11th July, 2023

Embrace Your Capacity, Not Your Limits

With Dr Sarah Coope

Photo of Dr Sarah Coope

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On this episode

High-stress and high-performance professions like healthcare often push people beyond their limits. When this happens, stress and burnout are often the unfortunate consequences.

In this episode, Dr Sarah Coope joins us to discuss how to avoid burnout by embracing your capacity. She delves into finding your optimal stretching point for each of your limited resources. Sarah also examines the nature of our fear of saying no. And we explore the consequences and benefits of managing and maintaining your capacity.

If you find yourself stretched too thin, then this episode is for you.

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About the guests

Dr Sarah Coope photo

Reasons to listen

  • Understand your limits and capacity.
  • Discover how to shift your mindset and avoid burnout.
  • Learn how to embrace your guilt.

Episode highlights


Shifting Your Mindset to Embrace Your Capacity


Saying No to Avoid Overstretching Yourself


Identify Your Optimal Stretching Point


Managing Emotions and Language Usage


How to Deal with the Guilt From Saying No

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: Do you find it hard to admit when you’ve reached your limits? Or even if you know you’ve gone way past them, do you find it hard to let people know? Or feel guilty about saying enough is enough? And do you hate thinking that you are in fact limited? Does it sound too negative to you? Many of us in healthcare feel angry when we’re forced to confront our limits and saying no to stuff just because we’re limited, can feel really restrictive and well, limiting. But what if we thought about it in a different way?

What if we thought about our capacity instead of our limits? After all, we know we can only fit so much luggage into a suitcase or pour so much water into a glass before it’s full. And if you find it difficult to embrace the limits of your time, energy or even attention, then maybe the concept of being at capacity will be more helpful.

This week on the podcast, our guest is Sarah Coope, GP, executive coach and trainer, who shares with us a new way of thinking about our limits. Instead, we think about our capacity. We talk about why we find it so hard to recognize when we are at capacity and how constantly operating on the edge of burnout can limit our awareness of how stretched we really are.

We talk about some simple strategies to operate within our capacity and how we can communicate with others when we are full. So listen to this episode if you want to find out why we find it so hard to accept the limits on our time, energy and attention, a simple way of determining if you’re at capacity in four important areas of your life, and some helpful way to share with others when you’ve reached your capacity.

Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, the podcast for doctors and other busy professionals in high-stress, high-stakes jobs. I’m Rachel Morris, a former GP now working as a coach, trainer and speaker. Like frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water, many of us don’t notice how bad the stress and exhaustion have become until it’s too late. But you are not a frog. Burning out or getting out are not your only options.

In this podcast, I’ll be talking to friends, colleagues and experts and inviting you to make a deliberate choice about how you live and work so that you can beat stress and work happier. If you’re a training manager or clinical lead and your teams are under pressure and maybe even feeling overwhelmed, we’d love to share our shapes toolkit training with you. Our practical tools are designed by a team of doctors and practitioners who know what it’s like to work in a stretched and overwhelmed system.

With topics like how to take control of your time and workload, deal with conflicts and managing stress, from team away days and half-day sessions to shorter workshops and webinars online or face-to-face, we’d love to find out how we can help your team work calmer and happier. We work with primary care training hubs, ICS wellbeing teams, new-to-practice GP fellowships, hospital trusts and lots of other health care providers with staff from the frontline. To find out more, drop us an email or request a brochure at the link below.

Sarah Coope: I’m Sarah Coope. I’m a former GP and working as a medical educator and executive coach. I also do some work with you as a shapes trainer. And yes, I’m delighted to be here with you today.

Rachel: It’s wonderful to have you with us, Sarah, because whenever we get together, we always end up having these discussions about how do we set boundaries? How do we say no? And I remember quite recently you telling me about this new model around limits and boundaries that you’ve been working on with people that just seems to land really well. I thought we need to talk about on the podcast.

Before we go into that, just tell me a little bit about sort of your journey into this sort of work. What interested you in this in the first place?

Sarah: So my backstory is that I have suffered with burnout. Even though I teach on it, I freely admit that I succumbed to burnout, lots have come to it, I certainly experienced burnout. And I think they’ve had a lot of learning from that. And one of the big pieces of learning for me was recognizing how hard it was sometimes to say no, and to really find what my limits are and to stick to them. Just you know, despite knowing, as I said, knowing kind of what I know about it.

I think I think that’s sort of helpful sometimes to recognize how do we put it into practice for ourselves. It’s often a bit like as doctors isn’t it, we know how to be healthy but yet sometimes we struggle to do the things that keep us healthy physically. And so that’s sort of my backstory is sort of having trod that path of burnout and then taking the learning from that, I think to sharing my insights and I know it’s different for everybody but really share my insights in the people that I’m coaching or reading sessions with.

Rachel: As you know, we do a lot of work with people in our workshops don’t wait around saying no and around what stops it. But I guess before you even get to saying no, I think a lot of us struggle with actually knowing what to say no to or even knowing that we need to say no in the first place. And I was interesting when you said just now or I succumb to burnout, and then you corrected yourself, “Oh I experienced burn out.”

Because at the back of our minds, we feel that burnout is somehow meaning that we succumb to it, we’ve been weak enough to get ill, et cetera, et cetera. Whereas we all know that burnout is a workplace disease. And we’ve got one of our slides in our training, haven’t we, if you put someone who has very high resilience skills, if you put them in a very, very toxic workplace for long enough and keep them going at it and at it and at it, then they will burn out as well.

It’s not a question of succumbing. It’s the question of it happening, if there are no limits, if there are no boundaries. And I think one of the things that I guess I’ve noticed with people that do burn out, and I, you know, I always think have I burnt out myself? I think I have, I just didn’t recognize it at the time. And it was a long chronic burnout. It wasn’t just a bunch of massive, massively, “Oh, I’ve burned out”, but it was just over a series of many years and many months, particularly when I had small children.

