Turning The Alpha Mode On: Pushing past your normal limits

“How can you work for someone who expects you to work 90 hours in one week?” That’s the question I get from my friends on ADN and at home. They know that I’ve had to push myself really hard this last week or two to step up to a new responsibility that my employer has asked me to take on a short-term basis.

I want to talk (in general terms) about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, the effect it’s having and how I’m dealing with it.

Feeling the burn

A short while ago my boss came to me with a problem that needed fixing. It was a short-term thing—a team that needed leading for three or four weeks to get an important job done. I would have to try and keep my “day job” team working whilst focusing on this important new task.

I knew at once that it would be incredibly demanding. I’ve been involved in something similar before and I knew it would require me to make considerable personal sacrifices to deliver it. In all probability I would be working long days, weekends and possibly nights too. Chances were that I wouldn’t be at home a great deal and wasn’t going to be seeing much (or any) of my family.

I had to weigh up quickly whether the career development prospects of being able to come through for my employer outweighed those sacrifices.

The considerations

I accepted the challenge, despite knowing what it would cost me personally. But why?

  • Career prospects This is the single biggest responsiblity I have ever taken on. It represents an opportunity to lead a large team on a high-profile project. It will demonstrate to my employers that I’m capable of stepping up my game when required.
  • Clearly defined time span This will not be an open-ended request. In a few weeks’ time I will have succeeded, or I will have failed. Either way, once it’s done I will go back to my regular responsibilities and my regular hours. Knowing this is temporary is important, as I can’t sustain my effort long-term
  • The Challenge I’d be lying if I said I didn’t relish the prospect of being “the man of the hour.” I enjoy working under pressure, solving challenges and making decisions. This will test me, and in a masochistic sort of way I’m going to enjoy that

The cost

I’m one week into this four-week exercise and I’m already feeling the pressure. Working 90 hours per week is not a healthy thing to be doing for any period of time, and I’m already feeling the physical and psychological effects. In addition to being tired (oh so tired), I also feel…odd. Disconnected, scrambled, slightly off. It’s the effect of a combination of the stress and fatigue, and it’s taking its toll.

I’m living off a cocktail of coffee, stimulant drinks and sugary snacks. I wake up tired, I go to bed tired and I bounce from one energy high to another. My tolerance has dropped, I’m impatient and irascible under pressure and I have to push my team to get their productivity to where it needs to be.

In short, it’s a pretty crappy environment. But for the time being, it’s working. Things are progressing, problems are solved and the team—although they’re under considerable pressure—are focused and motivated.

The challenge now is to know how far to push myself and my team past our normal limits to achieve an otherwise impossible task, without burning out.

Managing the pressure

There are a few important things to keep on top of when in such a situation:

  • Recharge when possible. Everyone needs to “take a moment” every now and then. A short 5–10 minute break allows you to bring your head up out of the detail and push a few internal reset buttons.
  • No heroics. You have to be aware of the signals people put out when they’re approaching breaking point. Everyone does this in different ways: it could be tears, it could be that they retreat and become reclusive, it could be shouting. When individuals get to this stage it’s important to find ways of reducing the pressure, getting them to stop work and recharge, or simply taking the time to talk to them to help them find some of their reserve energy.
  • Overcommunicate. In an environment like this I try and talk to everyone in my team as much as possible. Regular huddles, 1:1 encouragement, frequent sharing of progress, updates and successes (as well as what’s going wrong). People operate much better when they feel like they have a handle on the situation and that their contribution is visible and valuable. It’s easy to worry that communicating a crisis response will elicit a panic response from the team, when in fact more often than not it results in, “How can I help?”
  • Let the little things slide. People will fall short of expectations, harsh words will be exchanged, silly mistakes will be made. If you jump on every one then the motivation of the team will plummet. Instilling a sense of camaraderie is paramount and you have to find a way to push everyone to high performance whilst not punishing them when they fall short
  • Talk to someone. Leading a team in a situation like this can be a lonely experience. The temptation is to try and be “superhuman” – to seem to rise above the stresses your team are facing. In my experience, showing your vulnerability and admitting when you’re struggling can actually motivate your team and create a stronger affinity with them.

Walk the line

Taking on something like this can be a bit of a tightrope walk; there’s always the risk that a wobble will turn into a huge fall. Like any endurance test, you have to decide if you have the stamina to see it through and whether the ultimate reward will be a justification for the pain you put yourself through.

My endurance test is just beginning. I guess in time I’ll come to understand whether I have been bold or foolish. In the meantime, I need to get some sleep; my next shift starts in six hours…