Top 5 Productivity Books You Should Read in 2021

My expertise in Productivity Consulting comes from a combination of first-hand experience and secondary research. The first-hand experience includes everything from fundraising to product innovation, at startups and Fortune 100 firms, across industries from Healthcare to Hospitality. By secondary research, I don’t mean long-term-huge-scale academic studies, but rather the fact that I am an absolutely voracious reader. (My favorite compliment of 2020 was when Brett Harned introduced me at the Digital PM Summit as someone who could quickly recall-and-recommend just about any book that would address an issue!)

Transparency is a core value at The Fiery Feather, and I prefer to give others credit where credit’s due – there’s nothing worse than someone who acts like they came up with all the answers themselves (eyeroll). So below is a countdown and a shoutout to these impressive authors. Each book speaks directly to one or more productivity challenges that I’ve encountered with my clients, and all can serve as an ideal resource for practical solutions.

  1. Why Are We Yelling by Buster Benson

This book is overflowing with critical insights on how to build self-awareness of your own argumentative or avoidant tendencies. I’ve personally been able to relieve tension in my own personal AND professional relationships by applying Benson’s approach, without feeling like I was faking it.

  1. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Newport has published a really solid antidote to the poison of multitasking. He serves as a great example of how to get things done in a strategic and meaningful way. It is such a relief to see a modern-day example of how digital minimalism can actually work.

  1. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

This classic never goes out of style. I love Duhigg’s examples from toothpaste to social justice movements. By understanding how both individuals and populations break and form habits, we can shape our own routines and rhythms that help achieve our dreams and goals.

  1. How To Have A Good Day by Caroline Webb

Okay here’s a confession. The first half of this book was enjoyable, because it was … validating. Webb summarizes many of the tips and tricks that I have collected and implemented over the years on how to structure an intentional, productive, enjoyable workday. But there were definitely some elements that were new to me towards the end of the book. It’s worth more than a quick glance!

  1. Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

If you’re like me, and really struggle with letting yourself rest, just keep this book nearby. I read it on vacation, and it felt like a much-needed permission slip to be on that vacation. This could be a perfect gift for your overworked friend or colleague!

What I love about each of these books is that they are applicable during any season – pandemic or otherwise. The wisdom they offer takes the long view. These aren’t just trendy tips, these are insights that persist in their effectiveness. At least that’s been my experience, but check them out for yourself and let me know what you think!

Theresa M. Ward

I love leading workshops about everything from time management hacks to mindful goal setting. And I thrive on propelling projects towards a successful finish line with an artillery of cohesive tips & tools. Read more…

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stephen murray

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Optimizing Work-Life Balance: Leaders Who Rest

It may seem like working from home in sweatpants is a welcome and relaxing change from the days of suits-ties-and-traffic-jams, yet many of my clients and colleagues still experienced major burnout this year. It seems there was a sense of responsibility to keep furiously paddling the boat … instead of leveraging the wind in the sails (shoutout to Groundsweller for this beautiful analogy).

A couple months ago I wrote this article about the ways team leaders can write themselves customized “permission slips” to rest in an authentic way. If you can’t enjoy a tropical vacation right now, can you at least do little restful things like:

  • Establish one new habit that will help you feel healthier and re-energized.
  • Stop and take deep breaths for ten seconds today.
  • Share a humble brag about a special talent or skill that feels life-giving.
  • Change it up by saying “no” to one request for your help this week.

It’s hard for me personally to embody all (any?!) of these things on any given day, so I asked some amazing business leaders to share ways they have put versions of “R.E.S.T.” into practice in their own lives. I asked each of them how they maintain an optimal work-life balance and was absolutely delighted with their thoughtful, unexpected, yet astonishingly common-sense responses.

Stephen Murray, Boosterthon

Stephen is the President and COO of Boosterthon. He’s also active in the Greater Atlanta community, serving on the board of his children’s school, his local YMCA, as well as an advisor to a non-profit that supports social-good entrepreneurs. Add to the mix that he is a husband and father of three, and somehow finds time to regularly complete marathons, ultra-marathons, and even an Iron Man triathlon. So how does he do it??

Stephen uses routine as a measurement stick for rest. He knows that if he is trying to juggle too much, his priorities can fall out of line and he’ll be too tired for his daily workout routine. He and his wife Brittany have also established a ‘sacred’ Sunday evening ritual where they lay out a plan for the week – it includes both personal and professional activities – so that the couple can stay in sync and manage expectations of one another’s participation. (Stephen vulnerably shared about a time when Brittany expected him home for dinner but he had actually flown across the country for a work event. Sometimes it takes one of those “events” to really solidify the value in these rituals and routines!)