My experience of myself and also, you know, doctors, and particularly professionals in high-stress jobs that to burnout is that one of the reasons is they are not recognizing their own limits. And they’re still carrying on thinking they’re superhuman. And it’s not because they’re vain, or because you know, they have an inflated ego, it’s just conditioned into us through our training that we are somehow different from other people, whereas everyone else has to have breaks and can only do certain amount of hours without need didn’t go to sleep, for some reason, we are different.

This is deeply ingrained stuff, how do we help ourselves actually recognize that we have any limits?

Sarah: It’s a really good question. I think there’s just one thing that really stood out to me was that we can just keep going and keep going and keep going until we can end up at that place of burnout. And I was reading something that was saying about how our awareness can be blunted. And the person I was talking with was sayings a bit like somebody who can take a lot of alcohol. And they almost don’t feel the effects of it. But actually, of course, it’s causing that toxic effects in their system and would have significant impairment if they tried to drive but they don’t feel drunk.

I think for some of us, it’s almost like our awareness has been blunted, so we don’t notice the signs that are showing us that we’re in danger. And, so then we ignore those limits and ignore and then don’t set boundaries as a result. And I think that can be really true, that sort of sensitivity to recognizing, and I think on my reflection for myself, I think I did notice some signs, but I almost had that blunted awareness, because like you said, it was a period of time. it built up over time.

One thing I can think about is that we can we get so used to living at that full stretch capacity, that we don’t notice it, that is the new normal, that’s the normal for us. It’s not a new normal, it’s a chronic normal for us. And anything less than being sort of overstretched doesn’t feel right somehow. And so we can almost seek the overstretch unconsciously sometimes, because that’s what feels kind of comfortable on some level, but not comfortable on another. And I think we can have this tension going on all the time.

Rachel: I completely agree with you. And I know that in the past, when suddenly I feel that I am on top of my workload, or I’ve got stuff done, I suddenly feel worried. What have I missed then? I’m not feeling stressed and nearing burnout? Have I just completely missed the fact that there’s all this to do? And you’re right, because we have been working at that pace, since we qualified and yeah, I think a lot of us don’t know what it’s like to not be on the edge of burnout, which is, when you think about that, that is really depressing state of affairs, isn’t it?

It’s not nothing to be boastful about or to pat yourself on the back about it’s like, honestly, what do we think life is about? What do we think life is about? Is it about living? Or is it just about racing at 100 miles an hour, so we can get to retirement age and then just collapse because we had so stress for so long?

Sarah: I think that’s so true. And a big piece of learning for me, it’s being around recognizing that I am a human being, not a human doing. And again, I’m so used to being a human doing that I didn’t know or I’d forgotten what it felt like just to be and so part of me recovering from burnout needs was that I needed to learn how to be and one of the silly things in a way that I started doing was setting myself a timer for five minutes and just sitting and being and not let myself do anything, which sounds really ridiculous in some ways, but I challenge the people listening, say do that.

Just try sitting for five minutes and being and you think, of course, that’d be that’d be fantastic. But actually, there’s an impulsive, like you said, there’s an impulse, they’ve sort of drive like I should be doing something. I should be doing something. And so I have really trying, I’m really learning to stretch my being muscle and slowing down enough just to be present. So that’s been part of the learning for me as well as recognizing and embracing my limits and learning how to handle those.

Rachel: Yeah. It’s amazing in one of our communities for sometimes to just the two minutes silence just sitting there and everyone goes, “Oh, that was lovely.” That was lovely thinking. That was two minutes silence. That is totally doable for everybody here several times a day, but we just don’t do it, do we? We don’t give ourselves permission to do that. So you’ve got this interesting model you were waving your hands about with a rubber band.

Okay, so tell me about how you conceptualize at helping us work out what limits? Because I think when we think about limits, we often think, okay, well, your limits at sleeping, and perhaps a bit of energy, but there are other limits I think that we don’t think about as well.

Sarah: Yeah, I think this came to me. So I often like kind of like, say, conceptual ideas of illustrating things, often something comes to mind when I’m sort of reflecting on it or thinking how to teach a concept. And so it was quite a while ago, we were talking about limits. And then you’ve talked a lot about embracing limits and I was sharing with a coaching client of mine, who is a doctor, and she really didn’t like the thing, the thought of being limited.

She just had a sort of a reaction to that, which was interesting, we explored that. So when I was trying to suggest to her, you know, about embracing your limits, there was a real sort of push back. And so I was thinking, and I think we had a brief conversation when we met at once and I thought maybe rather than just embracing your limits, maybe we need to think about embracing our capacity, and frame it that way. And actually, she responded much better to that. And so then I can’t continue thinking.

What I came up with was a little sort of, like, say, concept. So if you’re listening, and he wants to draw something out, you maybe it’s helpful to draw a square. And so your square represents your capacity. And each side of the square represents your limits. And so your limits spell the word team, T, E, A, M. So T for time, we all have a limited amount of time, we love, we’d love to have more, but we are all actually equal on that.

E is for energy. So we all have a limited amount of energy. And we choose where to spend that. And we can break our energy down into physical energy, emotional energy, mental energy, spiritual energy, as well. A is for attention. We have limits on, if it’s a fallacy that we can multitask, isn’t it really, you know, we can really only put our attention on one thing at once, where we put our focus, and then M is for money, most of us have a limited amount of money.

I was just sort of thinking and sort of talking with the person I was coaching about the fact that yes, did she agree that we have these limits? And yes, she did. So then it was a sense of, okay, we have a limited amount of of these things, what do you want to put in your square as your capacity? And then as I thought a bit more, I thought about circling or squaring the square with an elastic band.

