coach: How would your work benefit if you took the five-minute pauses?
Polly: I would be less grumpy and moody at work, and I think taking the pause will help me evaluate if the issue is critical. I would have better headspace to plan how to resolve the issue. I sometimes noticed that some issues in hindsight are not as critical.
I recalled that she didn’t get regular breaks because she got so engrossed in the task that she didn’t realize how long it took to complete the work. I took the opportunity to share the connection.
Coach: Notice that if you didn’t take that five-minute break before starting on the next task, the next time you would have stopped work might be a few hours later as you are so focused on work.
Polly: Yes, that is very true.
I then shared an analogy that even the fastest F1 Cars have to force themselves to stop and change their tires, else they will not finish the race or, worse, have an accident if they do not make a pit stop. I also shared that to go fast, sometimes we need to slow down. I asked Polly what her thoughts were about that. She then shared she knew that she needed to take the breaks, but somehow, habitually, she doesn’t and jumps in straight to the next thing.
Coach: How many breaks in a day and for how long each would you need?
Polly: I think two breaks a day would be better, maybe around 15 min each.
Coach: When would you have those breaks?
Polly: When I get some breather from work.
I could sense that she would not pull herself from her work if it weren’t a specific time. I also recalled that sometimes she skipped lunch because she was just so busy. I shared my observation that If she sets a fixed time, it would be apparent to her when the breaks were due, and she would not be tempted to work on the next issue. I also shared that based on our conversation I noticed that she had a tendency to skip lunch if 1 of the break time could be around lunchtime. She then settled to taking breaks at 1 pm for 30 min and 4 pm for 15 min.
Coach: What would help you remember to take the breaks at these times?
Polly: If I get pinged by people or am pulled into a meeting, I will ask them to wait or say that I am not available right now.
Coach: What could potentially cause you to skip these breaks?
Polly: If there is a real crisis that I need to handle asap.
Coach: What would count as a crisis?
Polly: If an issue is not addressed immediately and impacts the project’s schedule, resulting in a delay to our timelines.
I sense that this was a limiting belief and that if not correctly checked every issue would be a crisis.
Coach: Would the issue get any worse even if you took the 15-30 min break?
Polly: No but I would feel very anxious during the break and I can’t relax.
Coach: What would be the worse that could happen in the time that you took the break?
Polly: I might not be able to resolve the issue on time.
Coach: How much time do you need to resolve the issue?
Polly: It depends, sometimes between 1-2 hours.
Coach: Would it be possible then to solve it in 45 min to 1 hour and 45 min?
Polly: Potentially, yes.
Coach: So what would help you to take that break still when there is a crisis?
Polly: I think knowing that I would still be able to handle it after the break. It might even be better to handle it because I have taken a break before it. However, I am worried that I might still be anxious.
Coach: What if every time you take a break, you get paid a million dollars?
Polly: (Laughing), then I would surely take the breaks.
Coach: When you take your breaks, you take better care of your mental health, and health is your wealth. Wouldn’t you say that your health is your wealth?
Coach: So then, would you want to make 2 million dollars every day?
Polly: (Smiling) Yes
Coach: On a scale of 1-10, what is your confidence level for taking the breaks for this coming week.
Polly: 5 for now, just because I won’t be able to say I am confident until I do it.
In the next session, we reviewed her progress, and Polly mentioned that she did take the breaks 80% of the time. Due to the time-sensitive nature of her work she would still feel compelled to continue working sometimes. I felt that there might still be a limiting belief that was not yet addressed.
Coach: Reflecting on when you were still under pressure and did manage to take the breaks, what helped you take the breaks?
Polly: I was physically tired already to my breaking point or I was very angry and frustrated.
Coach: What were the thoughts you had when you felt angry or frustrated?
Polly: This is too much. I can’t handle it I am working already beyond my capacity.
Coach: What would help you have those thoughts before you got angry or physically tired?
Polly: (Pause) I realized I tend not to give up yet and want to solve the problem. Not giving up is something that drives me.
Polly and I paused to let that thought sink in further in her. I could see how this caused her to overstretch herself. I felt that we needed to reframe what it meant by not giving up.
Coach: What if pausing to take a break meant Not Giving Up but actually enables you to be more effective in solving the problem?
Polly: Yes, I can see how that would help, in fact, I could see how shorter sprints and then a pause would allow me to be more consistent instead of needing to take time off because I am too exhausted.
I wanted to anchor her value of not giving up on her personal wellbeing to strengthen her mindset further to prioritize her well being.
Coach: What would it take for you to not give up on your well being when datelines are approaching?
Polly: (Pause and smile) I can see that I am more effective when I take care of myself first and create better results when I am well-rested.
I could sense she had that big breakthrough in her. She then decided she would increase the number of breaks per day from 2 to 4. As such, with her permission, we ended the session earlier.
In the coaching journey with Polly, it was interesting that she initially felt what caused her to overwork was to avoid the anxiety of time pressures and that it was a habit. We uncovered the fundamental underlying belief that not wanting to give up was the key that kept her pushing on even when the situation was beyond her control and to the point of exhaustion. It was a good reminder always to coach the person’s thoughts and feelings instead of the problem as it changes, but a person can always reframe the same problem in a different lens when we uncover their underlying beliefs. I also learned that once a personal value that was causing the issue has been identified, a reframe can turn that value to be the key in helping the coachee breakthrough her problem. I also realized that there is an underlying belief behind every issue. Sometimes the belief is buried so deeply that the client does not even realize it. The coaches’ job is to uncover it and keep trying different ways of asking to uncover it and not fall into the trap of thinking that there is no belief causing the behaviour. It is also ok that the process of uncovering it is through multiple sessions.
I also saw the effectiveness of having multiple coaching sessions as both the coach and the client got to know each other better and have greater context of the client’s thoughts and challenges. The coaching journey helped to iterate the discovery and deep learning process based on the client’s actions—each session was built upon the last session’s actions and insights. Whether the client manages to resolve her issues between the session, it can always be used as a reflection point to uncover what worked and did not and fine-tune the approach in solving the problem.