Relaxation for Stephen looks like spending time with his coworkers, friends, and family. Quality time with those he cares about recharges both his head and his heart. If you’re an extrovert like Stephen, it’s critical to stay engaged in social activities to feel both rested and fulfilled.

As a leader, Stephen knows that all eyes are on him – the same way that when there’s turbulence on an airplane, we all check to see how the flight attendants are responding. My favorite quote from Stephen: “HEALTHY LEADERS WHO ARE AT EASE LEAD HEALTHY ORGANIZATIONS THAT ARE AT EASE.” Though he is “on the go” nearly all the time, Stephen has found what works for him to still maintain a sense of calm and control.

Michelle Khouri, FRQNCY

Michelle leads a lean team at FRQNCY, but they are managing massive projects and opportunities. Their work with Coca Cola, Diane Von Furstenburg, Grady Hospital, and other clients can reach millions of ears – so the pressure is on. Michelle is dedicated to work that has impeccable quality, while making sure her team absolutely thrives within the company culture as well.

Michelle shared a bit about her journey of burnout over the summer, when she recognized she was feeling an irrational sense of anger towards her work and her team. (Personally, this is how burnout shows up for me too – resenting others and developing a narrative that others’ efforts are never “enough”.) Michelle is an incredibly self-aware leader with high emotional IQ, and this triggered a need to change. Not only did Michelle give herself permission to pause and rest over the summer, but she gave her entire team a week of vacation as well. A potentially risky move, but the results have been incredible. Her mantra as a caring leader is, “when you start to see little things slip here and there, you don’t drill in harder, you stop to ask if everything is okay”. 

Now the team is back and brighter than ever. FRQNCY is experiencing unprecedented growth and staying incredibly busy, yet Michelle embodies balanced leadership by getting out in nature nearly every weekend. This allows her to stay in tune with her own personal rhythms, and the “frequencies” ???? of the world around her. 

Bryan and Shannon Miles, BELAY

Shannon and Bryan are a powerhouse husband and wife team who co-founded the successful staffing company BELAY. I love that while Bryan and Shannon’s personal lives obviously intertwine with their professional efforts, they each find ways to individually rest and recharge.

Both Shannon and Bryan talked about really listening to their bodies in order to know when the stress becomes too much. (Bryan and I share something in common – that an overload in stress manifests in chest pains. It makes me wonder how many burnt out leaders are getting EKG’s on a regular basis …????) 

Shannon shared that clearing out space in her schedule empowers her to be not only a better leader, but a more creative individual as well. Yet she doesn’t try to go it alone: “I had to learn to put systems and structures in place to help me recognize and manage the stress and not allow it to intensify.” I love Shannon’s recognition that systems and structures do not prevent us from the freedom of rest – rather they actually ensure that rest happens.

It was an honor to peek behind the curtain and better understand the personal challenges and solutions that each of these leaders have created for themselves. Although they each have different personalities, leadership styles, and industries that they support, I found three consistent elements across the board:

  1. Minimize Ego: Leadership isn’t about you, or how others perceive you.
  2. Journal and Meditate: These simple self-awareness rituals are life-changing.
  3. Time Without Screens: Whether in nature or with family, literally keep your eyes on what’s important.

Which of these leaders do you relate to the most? There is no one single formula for success, and there is no silver bullet for feeling both rested and productive. We know that it isn’t about working the longest hours or sacrificing your own personal needs. Beyond that, choosing what works is up to you. Follow along as we continue to feature leaders who live productively without losing their sense of joy.

Theresa M. Ward

I love leading workshops about everything from time management hacks to mindful goal setting. And I thrive on propelling projects towards a successful finish line with an artillery of cohesive tips & tools. Read more…

Keep In Touch!

stephen murray

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Wait For It: Productive Patience During Election Week

Collectively, we humans are not a patient bunch. (Don’t agree? Just scope out the host stand at a Cheesecake Factory 19 minutes after the hostess told Chad that his party of six would have to wait 20 minutes for a table.) And who can blame us!? Every technological advance from the hot air balloon to the Airdrop feature on my Mac device is intended to address our impatience. We have been conditioned to demand faster answers to our questions and more immediate solutions to our problems.

But it looks like this week is going to test what little patience Americans have left. We’re already stretched thin – we’ve spent this year waiting for Covid to exit stage right. We’ve waited for election day and for those god-awful political ads to end. And now that election day is here, we’ll have to wait an unprecedentedly long time for the results.