If you imagine putting a pin in each of those corners, and then putting an elastic band kind of round the corners, and recognizing that when we stretch any of those limits, I was showing, it wasn’t I were waving my hands about as you said, you know, with elastic band making a square. If we stretch time, imagine that corner being stretched out. It really distorts the square. So yes, we might fit more in our capacity, and be able to do more with our time. But the problem is the stretch on us and how that feels.

Again, we might choose to do something or say yes to something that really stretches our energy, and pulls us out again, of sort of that comfort position. And really, it’s not that we shouldn’t stretch our comfort zone. But it really pulls us into discomfort and sort of on the Yerkes Dodson curves down that right-hand side, or we overstretch our attention. We try and sort of managed to many things. And that really affects our concentration or ability to make decisions to make decisions well, and for those of us working in healthcare, it could affect our ability to actually make good clinical decisions if we’re overstretching our attention.

Yes, money can be overstretched, too. And it’s important to look at that and think about how we use money wisely. But particularly when I’m working with people in this sort of field, it’s really our time, energy, our attention and recognizing it with the elastic band going around the edge of that square, thinking about how the square can get distorted really gave me the idea that how am I feeling right now? If I say yes to that request, or that invitation? Or put extra things in my diary? Is that going to stretch my time, my energy, my attention? And is that a good stretch? Or is that actually an unhealthy stretch?

That was one way of looking at and I think the other thing was, what do I actually want to choicefully put in my square? That is definitely in there. And what are the things that actually I want to put outside my square? So it’s a bit like your zone in the zone of power, isn’t it in terms of what’s in our control and what’s outside, but this is more about your choice in that. What you choose to do with your time, your energy, and your attention. So I don’t know what you think about that, Rachel.

Rachel: I love that concept. Because as you were saying that I was thinking, “Oh, wow, that is so important.” It’s reminding me of the concept of the gas burners, which I don’t know if you’ve heard before. I think it’s to do with energy sort of I think someone once said, you’ve got, I think three or four gas burners in your life. One of them was work. One of them is family. One of them is hobbies, something like that. And then they said, and you can only have two of these gas burners on at once.

You’ve only got enough gas or two of these gas burners. So you can do work and family work and hobbies, or family and hobbies. But you can’t have all three, Now, I hate that. Three, there might have been a fourth, there, maybe there was a fourth, I’m sure people can write into me and tell me if there’s a fourth one. I hate to a) because I’m a number seven on the Enneagram. And so I love freedom. And so I just wondering, I’m thinking about your coaching, I bet she was a seven, because sevens hate the fact they think they’ve got limits.

Sarah: Yeah, constrained by anything.

Rachel: Yeah. I don’t want to be constrained. But if you say what I’ve got only got capacity that is much more freeing, really. So limits is very negative, isn’t it? An it means that I am constricted. But if you talk about capacity, then it’s, I can choose what I use that capacity for and that’s much more freeing. And I prefer that to the gas burner thing, because actually, I might want a little bit of family and a little bit of work a little bit.

I think maybe friends was number four. That was it friends, family, work and hobbies. You can’t have all four, you got to choose three.

Sarah: I would disagree with that. But you can. And it’s just how you choose to use your resources, isn’t it? Your limits tend to make that happen in a healthy way.

Rachel: Totally. But then if I’m thinking about what stops me saying no, I do have a little bit of guilt around saying no and very over-responsible gene. But there is a thing about FOMO. You know, fear of missing out. That sounds fun, I’d love to do that. But if I’m then thinking actually, what is in my capacity, and I’m weighing up that thing I’m just about to say yes to with something else I’d like to say yes to thank you.

Well, actually, if I was gonna choose between thing a which yes, sounds great now, or thing be that I really want to do. But I’ve just said yes to thing a I just haven’t really been thinking about it. But I’m saying no to thing B, actually, I’m thinking about what is in my capacity that I actually want to do. And that is a lot better. I think it’s a little bit like money, you know, when you are deciding what am I going to spend my money on?

Well, if I spent it on that, I can’t have that. That’s a very, very black and white thing. But we fail to think like that about time, energy or attention.

Sarah: And that’s what I think I was, where my thinking went sort of over a period of time, when I was pulling on this was around money and recognizing because I had to do a little bit when I took some time off being burnt out and had a bit of a change of career, I had to do something thinking around money. And so because I was conscious of like, how much are we spending? What are the direct debits? What are the savings?

It actually made me apply the same questions to my time, energy and attention. So if I choose to spend my time on that, what can I not do? And how do I make some time savings? How can I make things more efficient? What can I automate? And you know, we talked about that? I mean, what can we delegate? But also, you know, with my energy, what and who will be a deposit in my energy bank? What is a expenditure in my energy bank? How can I save some energy? So sometimes it’s deciding to sleep longer, go to bed early, it can be a way of saving energy. Yes, it’s less, there’s less sort of time isn’t there? But so it’s those sorts of things.

I think having the same approach and I sometimes ask people this, if you were overdrawn financially, how would you get back into a balance, financial balance? And what would you put in place going forward? And I suppose burnout is overdrawn, probably in time, energy and attention in those three other areas, isn’t it? And stress often is because we’re overdrawn in those things if we felt overwhelmed. So how do we use the same approach that we would use logically and analytically to get our finances back on track that we can also apply to those other symptoms less tangible?

We haven’t got an app that we can go on that tells us if our time balances that? Well, the calendar does. But if we, you know, we log on to our banking apps don’t when we see how healthy it looks. But maybe we don’t check in with ourselves, actually, what’s my energy balance like my attention, balance? And as you were saying, Rachel, choosing between two different sort of options that you could spend your time and energy and attention on. Probably, you knew you wanted to do one of them and the other was kind of because you liked the idea of it. But actually, if you weighed it up in that way, what insights would that give you?

