By Carey Lohrenz
How can you fly your plane with an empty fuel tank? Or when autopilot’s typical soul-sucking solution won’t do the trick? What do you do when you’re feeling drained, uninspired, or just plain meh?
Given that I’m a fighter pilot, you can probably guess what I am going to tell you to do.
You fight. You fight like hell for the life you want. You fight for purpose. And you fight for focus.
During that period of peak burnout in my life, I had to start small. I had to first let some things go, to simplify and focus on what mattered most.
Business proposals were launched when they were done, not agonized over until they were “perfect.” For short-notice house showings, I shoved laundry into the dryer, folded or not, or simply took it out and launched it in the back of my car in a laundry basket. Winning. I didn’t attend every PTA meeting, especially those last-minute ones that could’ve been handled via email. (Sorry not sorry, fellow PTA board members.) I did attend every business board meeting, because those you can’t miss.
At home, I started picking my battles. I focused on what was reasonably within my Span of Control. If my four-year-old insisted on wearing a tutu over her leopard pants for the third day in a row? Fine. As long as she had a clean shirt and clean undies, you do you, girl.
Instead of making homemade cookies every single time the room mom asked, I bought construction paper and gift cards for the teachers. Craft away, kids, craft away.
I had to be OK with sometimes letting go of the idea instilled in me since I was a little girl that fifteen minutes early was on time, on time was late, and late was unacceptable. When your three-year-old pukes all over themselves while wearing a dinosaur costume, soaking themselves and the car seat straps? Well, you’re going to have to grab some Wet Wipes and breathe—because you’re about to be late.
There are many ways to fight for purpose. They include:
- focusing on facts over fear,
- feeling your feelings, and
- facing your failures head-on.
These are all proactive and meaningful reactions to uncertainty and overwhelm. I gave up feeling like I had to be able to do everything right. I had to give up right for right for the moment. I was able to get done what needed to be done and let go of everything I couldn’t. I accepted that certain things were within my Span of Control and others weren’t. It was painful at times, but not as painful as trying to do everything… and ending up doing nothing.
It was a great lesson learned and one I’ve carried forward as I continued to grow my business and raise four kids.
There will be trade-offs on your journey, as there were on mine.
There were countless times people told me I needed to “go big” with my business, “scale for greater impact—now!” But I’ve stayed clear on my purpose and my priorities. Even right now I have a team the size that feels manageable for me; we are touching hundreds of thousands of people a year, and I’m 100 percent there for my kids as well. I actively block off time on my calendar for those dates that I will not compromise on, and I say “no” to those events that won’t serve my family well. It’s a choice. And I’m grateful to have the choice.
But it’s also about being very clear about what my purpose is and what success looks like for me, and I work hard at it.
“Too much” certainly isn’t the only way to burn out. “Too little” is equally draining. If you aren’t living with purpose fueling you, it’s pretty easy to get burned out on the monotony of the day-to-day. What should be meaningful starts to feel mundane.
That’s one of the best things about purpose: it’s burnout’s kryptonite. When you are actively pursuing your purpose, it can help keep burnout at bay. A sense of purpose is the single most important factor in your success, especially during times of overwhelm and uncertainty.
That’s true as much for teams as for individuals. On the aircraft carrier, one of the most dangerous industrial worksites in the world, it was imperative that we all shared clarity of vision and purpose, we all knew what success looked like, and we understood the role we each played in making it a reality. Setting and sustaining that vision was a matter of leadership empowering the team to achieve high performance, to find and hold to their purpose.
In aviation, just as in business and at work, we may not have chosen one another as teammates, but we can all get focused on doing one thing and doing it well. Whether you lead a group of five or 150,000, it’s imperative that you, as a leader, step up and provide the vision that empowers your team. An inspiring vision is the fuel that allows us all to attain uncommon results.
ID Three Things, Do One Thing
In the morning before you turn on your phone, open up your laptop, or have that first cup of coffee or tea, do this: grab your stash of large Post-it Notes and a fat Sharpie marker. Start by writing down your top three things to focus on for the day.
You don’t get five to seven; I don’t care how important you think your role is.
Write down three. This is hard work, don’t kid yourself.
These are your top three things—those that will move your performance needle the most, not a laundry list of things you can easily check off.
Put that Post-it Note where you will see it most—on your laptop, back of your phone, desktop monitor, dashboard … wherever you’re going to see that bad boy fifteen, thirty, forty times a day.
A good way to build your powers of concentration is to practice committing 100 percent to whatever you’re doing in the moment. Do one thing at a time—not two or three or four, not one active thing and one passive thing.
If you’re in a meeting, put your phone away and be present. If you’re writing a speech on the laptop, turn off the Wi-Fi signal so you won’t be tempted to browse. If you’re watching a new TV show, really watch it—don’t scroll Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok.
When you build your focus muscles by doing one thing, you’ll notice that your capacity to focus bleeds over into other areas of your life. You’ll fall into the trap of task switching much less often, and you’ll get a lot better at concentrating on what matters most.
About the Author:
With no signs of the ‘Great Resignation’ slowing down, Carey Lohrenz , was the first female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot in the U.S. Navy, and author of Span Of Control : What To Do When You’re Under Pressure, Overwhelmed, And Ready To Get What You Really Want (ForbesBooks, June 2021).
From landing planes on aircraft carriers in the middle of the ocean to managing a successful business and family life — Carey has mastered staying in control. Through life’s triumphs and tribulations, the unprecedented and the welcomed, Lohrenz developed a mindset that would change the way she handled any challenge sprung on her.
Span of Control, referring to the Navy definition, offers a clear path out of the chaos and overwhelm that often accompanies our biggest challenges and moments of distress — by focusing attention and effort explicitly and relentlessly only on the limited number of priorities that can be controlled.