So how do we wisely spend this time? We know that the clock seems to tick more slowly and painfully when we’re anticipating something. So how can we productively use our time and energy over the next few days, in a way that is distracting but not numbing?

Turns out there are people who are professional wait-ers. Not food service professionals …. I mean People Who Wait. Although we can’t exactly equate election week with the release of the next iPhone or Playstation, we can take some hints from these folks who practice patience for a living:

  • Find a game to play to pass the time. At home, this could look like working on a jigsaw puzzle or challenging your roommate to a situp contest.
  • Don’t get sucked into screen time, but focus instead on personal relationship development. (For great conversation starters get a pack of UnCurated cards!!)
  • Do you don’t usually find you have the time to do – cleaning out that closet, or starting the mood board for your new website. Channel the nervous energy into a new project (even if you don’t have time to finish it).


When we’re waiting, our brains are constantly trying to get rid of the unknown. The unknown is incredibly neurologically uncomfortable. We don’t feel safe or stable. Our “lizard brain” or our amygdala tends to fire up at this point. That, in turn, triggers fight or flight mode. (Read: anger, lashing out, getting defensive, or avoiding others, curling up the fetal position, ignoring our basic responsibilities. Not productive).

Take a moment (or as many moments as you need) this week to slow down and breathe deeply. By overcoming our lizard brain we can be kinder, more empathetic, and more mature in our emotional reactions. We can operate as our “best selves” instead of acting in a way that we may regret.

Regardless of the results of the election, or if there are no results this week at all, set a plan: who will be your support system and how you will respond to triggering situations? Also, acknowledge that each individual around you will be navigating their own plan and taming their own lizard brain in their own way. Let’s practice giving grace and kindness wherever we can – assuming best intent, as the great Brene Brown recommends.


On a deeper, more emotional level, I spoke with colleagues and friends who have dealt with some of the worst kind of waiting – the kind most of us never have to experience. These quotes certainly put things into perspective as well:


“Before Trey’s deployment in 2014, a really dear friend of mine reminded me during my own panic-driven season, dreading the looming deployment ahead, that I could not carry the weight of the next 9-month deployment all at once like I was trying to do. She lovingly reminded me that I can carry today. I leaned on that truth through that deployment 6 years ago and again through the deployment we went through this year. Actually, I’ve found that I am better when I apply it to COVID, work, parenting regrets/stress, marriage woes, etc…. There’s a notable difference between waiting and anxiousness in trying to hurry something along to get to the ‘end.’ “


“The hardest experience of waiting I have dealt with in my life is family members who are nearing the end of theirs. Not only with the situation itself but with the people I love. It takes a toll on the sick family member and everyone around them who chooses to be by their side. You wait for a day you don’t want to come, but at the same time you wait for peace for the one who is suffering. Once that day comes you wait AGAIN – for days or months or years – to have a moment of understanding of why this all happened. It helped me to practice patience, empathy, respect, and understanding for those who have similar situations. And just an appreciation for life. The ones I lost wouldn’t want me to dwell on the whys and why-nots.”

I am so deeply touched by these sentiments. Take from Matt and Laura’s stories whatever makes sense for you in these times. I see a theme of one day at a time and staying fully present in the moment. The Fiery Feather’s mantra is “Get Things Done. Enjoy The Journey.” It’s always easy for me to distract myself with tasks, errands and getting things done during periods of anxiety, but the spiritual element that both Laura and Matt touch on here is truly the way to find joy in the journey.

After we vote, contributing and controlling what we can, there may be productive value in surrendering that control to something beyond ourselves.

Whether it’s finding a distracting game to play, kicking off a new project, or re-igniting your connection with the universe, I can’t WAIT ????  to hear which techniques work best for you.

Theresa M. Ward

I love leading workshops about everything from time management hacks to mindful goal setting. And I thrive on propelling projects towards a successful finish line with an artillery of cohesive tips & tools. Read more…

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Put an End to Productivity Punishment

Find the remedy with your customized permission slip to R.E.S.T.


I’ve been told this more than once. It’s not a surprise or anything … I’m relatively self-aware. But I often wish I had an off button from my reputation as “the responsible one”. I have always tended to equate my self-worth and my value in the world with how many things I was able to get done in any given day.And I know I’m not alone. I spoke with a friend the other day about the shaming self-talk he experiences when he isn’t able to complete his to-do list. He feels like he hasn’t earned any rest or reward unless he has been perfectly productive. Many of us have this old-school puritan work ethic instilled deep in our psyche – especially entrepreneurs and team leaders.