Rachel: I’m just thinking, Sarah, what’s going through my head, and I can imagine what’s going through a lot of the listeners’ heads is, you know, okay, I would love to be in that position where I can choose what I spend my time on, or when I can choose what I spend my energy on, but I don’t have any choice. I’m stuck. I have to do it. And then as I was thinking that, I guess I answered my own question.

I would be interested in your thoughts because I was at a point a few months ago, I was feeling really overwhelmed. And someone got my diary and they said, “Right, okay, we’re going to cut out half of what’s in your diary.” I said, I can’t I literally, I just can’t. And she looked at this stuff. She was like, “Well, what about that one?” That one, I thought, and she said, yeah, you can. And when I did, that the person say I had to cancel an appointment, whoever the person was totally fine about it.

Or I said, I can’t do that. Can I push that back? Can I change this? Nobody batted an eyelid? Nobody did. And I think there is something around keeping your commitments that you’ve said you’re going to do and I feel very strongly about that. Although I think I need to do a bit of work about that because, sidenote, I was talking to someone recently in the car, who told me, “Oh, I used to have a coach. And whenever they didn’t have enough energy to see me, whenever they knew they couldn’t be perfectly present with me, they would just cancel our coaching appointment.”

I was like, that is just not on. I could, I’m seeing your face now. I wouldn’t do that. But maybe why not? She really challenged us. Like I said, that is so unprofessional. She said, “Why? She knows that she can’t be at her best. And she hasn’t got the energy and capacity to coach me, she would just call.” She was so boundaried, well boundaried and used herself the word.

She said, “No, I don’t have the energy.” But then I said, “But I would expect a professional to manage their energy so that they were able to see me, right?” Maybe that’s the answer to that. But then it’s like, well, actually how often we know as professionals, there are times when you’ve had a such a, you know, you’re seeing patients seeing patients, seeing patients, and there’s a couple that do take up a lot of emotional energy, and you just feel completely wrung out. And it would have been much better if you said “Actually, I cannot do anything more now. I can’t see anything.”

I don’t know. And I’m still struggling with this question of because I firmly believe that your yes should be your yes. And your no should be your no. And once you’ve said yes, you commit to that, but actually, if we’re saying yes to everything, and then feeling we can’t possibly let people down because of our own internal integrity values.Well, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. What do you think?

Sarah: I hear you and I think I agree with this sort of if I’ve made a commitment, I will see it through eight. But I do also think there’s some journey. And like you said, some work to be done on this because maybe it goes back a step to what do I say yes to in the first place, knowing my capacity so that if I have said, “Yes, I am likely, you know, my heart is in it, I recognize I have capacity.” And therefore in order to honor that commitment, I’ve then got to filter out other things to be able to do those things. So it’s only about sort of simplicity.

I suppose also there are things where I say yes to it, and then I get to it in my day, I’m like oh, I’d really say almost with the coaching that I don’t have the energy for I’ll still do it, but I suppose then I try and think what stopped me. Why why did I feel so overstretched at that point when I thought that was going to be okay, and try and learn from that and put things in place. I do think it’s challenging, though, isn’t it with the healthcare situation and seeing patients when it’d be very hard, wouldn’t it, to feel like we could say to a patient, I can’t see you because I don’t have the energu.

I suppose we’ve professionally want to manage again, because it’s a managing our energy and our attention so that we can be as present for patients as possible. I think the challenge is that often we feel very overstretched with the demand. And it doesn’t always feel like you know, that we can control that. But I think we can control our attention sometimes. I don’t know how often you caught yourself doing this when you were seeing patients and we will quickly check out NHS emails or you know, a phone between patients, and that would really affect our attention, or our energy sometimes, or perhaps we wouldn’t take the breaks that we needed.

Those are the things we can do even if it feels like we can’t say no to an immediate demand.

Rachel: Yeah, I was coaching somebody who, again with a GP, and was feeling so strung out on their days on call. So they really struggle with the days on call. And actually, they couldn’t control the workload of what came in, they couldn’t control the way that the surgery was doing the on-call. But actually, we looked at what then they had to do in the evening. And what was happening is that they were going home, doing tea, bath, bed, with the kids, etc, etc.

By the end, by the time they got to nine o’clock, they were, just had nothing left in the tank. And we talked about making the simple change that actually, they had an agreement with their partner that on the Wednesday, so it was Wednesday on a Wednesday that the partner would be responsible for tea, bath and bed and that this GP would go swimming on their way home.

Then when they got back, kids would be in bed, they would have a quiet meal, and suddenly the day just got 100% better. And that was totally fine. And they were just feeling a bit guilty for letting their partner do stuff but you know, totally fine, right? We all know that’s absolutely fine. And it’s about planning and that really transformed things for them. So that is a really good example of controlling what you can, isn’t it?

Sarah: And recognizing that as far as I’m showing you I’m showing you my squares, my elastic band. Obviously listeners can’t see this. But I guess at the end of the on-call day, the capacity for time was really stretched the energy and her attention was all overstretched wasn’t it, so she needed to bring that back in. By doing this by swimming, which gave her I suppose the chance to kind of come back down to a more sort of resourceful state.

There’s some research, talking about the third space. So we all need that third space don’t we between work and home. So the swimming was giving her that. And so for some people, it might be the commute home, it might be that actually you don’t have much of a commute. so then you need to create something or you go in your garden for a bit when you get in or you go for a walk. Or if you’ve got children, it isn’t easy to create a third space, if you are sort of going straight back into that. And I know what that can be like.

