Planning for Fatigue

“Rather than giving in to the sensation of fatigue, snipers make sure they take deep breaths to oxygenate their brains and look at the way they feel as part of the problem to be solved. This distancing, the dissociative element that snipers develop as part of their training allows them to apply fixes that are ‘good enough’ to help them recover until they can rest properly again.”

This passage is drawn from David Amerland’s book, “The Sniper Mind.” Simply put, it tells us that Snipers plan for fatigue. As Snipers build operational plans, they intentionally include actions they will engage in at the onset of fatigue. Whether part of the formal written plan submitted to higher authority or something Snipers keep in the back of their minds, fatigue is accounted for and planned for.

Why is it necessary to plan for fatigue?  Because fatigue is a reality, and Snipers understand this. As I coach leaders to become better versions of themselves I am often surprised when I see clients avoid planning for situations they can reasonably assume are coming. For example, I coach a union who collaborates with one of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world. While planning for a potentially contentious meeting I found myself having to state the obvious at one point, “Stop pretending you don’t know what’s coming... It’s time to start planning for what you know they are going to do.”  The union followed my advice, planned for what they reasonably knew was coming, and scored a great victory for their membership. So why am I focusing on fatigue?  Because to succeed we need to plan for what we reasonably know is coming; and fatigue is coming.

In his bestselling book, “Triggers,” Dr. Marshall Goldsmith cites what he calls a “belief trigger” that stops positive behavioral change before it gets started:

“I won’t get tired and my enthusiasm will not fade.” 

The basic premise is simply that throughout each day our energy is unavoidably depleted. This is an obvious fact to all of us, yet when it comes to action we seldom take fatigue into account. When reflecting on bad decisions or poor performances in our past we can generally attribute them to some level of fatigue or “depletion”, as Dr. Goldsmith refers to it.  It’s an obvious factor in all aspects of our lives that we seem to avoid accounting for until, of course, it comes time to make excuses.

There are two scenarios when planning for fatigue: one that is within our control and one that is outside of our control. Both scenarios require a plan. The scenario in which fatigue is within our control is simple: we know depletion is real so we can prioritize tasks that require the most energy, thought, and concentration, the tasks that move the needle, toward the beginning of the day. Sometimes we convince ourselves that certain tasks require our full energy, when in fact they do not. Tasks like cleaning off our desk, answering e-mails and voicemails, checking social media, making the social rounds, etc.; while we may be convinced these activities get us into the flow of the day, they don’t move the needle. Cleaning off our desk feels good, as does cleaning out our in-box. However, they are relatively mindless activities that don’t require the precious energy we possess early in the day. If you’re not convinced, track how you prioritize your daily activities for a week. You may be surprised just how much of your most important work is put off as depletion begins to set in.

The scenario in which we plan for fatigue that is outside of our control begs a question:

How we can plan for something that is out of our control?

Refer back to David Amerland’s “The Sniper Mind” as a reminder. According to David, the Sniper acknowledges that fatigue is inevitable during the operation, and it is out of his or her control. The plan to deal with this eventuality is completely different, but it is still a plan. The sniper must set their mindset to tap reserves of energy and commitment. Yes, mindset is part of the plan. The sniper recalls the importance of breathing and concentration and employs them early and often. The sniper is also aware to be on the lookout for any opportunity to rest in advance of the inevitable onset of fatigue. It may not come, but the sniper will be ready to take advantage if it presents itself.

As a Navy SEAL, FBI investigator, and SWAT operator, I have encountered the need to plan for inevitable fatigue countless times throughout my career. In the instances in which I properly planned for depletion it was simply something that was to be dealt with and managed. I can remember with clarity the times I chose to ignore the eventuality of fatigue because those operations were generally less than successful and ran into problems that otherwise would not have occurred. Those instances include combat patrols, late night surveillances, arrests, and suspect interviews after 24-hour days. These are the types of events that move the needle and must be planned for properly.

In the business world, “operations” may look like spontaneous late afternoon meetings with the boss’ boss, end of the day prospect meetings to discuss your proposal, or the client you’ve been chasing for a year that calls you at 5:00 pm and says she has 15 minutes for you…now. All of these are events that can move the needle. Plans for these last second scenarios require two things at a minimum, acknowledgement and commitment. Remember, mindset is plan. If we acknowledge we are fatigued that is half the battle. It allows us to summon the energy reserves we need and then commit to performing at our highest level. This is not intended to motivate, it is real and it is exercised in life and death situations to ensure success.

Important late day events that occur when we are fatigued, whether spontaneous or scheduled, can and should be planned for. Putting our most important tasks on the schedule for earlier in the day can, and should be, planned. Don’t overthink the principle. And if it helps, pretend the event you need to conduct under depletion, or choose to conduct under depletion, will cost lives if you fail. And then ask yourself, “If it’s good enough for the battlefield, shouldn’t it be good enough for the boardroom?”      

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