Now there’s nothing wrong with being disciplined and self-driven. But there are so many negative side-effects when we consider self-care something that can only come after a day’s work is done. Perhaps it’s your relationships that suffer: holding resentment towards others who can miss deadlines and still sleep at night. Perhaps it is your physical well being: choosing convenient processed snacks instead of healthy whole foods. Perhaps it’s just that you’ve lost touch with your sense of direction, purpose, and passion around your work.

Like battery acid, productivity shame is a toxic substance that slowly corrodes your ability to take any joy in your work.” – Jocelyn K. Glei



Whether it’s your deep-seated beliefs about responsibility, holding yourself to certain standards, or pleasing an authority figure (real or imaginary) – your reasons for productivity shame may have been valid for a time. Now many of us realize that the time has come to move on. There are plenty of self-help books and inspirational quotes and social media influencers out there aggressively reminding us the hustle culture is dead and that we need to all unplug like Thoreau (at an instagrammable cabin of course). Your own colleagues may even be encouraging you to take a vacation. But despite all this external societal support, you still feel like the exception to the rule, don’t you? Like you’re the only one who really still needs to work nights and weekends? I know I have felt like this. So perhaps some leaders need a more tactical, less philosophical approach to changing these workaholic habits.

I believe the true remedy for productivity shame is creative and unique permission. Instead of just telling you to “chill” “take a day off”, I’ve broken it down into some bite-size exercises that you can incorporate into your daily routine.


To create YOUR version of R.E.S.T., pick one activity from each letter below. Each activity is an ingredient, and the combination will result in your personalized recipe for rest!


  • RECOGNIZE – Take one day next week to zoom out and reflect on the journey of your year. Identify the areas, activities, and relationships that are not serving you. Simply write them down – you don’t need to do anything else. It is enough at this stage to recognize and name the need for change.
  • RALLY – Identify 1-3 sources of energy that reconnect you to your purpose, instead of drudging through the same routine over and over. This may be time in nature, connection with others, or creating art. Especially if you’re an extrovert who’s been social distancing for the better part of a year, you may need to rally before you can truly rest.
  • RESIST – Identify one negative productivity compulsion and stop doing it for just one day. Resist saying yes to that next project or prospect. Resist the urge to help your teammate who can’t meet their deadline. Resist shaming yourself because you didn’t finish everything on your to-do list …. Just for today.


  • EVALUATE – Sometimes in the middle of burnout, we forget how many options we really have. Use sticky notes or index cards to lay out all of the choices that you have in front of you. Stack rank which ones will truly move the needle towards a better sense of balance between productivity and joy.
  • ESTABLISH – Choose one non-negotiable. Perhaps it’s 8 hours of sleep, or not checking email on the weekend. Maybe it’s just drinking more water or eating more vegetables. Establish one new boundary that will allow you to thrive.
  • EVANGELIZE – We tend to stick to our commitments when we share them with others. Tell your team, your family, or your social media followers what you plan to do in order to get more rest. Become an advocate for yourself the way you would support someone you love. Use your powerful voice to share to how you will be changing your habits going forward. 


  • SURRENDER – This one’s really hard, but sometimes we have to give up. Give up control, give up looking perfect, give up on that project that just really won’t get done this year. When we intentionally wave the white flag, it can feel sad, but also is a key step in allowing ourselves to rest. Choose someone close to you and share your surrender in a safe space.
  • STOP – You’re going 1000mph and you feel like you can’t stop. But you can. It might not be for a day … it might not even be for an hour. But can you stop for 10 seconds? Can you stop reading this right now, close your eyes, and take a deep breath? Go ahead. And then do that again later. And tomorrow. And the day after that. Little pauses add up to a more restful and connected life.
  • SHINE – Rest isn’t always about shutting down and hiding away in a hole. It’s about hitting reset and focusing on what gives us life. What’s something you’re really good at, or really passionate about? Can you choose to focus on that today? Share a #humblebrag about your morning run, your painting skills, or your woodworking hobby. Your obligation to your own strengths and talents is just as important as your obligation to others.


  • TEST IT OUT – When you choose to recognize, evaluate, or surrender one thing for one day, jot down the results in a journal. Then see if what worked once will work for a week, or a month. Let yourself commit to a new experiment, observe the results like a scientist, and remember you can always add a new variable when you need to.
  • TRY AGAIN – So perhaps you tried to rally, and it didn’t go so well. You evangelized your plan but it never came to fruition. You told yourself you’d stop and meditate, but just couldn’t find that five minutes. It’s okay. Try again tomorrow.
  • TURN AROUND – I’m a big fan of small changes, but sometimes we find ourselves in a place where a full 180-degree pivot is absolutely necessary. Don’t be afraid of doing something drastic. Were you headed for a promotion? Maybe you need to turn around and go part time. Were you training for a marathon? Maybe you just need to spend more time watching cartoons with your kids. The journey to a balanced life of wellbeing isn’t a linear one – don’t be afraid to take the scenic route.