But there is something about intentionality isn’t there in creating that third space in order to bring back our overstretch to a more resourceful stretch? Otherwise, we’re going to snap literally, aren’t we? And I’ve had that moment when I get in from work and the kids are clamouring.

Rachel: Yeah. I just think, you know, both you and I largely work from home, I know we’re sitting at you know, I’m sitting in my office, you look like you’re sitting in your living room.

Sarah: This is my office as well, got an office.

Rachel: But often I am, I just work right up until I have to run and get the food ready or something like that, actually, I could quite easily stop 15 minutes early. The person that’s keeping me working is me. 15 minutes early, go make a cup of tea, sit in the garden for 15 minutes. It’s giving, I think buffers is really important in creating that third space buffer where you can just unwind and reflect.

Sarah: To that margin, isn’t it? So I think this the holding back this square is about and obviously you have a shape that there is a square and we talked about that, don’t you? But this square is I suppose around how much capacity do you have? And everyone has a different amount of capacity, depends on your life stage or the sort of commitments, your responsibilities. So just sort of defining for yourself, like how much capacity do I have?

What are your priorities, that no matter what you will say yes to and that you actually they help to manage your time, your energy, your attention in a positive way. And then also leaving some space in that square. So again, you know, how much space do you need, some of us need more thinking space, I’m definitely introverted and need that space to think and that time to just reflect. If I don’t I know that overstretched is my energy and my attention.

Yeah, just recognizing what out of these fours have limits, how much do you have of each and then how big like, again, the bank balance? How much do you want to spend? And how are you going to spend it and I think just accepting that it is limited, but reframe it as this is how much kind of how much budget I have, can be really helpful. And there are things that can that we can do. So I could invited to ask you what is one way that you might spend your time, so you’re spending the time but actually it gives you back energy and attention.

Rachel: One way that I like spending my time is yeah, I got quite into growing flowers in my garden. And that is nice. The other thing is I do like seeing friends for coffee or brunch. And that really does re-energize me, but it does have to be the right sort of friends isn’t it? Because like you said, connection is good for humans, but not all connection is equal.

There is some connection that you will have and you will feel that will be a net drain on your energy and your capacity. So you do need to just be a little bit mindful of that. It’s not never see those people. It’s just maybe budget budgets and energy and time doing something else.

Sarah: That balance. And I think another bit of learning for me from burnout, recovery was around pace and balance. So if we’re working at a very intensive pace, you know, we need to then intentionally set things that balanced that that out. So yeah, so it’s again, what can you put in your square that’s a real priority that you’re definitely gonna say yes to? What are the things that are going to actually help to keep you in balance? And then outside the square?

What are the things that are probably the things that stretch you? And it’s not saying we should never do these things we have to you know, work does stretch us, does stretch our time, it does stretch our energy or attention? But you know, how then are we going to then bring that back in, then that’s the balance bit. And so there’s a lot of research has been done around performance and recovery in the sports field isn’t there?

You know, we know who’s watching a Wimbledon tennis match that they don’t play, they’re not in performance zone all the time. They go back into recovery every couple of matches, don’t they and then have a bit of recovery and go back into performance. But often we feel in health care that we have to be in on in performance all the time. And we don’t put any bits of recovery and maybe this sounds like a pipe dream because I know it’s so it feels overstretched at work but if we can put some micro recovery in during the day it will help us to perform more effectively and not drain our energy so much.

Rachel: Again another GP I was coaching, they said that I think they’d listened to the podcast and they’d started going off in you know, senior partner at lunchtime going off to the local park and sitting under a tree for 45 minutes and And you know, I’m sure most people listen to this go, I couldn’t even do that for five minutes. But he genuinely said he got that time back by efficiency in the afternoon. Having done that, he ate his lunch, 45 minutes under a tree made him so much more productive and efficient in the afternoon.

I guess it’s about the rhythm of life, isn’t it? Um, I’m feeling quite connected with nature at the moment, because we did our You Are Not A Frog, off-grid thinking retreat where we really connect with nature and, you know, learn some lessons for nature. And I think, actually, at one point, I actually hugged a tree, it was really there was no picture ever, you’ll never see a picture of me do tree-hugging, but oh, my word it was lovely. It was soft. And but nature, you’ve just seen, nature just does not go but the whole time it dies down, calm and out again, in the nighttime or the flowers go like this. And then it comes out there is a natural rhythm of stuff.

We are just on the go all the time. So you’ve got your hourly rhythm, whether you need your breaks, you’ve got your daily rhythm, you’ve got your weekly rhythm, your monthly rhythm, your yearly with them. But when the workload expands, and expands and expands the rhythm just gets cut off. And I know, you know, in some religious circles, there’s been a lot of talk recently about reclaiming Sabbath or reclaiming, you know, that the day off whatever it is for you.

It does seem that human beings do much, much better. When we have that day of no work. And they actually perform better. I get all my ideas when I’m not working. If I get all my ideas in the shower.

Sarah: You have something? You’re not alone with that one. I suppose what’s happening then is you’re not attended to being pulled in lots of directions. You’re yes, you’re just stopping. And it goes back to just being doesn’t it. And I think I agree that there’s a sense of we probably we are wired to need that time. But we it’s so hard, isn’t it, I will hit a homerun I hear a lot of people probably will be feeling I want to do that. But I can’t, as you sort of said, you know, similar to your diary that you need to get rid of these things. And there’s this real sense of I just can’t do that what will happen?

I think we have to really challenge ourselves and go and really, really test ourselves with that. Because if we continue being overstretched in all areas, or at least three of those corners, you know, we will snap at some point. And I was thinking earlier today about the different levels of snapping. So there’s kind of loose where the square was kind of, you know, really just and that’s not always good to be completely contracted. There’s kind of slack, which is probably where we want to be with a bit of slack.

