Chickens? Wisdom? Give me a chance to explain.

When I’m working with leaders I often find myself coming back to three words of advice inspired by author Greg McKeowen – “protect the asset.” He wrote:

The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.

Too often, passionate and dedicated leaders put all of their energy into producing results, sometimes in service of purpose and contribution, other times in service of ego or external rewards. Regardless of the motivation, many leaders martyr themselves to their jobs. They rationalize their behavior by saying: “I have no choice. This is just what it takes to succeed…” With each incremental decision, they chip away at healthy sleep, proper diet, exercise, and fulfilling relationships.

Stephen Covey calls this a choice to focus on producing golden eggs (e.g., short-term results) rather than caring for the goose that lays them (e.g., our production capacity). Yes, in this metaphor you are the goose. And I am the goose. And we are slowly killing the goose because of a gross imbalance between immediate results and self-care. But now I’m mixing bird metaphors, so let’s get back to chickens!

After reading my blog entitled The Power of the Pause, my colleague and friend (and a brilliant graphic recorder) Kriss Wittmann wrote:

I was just thinking of this constant barrage of thoughts in my head around productivity. What have you done today? What have you accomplished in this upturned year? And then I watch my chickens. I have been so entertained by these girls. We have them mainly for eggs, but they have provided us with many moments of contemplation and joy. I have been caught up in my own production requests from them. “Girls, how many eggs have you laid today?” There is always a chicken out of production and it is natural. When they molt, they don’t lay eggs. When it is super cold, they conserve their energy and don’t lay eggs. As they get older they don’t lay every day. But most days they lay eggs. I feel that nature always has lessons for me. There is a time and a place for our actions. And sometimes we don’t need to lay an egg today. And it is OK.

Kriss’ description points to how disconnected we are from the wisdom of nature. In order to reconnect, consider practicing these three shifts:

Shift #1 — From toxic productivity to sustainable expectations. Our culture values accomplishment, hard work, self-sacrifice, and busy-ness. A packed calendar is a badge of honor. Goals are often unrealistic. We tend to ask ourselves some version of “What have I produced today?”

Putting it into practice: We can train our minds to balance questions about productivity with others focused on personal wellbeing like: What are the small things I can do for myself each day to support my mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing?

Shift #2 — From boundarylessness to healthy limits. In a world where our homes have become our workplaces and our phones are buzzing 24-7, it’s hard to decide when the work day ends. Our desire to be responsive can unintentionally create an expectation that we are available ANY time. That is a trap of our own making. Boundaries almost always involve learning to say “no.”

Putting it into practice: Since email is perhaps the most invasive aspect of our work, advise your colleagues that you do not check email between 7pm and 7am (or times of your choosing). Encourage them to call or text you with truly urgent matters and define what that means. Put an auto-respond on your email after hours with a similar message.

Shift #3 — Constant motion to quiet mind. With our brains working overtime on one or many problems, we are often distracted or not fully present. I’ve adopted a kind of mental clearing “workout” to help me quiet my mind during and at the end of the work day. These micro-workouts take about 6 minutes.

Putting it into practice: Six times daily I get a calendar alarm staying, “get up and walk 250 steps” at which point I stand up and walk to the end of my building and back. But here’s the important part. As I walk I place 100% of my focus on one of three things: 1) I count my steps or 2) I focus on the expansion of my diaphragm as I breath or 3) I place my awareness on the motion of my walking, saying “lift, extend, contact ground.”

Embracing the wisdom of chickens is not about any single technique or tool. It’s about changing our fundamental questions and the way we define “success” in life. It’s about becoming attuned to our limitations and being more generous with ourselves. As Kriss says, “sometimes we don’t need to lay an egg today. And it’s OK.”

Image credit: William Moreland on Unsplash

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