My most recent combo has looked like: RECOGNIZE – EVALUATE – STOP – TRY AGAIN. I’d be happy to share more in detail about what that looks like for me – and I’d love to know what yours is. I hope that putting together your custom recipe for rest will bring you both productivity and peace with a sense of ease and enjoyment. This isn’t about checking out. Rest is about checking in with yourself so that you can continue to thrive in your purpose!

Theresa M. Ward

I love leading workshops about everything from time management hacks to mindful goal setting. And I thrive on propelling projects towards a successful finish line with an artillery of cohesive tips & tools. Read more…

Keep In Touch!

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Hang On To Your Mistakes

Sorry Marie Kondo, this is one thing I’m not throwing away.

As a self-improvement junkie, I don’t think I’ll ever come to a place of satisfaction with my own level of knowledge or performance. I don’t try to overdo it (like, settle down Ironman runners, amiright?) but my thirst for more quality, more impact, more connection, more reach …. Just, MORE, seems it will never be quenched.

“Perfectionist” is an undesirable label, but it’s one that I’m realizing I have to own.

Perfectionistic self-improvement has selfish side-effects. The better and smarter I get, the less likely I am to say something dumb, make poor decisions, or steer someone down the wrong path. I feel I have made enough mistakes to last me a lifetime. I would love to never make any again. “Messing up”, in private or in public, is the worst possible situation for a perfectionist like me. Let me get real here … much of my striving for improvement is fear-based rather than accomplishment-oriented. Even as I start to write this paragraph, my stomach turns and my chest tightens, recalling just a few of my f*ck-ups over the years ….

  • That time when I thought sending a 11-paragraph-long stern email to all my direct reports would inspire them to show up earlier and work harder. ????
  • That time I tried to make a joke and it was racially insensitive. ????
  • That time I sacrificed my standards so that I could be seen as “cool” by my older, male colleagues (you guessed it – strip club). ????
  • That other time I tried to make another joke and it was racially insensitive. ????
  • That time I kept hounding a prospect after they said no, because I was so sure they needed my product. ????
  • That time I gossiped about a coworker because I thought it would be a strategic career move. ????

The list goes on. There’s a voice SCREAMING inside my head right now, that I should delete this post and bury my laptop and never go on the internet again for fear of what you might think of me and all of these shameful actions from my past.

But there is a braver, more mature part of me that has learned the extreme power of vulnerability. The way I have learned to take responsibility for my own mistakes is through others being vulnerable about theirs. That includes not only the guides and mentors that I’ve personally known in my past, but also the recent transparency of influential leaders who have publicly admitted where they’ve fallen short, particularly in the areas of social justice and racial equality.

I’ve been thinking about publishing a post about my personal blunders for many months now, because transparency is one of my fundamental guiding principles. But I’ve always had a great excuse why the time “wasn’t quite right”. Nudged recently by a dear family member who is holding me accountable with tough love, I realize the time is now. Well, more accurately, as the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

So maybe you are like me and you have a closet full of messes and mistakes. What is the best way to handle them? Should we dump them all out, thank them for their time in our past, and then get rid of them, Marie Kondo style? Tempting – as we are taught the benefit of “forgive and forget”. We are told to tidy up, to move on to bigger and better things, and to just Let It Go. (I mean – I grew up Catholic and we believed that once you spoke your sins out loud to a robed man in a dark confessional box, you stepped out as pure as the untouched snow. So this runs deep, y’all.)

But I think there can be a benefit to holding on to our sins of the past – to regularly drag them out, dust them off, and examine them. It sounds emotionally draining, I know, but worthwhile in our self-improvement journey.

Sample Self-Examination: I’ll never send an 11-paragraph email to a team again … but what was it that made me send it in the first place? Was it my lack of confidence in managing conflict, my uncertainty in being an inspirational leader, the narrative that no one would respect me as a young woman?

These underlying issues and ignorances that led to the poor decision in the first place are what’s really important. This is the baggage that has to be acknowledged and resolved head-on so that we don’t keep repeating history.