Then there’s I put musical because do you ever, did you ever make an in primary school, a guitar using an elastic band? Yeah, yeah. Right. So remember how the elastic band pings at a certain tension. So I was thinking there’s a musical tension. I really like that, because I’m quite musical, that actually when our stretches just right, there’s a creativity and you said about having that creativity when you’ve got just the right amount of space and time off. And so I just, yeah, invite people to think about where’s the right level of tension in stretching them in the band?

I’m pulling this metaphor to the ball, it’s getting all I can out of it. But, you know, what can you how do you know what’s the right abstract for you, because it is different from person to person? And I think there’s just something about that. And I love the sense that I know when I’m at my best is when I do have that balance. I don’t get it right all the time. And it’s ever changing, isn’t it, but I need to I need to have that time, like you said, you know, day a week, and I’m working on that just unplugging.

It shocks me when I looked at my phone and how many times I picked it up. So my attention is being used so much, my time has been used for that. And so one thing I really did was come off so much social media and simplify, make my smartphone a dumb phone, I know you’ve talked about that before, unplugged. I’ve left my phone at upstairs in a drawer for several hours one day a week and not missed it and actually not wanting to go back to it. And I would really invite people to experiment with that.

Just try unplugging as you did off the grid, and just see what happens. See how you feel. See how your attention, your energy feels.

Rachel: It’s very interesting that I’ve read a book called Indistractable by Nir Eyal. And he says that distraction management is actually pain management. Because why are you picking up your phone?

It’s because it’s when you get to a place in a task or something where it’s just a bit too difficult. And you just need a dopamine hit. That’s why we pick up our phone not for any other reason. We know we don’t need to check our phone. Mostly, you know, sometimes we do but it’s mostly just because our brains are tired. They need that dopamine and the problem is it doesn’t really help and it just makes it do more work with.

We’re using work email so you get a dopamine hit with any alert that you get, even if it’s just an email saying, you know, please come for your appointment for this, that, all the other things. So, you know, I think it’s really interesting this whole phone use and yeah, just not being beholden to it because we think we’re missing out something and then that creates more tension, more tension sapping our energy.

Sarah: It’s interesting if you want to bring this analogy of the elastic band even more, I’m thinking actually, if you stretch elastic band too much, I don’t know if you’ve ever put one around your wrist, you know, when you were little, and it was so tight started to dig into your blood supply.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. And I was thinking, when we get stretched too tight, we actually become a bit dangerous we come, we come, we come restrictive to other people. And there’s always a danger that we’re gonna snap and fly off.

I was thinking back to a time when I hit a limit, and it was completely out of my control. Yet, I still push through when I shouldn’t have done. I’m just thinking back to the time when I was much younger, portfolio GP, and I came into my practice, and it was 8:30. And the practice manager put her head in the door and said, “Oh before you start your surgery, I just got some really sad news.” And she told me about a GP that had died at the weekend on a bike ride. It was a well-known GP in the area.

I actually worked with him quite closely in another role, but I had, and she I think she knew, and she was being really kind to tell me, because I wouldn’t have found out until probably later, you know, so. And so I got this news, but I don’t think she knew about the fact that we spent a lot of time chatting. And you know, we were good friends even though, you know, we worked in completely different places. And it was really sad, I was really upset well as it would be really upsetting.

What did I do? I sat for one minute, called my patient in and did my surgery. Yeah. And looking back on it. I’m, you know, luckily, I didn’t make any mistakes that I know of, there’s been no complaints, but I’m certain that I would not have been a good doctor at that point for that morning, because I was really upset. And what I should have done is probably said, actually, that’s really upsetting. I’m not sure I can see any patients for the next hour, I need to take some time, just to sort myself out and I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to push them back, you know, rearrange six patients that would have been.

At the time, that would have felt really awful. I can’t I can’t do that. If I’ve got to see these patients. Actually, as a patient, do you want to see a GP that’s just been told that a good friend has passed away? No, I don’t think you would? No, I don’t think you would. So. And I don’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who has, is at the limit of their capacity, is that the snapping breaking point?

We are doing jobs that require a lot of difficult nuanced decision making. And when we are tired and overcapacity, those nuances go that that brain power goes. And we all know that you know that being tired is like drinking of alcohol. And going back to your reasoning, actually, I think that’s a very, very good comparison of like somebody who drinks a lot of alcohol doesn’t notice when they are under the influence. I think it’s almost exactly the same because we know that stress and burnout and being tired has an effect on your brain like drinking alcohol. But we aren’t we are so used to we just think it’s normal.

We think it’s it’s worse to say I can’t do this right now because I’m over capacity than it is to actually cancel a few things.

Sarah: I think that’s it, isn’t it? And when you think about that, that’s a really sad example, Rachel. But it’s so true, isn’t it that I think again, we feel like nobody should have carried on. So when you got that news, just as your surgery was about to start, you probably didn’t feel like you had a choice. And we’re so used to putting down our emotions that way, which takes energy in itself to do that, to contain ourselves and carrying on. And we somehow think that that’s strong.

There’s all of this stuff that we’re kind of pushing, you know, against, isn’t it? It’s really difficult. And I mean, I hope that from what we’ve talked through today, it gives people perhaps some language to use to raise your own self-awareness. And just maybe reflect for a little bit on that square, and the different limits and all the things we’ve said, recognizing where you do have a choice.

Yes, there is some stuff that feels like it’s not in your control. And maybe you don’t feel like you have a choice. But what do you have a choice over? And then what language can you use? And maybe as you said, it feels a bit more positive, say I just don’t have capacity for that rather than, you know, I don’t, I’m limited or I can’t do that or just saying again, like if I say yes to that, I’d have to say no to this and actually I want to prioritize that.

