My 2022 new year’s resolution led me to a frightening series of anxiety attacks that became so acute and terrifying that I messaged a physician friend of mine to determine if I was having a heart attack. Thankfully 3 am for me in Europe is 6 pm for her in California, so she could swiftly and correctly diagnose me as “freaking out.”
I am no stranger to high-pressure situations. I worked at Amazon and Google in the early 2000s and worked 80+ hour weeks for 15 years straight. I couldn’t reconcile how I was feeling now with never having “freaked out” before.
It all started with a worthy goal and mantra for 2022: Do less but better. Nothing wrong with that! But my first attempt to accomplish it was a bit disastrous. The fatal flaw was in how I misinterpreted a critical piece of data.
I started out by doing an audit on January 1st of how I spent my time, influence, and resources in the previous year and measured that against my established values and mission statement to see if I was showing up in practice the way I wanted to in theory. This took a lot of time to do properly, and the results were sobering. But so far, so good. The required changes felt obvious.
I then called upon Pareto’s Principle, or the 80/20 rule, to help me make some big adjustments in my daily routine to engineer my desired results. This economic principle proves that, in general, 80% of your results come from just 20% of your efforts. Do the audit! You’ll see for yourself that it’s universally true!
Now here’s where I made the mistake that led to my anxiety attacks.
I took the results of my audit and then tried to show up 100% of the time in the efforts that I had identified as leading to the majority of my desired results, and I cut all the rest. It made sense at the time but ultimately was a huge mistake! I took my 20% and bumped it up to 100%. I was effectively attempting to live in the death zone.
In mountaineering, “The Death Zone” refers to altitudes above 26,000 feet (or 8,000 meters) where oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for an extended amount of time. Climbers know that they have to regularly come out of this zone to recharge, heal and regain strength between summit attempts. I was effectively attempting to summit my greatest possible heights every single day without coming down. It doesn’t work like that.
I was actually misinterpreting Pareto’s Principle by focusing on the desired results zone rather than on the ratio that powers it. I had flipped the ratio completely backwards! You need it to be “only” 20% of your time, efforts, and resources, creating 80% of the results. And you NEED the other 80% of your time to be rejuvenating and below the death zone.
On my doctor friend’s advice, I had to shift the balance back to 80% of my results coming from “just” 20% of my efforts. This flip felt incredibly self-indulgent at first. It felt like I had cleared out most of my calendar and revenue generation to do, what at first, felt like… nothing!
However, the panic attacks stopped when I finally swapped out a few demanding projects for protected time for continued learning and reflection – which is essential for me as a CEO leadership consultant. This didn’t mean getting an accelerated online accreditation (which was my first instinct). It was simply giving myself permission to read deeply, follow my curiosities down a podcast rabbit hole, and finally subscribe to Masterclass and learn about greatness in other professional arenas than my own.
I also no longer woke up with tightness in my chest at 3 am after I “graduated” several high paying clients and spent those hours each week in my local art gallery (to fuel my creativity and introduce new perspectives), hiking to the lighthouse near my home (to strengthen my body and lungs) and in long conversations with people I admire (to open my mind).
Does this sound whimsical? Let me reassure you that this is not for the faint of heart. At first, I lost over half of my monthly revenue by saying no to most of the requests knocking on my door. I even started panic-calculating my run rate to determine how long I could continue to behave like this! However, it took only 52 (terrifying) days for the revenue to return with one single, new project offer that I now had the mental bandwidth to take on that was firmly aligned with “my why.”
That’s doing less but better.
I realize that there is a good chance that this sounds like a luxury you do not have to demand and that you can’t simply say no to 80% of the projects currently on your to-do list because they were dictated by someone else (whether that be a manager at work or dependents at home). Let me assure you that you can find meaningful change in more ways than you realize, even by applying this model within your existing, limited free time that is within your control.
In summary, here are a few essential steps to get started:
1. Create a guiding personal mission, vision, and values statements that give clarity on what you will say yes and no to going forward.
2. Audit how accurately you are spending your time, influence, and resources accordingly. Say goodbye to projects, people, and spending that is out of alignment and make room for the right things.
3. Add in purposeful, rejuvenating ways to spend 80% of your time, which fuel you with the resources you need to be successful in the efforts that matter most.
4. Spend 20% of your time producing “death zone” level results and enjoy that unprecedented view.
5. Return and repeat.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at just the thought of this, start small. Even just swapping out a morning social media scroll habit that leaves you with a sense of negativity or inferiority with fantasy reading, meditation, a quick run, or a cup of tea can make a huge difference in your energy reserve and effectiveness in the rest of your day.
Once you show up more effectively in your personal life, you will have the confidence to have bigger conversations with your manager, team, and life partners to make these changes in areas that might currently feel outside your control.
You can get out of the death zone and lead others around you to join you in the power zone.
Spend 80% of your time and resources fueling and preparing for your 20% effort pushes and watch dramatic results arrive without the burnout. Pot to kettle: the ratio matters!