Speaking of repeating history. It is with great shame and discomfort that I admit, I recently made (another) insensitive joke in front of a small group of my peers – one that compared my personal struggles to that of the Black experience. As soon as it came out, I slammed my hand over my mouth, and immediately apologized to the group – additionally sending a personal apology to the woman of color in the group afterwards. While the apology was graciously received, I realize the damage had been done. Even a minor comment spoken among a small private group is fuel poured on top of this already-raging-dumpster-fire of white supremacy culture. Over the last few years I would have called myself relatively “progressive” – having lived in the diverse metropolitan city of Atlanta for over a decade, I’ve not only gained exposure to a variety of cultures, orientations, and socioeconomic situations different from my own, but I’ve been intentional about ensuring diversity in both my personal and professional life. Of all the injustices we experience in the world, racism is by far the most personally heartbreaking to me. And yet I am obviously still light years away from embodying the antiracist behavior that I profess to support.

This most recent blunder really highlights my need to spend more time examining my beliefs and narratives about race, and to be more open to examination from others as well. If I am to finally learn my lesson here, it will be the result of deep, heavy, uncomfortable work – the kind recommended by Robin DiAngelo and Resmaa Menaken in this podcast.

Realistically, I doubt I’ll ever be anywhere close to “perfect” in this area, but I am hungrier than ever to be the kind of human who empowers others and amplifies marginalized voices. I want to drive real positive impact in the world, to create a place where all can thrive equally, regardless of the amount of melanin in their skin. And I can’t start doing any of this until I take full ownership of my past mistakes, my current imperfections, and my future fallibility. An unwillingness to participate in this (or a refusal to create an environment that supports this) has directly contributed to perpetuating systemic oppression. Now, I’m endorsing a public exploration of mistakes not in order to obtain some kind of “absolution” from the BIPOC community, but to help spread the power of vulnerability in our collective search for wholehearted and productive living. Confessing our mistakes is not the end of the journey, it is the beginning.

Readers, will you join me in holding yourself and others accountable in a loving, curious, but focused way? Will you join me in wearing our mistakes on our sleeve, so that we can stop pretending, start to humbly learn, and continue the journey to be better? I want to take this opportunity to invite any and all of my readers to reach out with any comments or questions you may have, as The Fiery Feather continues to facilitate dialogue on ways to share feedback, manage conflict, and build empathy. I commit to an open-door/open-calendar policy to participate in hard conversations that can lead to growth and development, and create a world that works better.

Theresa M. Ward

I love leading workshops about everything from time management hacks to mindful goal setting. And I thrive on propelling projects towards a successful finish line with an artillery of cohesive tips & tools. Read more…

Keep In Touch!

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When Busy Feels Safe, Leaders Beware

Good leaders are stepping up to shine during the COVID-19 crisis.

Think for a moment about how you are personally responding to the stress of this pandemic situation. It’s a big one, it’s a whopper, no doubt. But are you responding to this particularcrisis differently than you respond to other more minor stressors that you’ve experienced in the past?

My guess is, probably not.

We are creatures of habit. We have carved pathways in our brain by reacting to stressful triggers with the same responses over and over again. Maybe you zone out and binge watch Tiger King to feel better. Maybe you’re a nail biter, a candy snacker, or a margarita maker. (No judgement here!) But unless you’ve really intentionally tried to alter your stress habits recently, chances are you’re handling the season of COVID-19 like you handle any other uncertain or stressful situation.

For me, it’s throwing myself into my work. That has always been my “M.O.” When I was young, I would tend to focus on schoolwork instead of dealing with friendship or family challenges. In my first job out of college, I focused on making more sales calls than anyone else during a messy breakup with my ex. When my current partner was getting stitches in the emergency room in the middle of the night, I was in the waiting room … working. (Yes, while he was profusely bleeding over the kitchen sink, I was throwing my laptop and charger into a bag. I didn’t judge you about the margaritas, so take it easy on me.)


Right now during the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing good leaders are stepping up to shine. They’re taking the time to pause and check in with their employees and teammates on their stress levels, to let everyone process their stress reactions in different ways. I’ve seen that look like:

  1. Carving out extra time at the beginning of conference calls to take everyone’s temperature. (Metaphorically speaking here, but let’s hope everyone is also operating at a nice healthy 98.6.)
  2. Adding new, fun ways for employees to engage with each other remotely throughout the week. Virtual happy hours, living room dance contests, and sharing pictures of kids and pets – err, our “new coworkers” – hanging out with us at home.
  3. Being flexible with work hours and deliverables – good leaders have built trust with their employees, so it doesn’t really matter if you finish that presentation or report between the hours of 9-5. They know when you’re done homeschooling and making grilled cheese and taking a yoga class on YouTube to restore your sanity, you’ll get to it. Good leaders give plenty of wiggle room.