There’s something around language that can be helpful, particularly for those of us who have historically found it difficult to say no, for fear of never feeling guilty.

Rachel: I think that helps when you’re communicating that to other people as well, or turning down something at work. Say I don’t have the capacity for that right now. People get that people understand that but she started going on, I don’t have the energy or I’m at my limit. You know, that’s a very, be defensive thing, but I just have a capacity. I think that’s a very positive thing.

Sarah: Yeah, I’m just at capacity. But then that sounds like your breaking point. I think there’s a way of saying that, isn’t there. But sometimes I’m at capacity. Yeah, I’m full. You know, when you do freelance work, it’s like, actually, I’d love to do that. But I’m full right now. Well, I don’t have the capacity for that, but ask me again next month, or whatever.

I think there’s just something about having that kind of mindset shift isn’t it in how we see ourselves and shifting from either thinking that we’re limitless and we don’t want to be limited, which isn’t true and isn’t healthy, or, yeah, that we can’t and we just have to overstretch all this, all of that, we’ll just have to take the flack, and actually recognizing, again, you know, what choice we do have.

Rachel: As you were saying this, something has just occurred to me, you mentioned, you know, emotional stuff. And I think a lot of the time, the people are really struggling are people that were coping, okay. But then stuff is going on at home. And I think particularly after COVID, we’re seeing an absolute, massive increase in mental health problems, particularly in teenagers and children.

We’re seeing much more school avoidance, we’re seeing all sorts of stuff. And I’ve got some friends who personally have had to take on a huge amount of emotional load in terms of supporting their teenage children at home, or dealing with a child who is in the middle of being diagnosed with something like ADHD or autism, or kids that just having a hard time at school and stuff.

I think we underestimate the amount of time and energy and attention that takes which really impacts on our capacity. And don’t think we need to make any changes that work and we can just carry on in time and time again. I’m seeing this, particularly in women, although yes, obviously, it happens with men as well. That we fail to adjust our square or elastic band to make allowances for the fact that we are having to cope a lot more with stuff that’s going on at home.

For many reasons, either we don’t, you know, we don’t like to admit that’s going to affect our work, or we don’t realize how much it is affecting us, or we think we should be able to cope or whatever. But I think it’s really important to say to people, if you have significant stuff going on at home, or might be relationship issues, or elderly parents stuff, you know, that eats up a lot of your capacity.

You might need to change what’s in your capacity at work in order to cope with that, right?

Sarah: I think that’s the thing, isn’t it? I was thinking about the fact that the podcast is called You Are Not A Frog and how gradually, you know, the water is turned up gradually, the frogs don’t notice that it’s becoming boiling. And I think that’s the thing as well, isn’t it, that again, the blunting, awareness and a bit like someone who can tolerate a lot of alcohol, but still it’s having an impact?

Perhaps we don’t really realize the impact it’s having. So maybe we do need to take that inventory. And often coaching does provide that space, doesn’t it, to take that inventory of actually what is, what are the different pressures and the different pools on your corners of that square? And therefore what does that mean to you? What does that mean to you?

What does that mean, in terms of actually how much capacity you do have right now? So therefore, what might you need to say no to and set some sort of harder boundaries around?

Rachel: And it’s all about self-compassion. It’s all about self-compassion, you know, we think it’s just self-indulgent. And you know, and I have been called self-indulgent. Other people might think it’s self-indulgent as well. And we do just need to go effort if they’re saying, because it’s just like, actually, unless you’re okay, other people aren’t okay, and that boiling frog thing, you know, I hadn’t thought of that.

But yes, you know, you observe people if their child has been in a dreadful accident, or they suddenly diagnosed with a cancer or something like that, they’ll stop work so that they can look after that child because it’s happened very acutely. And it’s obvious that that’s what needs to happen. But when it’s insidious, and it’s building up, it’s building up, it’s building up, you carry on going, you carry on going, you’re carry on going, you don’t realize it actually now is the point where I haven’t made any allowances at all, and just a bit of kindness to yourself.

I always just say to people what would you advise your best friend to do? Such a good question because it would be so different to what you’re actually doing right now.

Sarah: It’s such a good question and often it makes it stops short and think well why wouldn’t we do it for ourselves and just going back to why we sometimes feel a bit guilty when we set boundaries often it’s because that’s the old pattern. I was talking to someone today and he said to me “Yeah, when you feel guilty because you’ve set a boundary it’s just because you’ve disrupted an old pattern.”

Celebrate it, give yourself a guilt reward he said and change the word guilt with a u to guilt with an i – gilt. Because he said there’s guilt of course is appropriate guilt when you’ve overstepped a line and you’ve done something you know that you need to actually correct and then to clean up your mess. And I just started checking with myself. Am I, do I actually need to feel guilty? And so I like the change in the guilt to the gilt.

Just think, no, I’m disrupting an old pattern. So it’s good. And the more I practice disrupting that pattern and feeling comfortable with the discomfort of not being able to do it all. That was another key learning for me feel uncomfortable, or as comfortable as I can, with the discomfort of not being able to do it all, that’s really helped me.

I’m gonna feel uncomfortable. But how do I become comfortable with that discomfort? And I’m working on it.

Rachel: Yeah, because lots of people say, I just want to stop thinking this, I want to stop feeling guilty. I want to stop this. And I think sometimes it’s impossible to stop having those thoughts because they’re naturally inbuilt things and we talked about our amygdalas millions of times on the podcast. But it’s your brain just trying to protect you trying to say, “Oh, you’ve got to please everyone, otherwise, you’ll be kicked out of the tribe, etc, etc.”

