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It’s amazing where life lessons come from in the world when you are tuned into the world around you. Over the last year, I’ve become a published author and frequent blogger, and have learned to be more mindful of the things going on in my life- in case a writing topic uncovers itself. Many of my loyal readers know that I make personal fitness a priority and have a personal trainer to help keep me disciplined and on task. My commitment to exercise is crucial because it not only fuels and strengthens my body, it also provides me comparisons between the experiences I have “working out” to those that I have “working in” both my personal and professional life. Today’s topic appeared as I was gasping for breath during one of my high intensity workouts.

As I was on the brink of exhaustion from a challenging cardio and strength interval, my trainer urged me to, “Focus on the small muscles in the back of your shoulders. Don’t let your stronger muscles take over while you are doing this next exercise.” As I reigned in my emotions and my urge to let a string of cuss words come out of my mouth, my winded, and rather snarky reply was “It’s hard to focus when you can’t breathe.” But in that same moment, I realized how appropriate that was not only to exercise, but also life in general. It is hard to focus when you can’t breathe.

As leaders, we wear many different hats. Not only do we lead our own lives, but our actions also influence and impact our families, friends, co-workers and people in our community at large. With numerous demands, deadlines and activities going on around me, there are days when I feel overwhelmed and struggle to catch my breath. “It’s hard to focus when you can’t breathe, Gina.” And even though I wear the badge of gifted multi-tasker, when pushed to the breaking point like that in my workout, I need to be reminded, “It’s hard to focus when you can’t breathe.”

Here’s two important life and leadership lessons I learned from my plea of exhaustion:

1) Focus
Focus delivers more effective, longer lasting results. My personal trainer was trying to teach me the importance of building the smaller muscles in my body because they are crucial in building and maintaining overall strength. He shared that without focus and concentration on the small muscles, the larger muscles will naturally overtake them and potentially bear too much of the weight-which over time makes them prone to injuries. I realized the same principle can happen with any major project or activity at work or home. I liken it to the “whoever screams the loudest” theory. Can you remember a time when you experienced multiple deadlines or had numerous people demanding your attention? How did you handle it? Did the person that “screamed the loudest” get your attention because you felt it was easier to shut them up and get them off your back? That happened to me many times and my results were rarely effective, because their interruption caused me to lose focus on other key projects. I am not naïve; I understand the pressure that these loud screamers create. However, allowing them to take over causes other activities to be delayed or worse: fail altogether. Losing focus caused a lot of churn and burn for me and others involved in the process. After years of succumbing to the distractions, I realized that to be effective, I had to stay focused. I learned to respectfully say “no” or to negotiate a successful alternative that would produce the best for all parties involved. Leaders keep the focus even when the going gets tough.

2) Breathe
As leaders, we encounter hundreds of distractions each day and our relationship with those distractions determines our ability to be productive and successful. When you try to give attention to every single person, request or demand that comes your way, over the course of a day or week, you may find yourself out of breath and gasping for air. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Breath is the energy of life?” So if breath gives life, it is critical to take time to breathe. My workout reminded me how hard it is to think or do anything when you can’t breathe. Feeling overwhelmed and out of breath rarely produces any results except frustration. That is how I felt when my trainer was telling me to focus on those tiny muscles at the back of my shoulder blades, while I felt like I was dying from lack of oxygen. I wanted to cuss him out, but instead I opted to take one or two deep breaths for maybe thirty seconds. Doing so enabled me to clearly focus on, visualize and direct my small muscles to engage in the exercise. In that moment, I re-captured my clarity and command over my muscles and my workout goal. You can do the same thing at work or home when that sense of pressured overwhelm and breakdown rears its ugly head. Take a quick moment to BREATHE. Breathe in deeply and let it go loudly. You will find it not only clears your mind, but it will also generate an amazing resurgence of energy. Leaders breathe focus and energy into themselves and others.

“It’s had to focus when you can’t breathe.” Let this be your mantra in your busy world at work and at home. You may want to post it on your computer, in your car, or around your house as a simple reminder to not become overwhelmed and to remain focused. Not only will you be glad you did it, but so will your peers, co-workers, family and friends.

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