This list could go on. I’ve seen some really inspirational examples of great leadership, both first and secondhand, over the last month. But there’s a sneaky stress reaction that I’m not sure leaders really know how to handle right now. For those employees who respond to stress like I do, by just working, and working, and working some more, we probably appear to be the person on the team who is “coping” really well. We’re delivering things on time, showing up for all the calls, and asking for more assignments. And leaders won’t see a need to intervene.


If you’re like me, maybe you know. The problem is that workaholics like us are afraid. Afraid of stillness, of what will happen when it’s quiet and there isn’t anything to fill the space or the time. We’re afraid that if we speak up and ask for help we’ll come across as weak or incompetent. We’re afraid that if we aren’t loaded up with work to do, we’ll have to face the other stressors in our lives head on. We’re afraid of this ……. All. The. Time. Not just during the pandemic. It’s just that now, in times like these – where others are also afraid – we’re the ones who look the most adept.

Leaders, Beware: this person on your team will. burn. out.


Maybe not now, but eventually. We cannot escape dealing with our fears and inner demons forever. To prevent the impending meltdown, good leaders can help workaholics build a toolkit of ways to face the silence, fear, and uncertainty. While a good leader is pushing some team members to be more productive at home, they might also need to coach others on how to take breaks. How to meditate, or journal. How to set boundaries and say no. How to feel safe even when things don’t feel busy. That is a skill as valuable as anything else in the world right now.

In the same way that leaders don’t treat individuals all the same way while they’re in the office, they can’t lead all the same way while they’re at home either. Leaders must create space and time to check in with each person and consider their personality type, their family dynamic, and their typical stress reaction, in order to lead well during this pandemic.


Here are 7 things that leaders can do for workaholic employees to help them feel safe in the stillness:

  1. Pay for a subscription to a meditation app – Insight Timer is my favorite
  2. Mail your employee a journal or sketchbook
  3. Require downtime – yes block it on the calendar, AND make it part of the performance review. Encourage the employee to nap or take a walk outside.
  4. Use a project management tracking system to make sure they’re not taking on too much work compared to others
  5. Understand their Appreciation Language so you can affirm that the person is doing well, and doing enough.
  6. Ask the employee to turn off notifications on the weekends (even if that means deleting the slack app and re-downloading it).
  7. Check in via video chat once in a while to make sure the employee is working in a designated space (not in the kitchen, the couch, the grocery store parking lot, or other personal areas).

Theresa M. Ward

I love leading workshops about everything from time management hacks to mindful goal setting. And I thrive on propelling projects towards a successful finish line with an artillery of cohesive tips & tools. Read more…

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twadminWhen Busy Feels Safe, Leaders Beware

To Keep Or To Cancel

Managing your commitments when stress runs high.

I used to be the queen of cancelling.

Not many years ago, in my less self-aware days, if I saw a collaboration meeting or a status update meeting on my calendar and I wasn’t really feeling excited or prepared for it, I’d just cancel it. Could it wait until later in the day? Later in the week? Perfect. Could I possibly postpone it again later? Absolutely. I wasn’t thinking too much about the other person or people that had shaped their day around that calendar notice. I just assumed that no one really liked meetings (duh?), so any opportunity to NOT have a meeting right now, would be welcome. Often I’d do this with only 20 minutes leading up until the meeting. I know, *cringe*.

I’ll admit, I got a little rush of relief every time I cancelled. I think I might have been addicted to it. (Not surprisingly, I haven’t been the most reliable when it comes to showing up for social plans either. But that’s for another post.)

One day a colleague of mine, who had a few more years of experience in the corporate world, sat me down for some gentle (but long overdue) coaching. He pointed out how this cancellation habit showed a lack of forethought and time management on my part (ouch – I have always prided myself on having excellent time management). He also pointed out that it showed a general lack of respect for colleagues. Assuming that others will shift their busy and stressful schedules around just because of my flighty emotional whim  was selfish and thoughtless.


What made it sting more was how obvious it was once he said it (like most good wisdom and common sense). I just . . . hadn’t really been thinking about it that way. I was thinking short term. How do I survive this stressful day? What’s a temporary way to alleviate that stress? Answer: Cancel the meeting. In an effort to control what was right in front of me, I lost sight of the long-term consequences: A reputation of being flighty and disrespectful. And a negative effect on my relationships. By treating people as if their time were unimportant to me – my time would become less and less important to them.


After that session with my colleague, I focused on building a better habit to hold my meeting time commitments. Not only did it repair my relationships and reputation with others, but it helped me build confidence and trust in myself. (Honestly, that was something I didn’t even realize was missing.) I was able to better predict what my days would look like, and I forced myself to show up more prepared. This ultimately made me a more effective and productive professional. And eventually when the tables started to turn – and others would cancel or postpone last minute/repeatedly on me – I was able to pass along this experience and wisdom to them.