It’s not about getting rid of the guilt. It’s not about getting rid of the feeling of awkwardness, it’s about acknowledging it and accepting it. And I love it, turn it into gilt. And we always say embrace the guilt and permission to thrive rather than ditch the guilt because you can’t get rid of it. But embrace it going, yay, wow, that’s my conscience telling me that I would rather not be disrupting that person or disrupting my own pattern, but I decided that’s what I’m going to do. So yeah, it’s working.

Sarah: And it’s not selfish. It’s just that other people don’t probably like the fact that we are choosing to set our own limits and not not necessarily theirs. And I think, again, it is that shift, isn’t it? That just, yeah, recognizing it. And, often that guilt, let’s say it’s an automatic thought, we can’t stop that. But we can choose whether we give it a lot of attention. And so again, square, you can spend a lot of attention and I certainly can do that kind of like, justifying in my head about what I’ve done other than why am I giving my why am I giving it so much attention, just move on. And again, that can be really, really helpful.

Rachel: So we’re nearly at the end. And in a second, I’m going to ask you for your top three tips. But I have a question because this is something I recognized in myself the other day, and I’m wrestling with this at the moment. It’s this feeling of, I guess it’s an overblown rescuer of, well, I’ve got this massive responsibility that I have to do everything. And if someone else says no to me, or doesn’t do what they should do, or have been asked to whatever, I feel massively irritated because I say, “Oh, well now I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to do it, or I’ve got to rescue whatever.”

So I realized that I was unable to hear other people’s boundaries and nose and limits, because I struggle with it myself. And the more stressed and more my elastic band is stretched, the less I am able to be empathetic towards other people’s boundaries and other people’s no’s because I feel that their no;s then mean that I’m going to be more stretched because I then have to rescue and do it for them instead.

Sarah: How would you approach coaching me if you had someone like that in the last like, two minutes, three minutes? What would happen if you didn’t? So what would happen if you didn’t do it when you feel like you have to. And I would also invite you to reflect on the fact that often the thing that irritates us most about other people is something that we struggle to accept in ourselves. And so I’d probably just say, just a little challenge for you.

Rachel: So I think a lot of the time, you know, we do feel like we’re the last man standing, we’re the only person that can’t say no when everyone else is allowed to say no. I think that’s a very, very doctory thing, because, well, when when I was a junior doctor, I just had to have everything that nobody else wanted to do. That was just, it’s your job. You just gotta get you gotta suck it up and do it. So yeah, that’s interesting.

What is it about that thing that’s that’s bugging you that you don’t like in yourself? Yeah, I love that question. What would happen? If you didn’t? What would happen if you didn’t?

Sarah: And how can you accept that in yourself? I think that’s the thing, isn’t it? So that then you can accept it in other people. So I think there’s something about that, what does it tell you about you, and it’s not to be judgmental, like said, we’ve got need to be really self compassionate show a lot of kindness to ourselves. But often, often, and I find this really hard, but the people I find difficult is because of something not always, but because of something that I’m not accepting of myself, I wouldn’t accept myself. And so therefore, I find it really hard.

I need to make peace with myself first, in order to be kind of responsive in an effective way to them.

Rachel: Yeah. So there’s something about perfectionism there, isn’t there? I think that yes. Oh, which we need to talk about another time at the time. And I know many have talked about that before. So right, what are your top three tips about embracing your capacity here?

Sarah: Okay. So I think it’s around one, really asking yourself, how much capacity do you have? And that will change depending on what’s going on. But really take a bit of an inventory, how much capacity do you have? And then ask yourself, what do you really want to focus on with your time? How do you want to spend your time your energy and your attention? And I think the other bit is around the musical bit.

I know I only just touched on that but what is your optimal stretch? That means that you are in, I suppose just at your best being your authentic self, being who you really are. What’s your optimal stretch? And again, that will change, it’s a bit like your capacity isn’t it, your optimal stretch gives you your capacity. But actually, when you are acting within your capacity and at your optimal stretch, what happens?

Often amazing things can happen in that and yeah, leaving that thought with you.

Rachel: I really liked that. And I think probably people have different optimal stretches. Some people like to be nearer. Some people really don’t don’t like it. And that is fine, it’s really okay. Knowing your own. Yeah. And I think it’s about being non-judgmental about other people.

Sarah: Yes. I’ve struggled with that sometimes, like, why are they not? Like you said, like, why are they not doing all of x, y and z when I can? But actually, that says more about me. And as you say, yeah, we all have different stretches. And I think that’s finding your stretch that works for you.

Rachel: So that’s been really helpful. I’m gonna go and think about those for myself straight away. But will you come back and talk to us again because I think there’s so much more we can explore. I think we only just ticked the surface of some of those reasons that we talked about: perfectionism, guilt, all those things, and we’ll get you back to talk about that.

Sarah: I always love our conversations, Rachel, thank you.

Rachel: Wonderful. And so if people want to get ahold of you.

Sarah: Yeah, so I am on LinkedIn, Sarah, Coop on LinkedIn. So have a look for me there if you want.

Rachel: That’s brilliant. So contact Sarah on LinkedIn, if you want any shapes, look at courses, give us a shout, let us know. We can jump on a call with you to talk about sort of different training we can do, particularly if you want to explore these sorts of areas with your team, which can be really powerful actually to explore together as a team candidate.

Thank you, Sarah. Thank you. And I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Sarah: Thanks very much. Bye bye.

Rachel: Thanks for listening. Don’t forget, we provide a self-coaching CPD workbook for every episode. You can sign up for it via the link in the show notes. And if this episode was helpful, then please share it with a friend. Get in touch with any comments or suggestions at hello@youarenotafrog.com, I love to hear from you. And finally, if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate it and leave a review wherever you’re listening. It really helps. Bye for now.