Keeping your meetings becomes even more paramount when you’re an entrepreneur.  When you’re running your own independent business – Every. Hour. Counts. There are competing priorities, the constant vibe of “the hustle”, and no real time off. When I started The Fiery Feather and realized that one change in my daily schedule can cause a domino effect that impacts multiple client deliverables, it really helped me appreciate my doctor, my hairstylist, and all the other service providers who charge a fee if I cancel within less than 24 hours. (Hello, empathy, you beautiful elusive creature, you.) I’ve come to realize how cancellation habits (good or bad ones) can impact more than just the reputation around the water cooler. They impact your bottom line. If you’re running your own show right now and don’t have “a boss” to answer to, be especially careful on how you schedule and prioritize individual deep work blocks, collaborative brainstorming meetings, and networking conversations.


Now … enter the era of Covid19. If there was ever a King of Cancellation, coronavirus would get the crown. (I’m really proud of myself with that clever analogy there, because ‘corona’ means crown, and the virus microscopically looks like a crown, and … I’ll get back to the point now.)

Covid is rude. It has pretty much cancelled a world’s worth of social plans. No more birthday parties, movie outings, baseball games. No more church services, backyard barbecues, or date nights at fancy steakhouses.

And yet it’s amazing to see how resilient, resourceful, and creative we’re getting in the wake of this pandemic. Virtual coffee dates from our kitchens, with complete permission to be in your pajamas. Virtual lunch chats with colleagues, with complete permission to STILL be in your pajamas. Virtual happy hours, to celebrate the end of a long day of meetings over Zoom … in your pajamas.

The dark side of this era though: cancelling is easier than ever. If you cancel our lunch meeting with only 7 minute notice … so what? It’s not as if anyone was driving anywhere. If you just don’t show up for our virtual happy hour … so what? I’m going to keep doing the exact same thing I had planned on doing. (Drinking rosé in my office, STILL in my pajamas.)

Confession: just last week …. I caught myself pulling my old tricks of last minute cancellations.

Remember my friends, keep your eye on the long-term. What will life be like post-social-distancing? By dismissing our virtual commitments, we start to build bad habits. To paraphrase the great Annie Dillard: How we spend our days, is how we spend our lives. Or to paraphrase The Gladiator: What we do at home in our pajamas … echoes into eternity.

I write this as both a reminder to myself, an ex-addict, who could easily start “using” the ‘Cancel Meeting’ button again far too easily right now, without seeming selfish or thoughtless. I also write this as a warning to those working from home for the first time, who may still see it as a novelty.

And I write this especially for those who are really struggling with the Covid19 season. If you are taking on extra loads of stress (e.g. feeling guilty because you’re hiding from your own children on a small corner of your front porch just to have some quiet to focus on work while also wondering if the dog will ever stop barking) and find that your energy is draining faster than usual, I am NOT saying to ignore that feeling and force yourself to socialize when it isn’t healthy for you. I AM saying to pay attention to the reality of your situation, and don’t overcommit. It’s a strange thing that our bodies are staying more still lately –one might think we should have more mental energy to spare. But the stress and anxiety of this season is a legitimate reason to give yourself more space. Here are a few tips and takeaways:

  • Manage your commitments according to your level of introvertedness. Don’t try to cram in too many virtual coffees and lunches that you’re just going to hate anyway. Find the strategic and simple ways that help you feel connected, even if it isn’t a daily Zoom happy hour.
  • Make sure that you can give your best energy to your family, your work, and your own mental and physical health first. If you aren’t sure you can commit to a non-essential meeting, propose a time that you know might be a little less draining for you.
  • Or … just say no altogether. It’s okay to say that you’re not in a season where you can make additional commitments right now. I’m so proud of my friends and colleagues who are doing great at setting their own boundaries right now. I see you, fam.


No matter where you are or what kind of habits you’ve formed, it’s never too late to start or to restart. Whether you need to be more reliable, or just give yourself a little grace, or both. Self awareness, empathy, and vulnerability are key skills that will serve us well during this pandemic and beyond. I am far from perfect when it comes to time management, juggling commitments, and wearing real pants right now. But I’d like to think that because I’m willing to admit to those things, I’ll develop a reputation of a different kind.

Theresa M. Ward

I love leading workshops about everything from time management hacks to mindful goal setting. And I thrive on propelling projects towards a successful finish line with an artillery of cohesive tips & tools. Read more…

Keep In Touch!

read more
twadminTo Keep Or To Cancel