Headless Chicken Syndrome: Symptoms and Treatment Options

So. You know how you're a nonprofit or public sector servant? You give your time and energy to a cause and a purpose you believe in? You KNOW you would be soul-sucked and heart-crushed if you just plugged away at a regular old job for some regular old company doing regular old stuff every day?

That's good.

But sometimes, don't you feel a little...tired? OK, let's be honest...exhausted.

And when you feel that way, if you're like me, you probably troll the internet looking for something to attribute this feeling to - WebMD - help!

Luckily, I have a pseudo-diagnosis for you that I think will help you start to understand this fatigue, burnout, stress, and that ugh! feeling you might be getting right now, even though you thought you were doing what you were MEANT TO DO!

And, because I am just an all around cool chick, I will also provide you with some handy tips to GET BETTER.

It's called: Headless Chicken Syndrome*

*with apologies to vegans and animal lovers all over the world

You may be afflicted with this unfortunate disorder if: 

  • You regularly start projects which you fail to finish, or otherwise abandon

  • You find your day is packed with back to back meetings every day, all day, week in and week out

  • You check your work email and/or voicemail when you are not at work

  • You have a running to do list that never ends, only grows larger, and you have begun having nightmares about this terrible to-do list beast, it haunts you, stalks you, never lets you go while you're simply JUST TRYING TO HAVE A SLEEP!

  • You can't remember where you're supposed to be right now, or why

  • You're late. A lot. All the time, even

  • You aren't sure why you're working on the things you're working on

  • You check your email all day. You describe your job to others as "I respond to emails and go to meetings." as if that were your entire job description

  • Your check ins with your boss or staff consist of checklists and to-dos, and little about strategy or priorities

  • Your time mysteriously disappears and you find yourself saying at the beginning of EVERY SINGLE MONTH "Oh my god - it's __________ already!?"

  • You don't eat lunch, or you eat lunch at your desk, or you make people watch you eat while you're in a meeting because you didn't have time to eat otherwise

  • You feel exhausted, stressed, and, let's be honest, a little pissed off ALL THE TIME

  • You can't get enough sleep, ever

  • You forget to bathe sometimes, or forget to brush your teeth, or otherwise neglect personal grooming in order to do more work

  • You stay up until the wee hours (or get up in the wee hours) to do more work

  • You joke about being a workaholic, ha ha, so fun

  • You find yourself aimlessly doing what amounts to busywork because you have NO idea what the most important thing to do actually is at this moment...

If you have three or more of these symptoms, you, my dear friend, have the aggrieved Headless Chicken Syndrome.

Help! What Can Be Done!?

Let's talk about treatment options.

First, stay calm (or, well, just GET calm in the first place...I know you're not, just humor me and BREATHE for a second, OK?)...


Do it again.

Do it one more time.

Aaaand, once more.

Good. That's better, right? Just a little?

Now. You have three options:

  1. Quit your job (only in the absolute WORST case scenarios is this to be considered)

  2. Get clear on what IS important with the people who care what you do all day

  3. Manage your symptoms by zoning out every night in from of the TV or with some booze or whatever you do to "take the edge off" or "just relax" (not really all that helpful)

My expert opinion is that option 2 is the best course of action. Let's discuss:

How do you get clear on what is important?

Strategy, my darling! Strategy!

If you have a strategy, an agreed upon, aligned with all the right people, STRATEGY? Then you have yourself a roadmap to recovery.

You know where to spend your time, because you KNOW what results you are after - you know what people expect you to produce, how to produce it, and what to NOT do so you get those results. In fact, so clear are you on these things, you routinely decline additional projects when they are offered (to the chagrin, occasionally, of your bosses, but you have a MISSION, don't you?).

You know what the most important thing is RIGHT NOW, not because of a deadline, or because your boss is breathing down your neck about something, or because it is the next big urgent thing that came up (once, I had a boss tell me my entire job was to "put out fires." I quit about a month later because it was a stupid, futile job, as I wasn't employed by the fire department).

You know the most important thing to do RIGHT NOW because you know the gameplan. You know the goal, the result, and what your role on the team is to get this game in the bag. You KNOW because you have a strategy, a plan.

But, Sarai! I'm not in charge!

It's OK. You're not in charge? Well, here's something fun!

Your environment is pliable. It will adapt to the shape of you. And if it won't, you will need to refer to treatment option 1, when you're ready.

Back to treatment option 2, environmental considerations:

If YOU change, your environment will adapt to your healthy new way of being. Other people will learn to see and respect your boundaries, and will see the results you get with your commitment to the STRATEGY. Your strategy is to identify - whether your teammates get it or not - what your specific, particular role is on this team, and then, commit to providing THAT service to the absolute highest of your ability.

The other stuff? It must fall away.

People will be uncomfortable with this at first. They might complain. You might even face some flack. But if you can't decide and focus on what is actually IMPORTANT, you are going to continue running around with your wings flapping and your tail feathers wagging. You are going to run out of time, of energy, of your very passion that led you to this special place and this beautiful cause in the first place.

You will work-die. That is, your love for your current job and your organization will wither away and just fall off. You will notice this, eventually, and it will hurt. Either you'll self-sabotage your way out of your job, or you'll admit you have a problem, work up the gumption to do it, and you'll say goodbye, hopefully politely. 

I would like to get you into Option 2 Treatment right away.

Let's start with this: does your organization have a strategic plan? Yes? Great - get your hands on it, make sure it's relevant, and connect with your boss or your boss' boss, or whomever you need to connect with to make sure your every day work aligns with this big picture.

But, why, mercy me, you DON'T have a relevant strategic plan!? *feigns surprise*

Then, let's talk about how to make one happen. It's not hard. In fact, it can be productive, quick, and, well, FUN! (remember FUN!? it's really cool, I promise - I found FUN again not too long ago, and we've really rekindled our love affair, me and FUN).

You can grab the Lean Nonprofit Mission Canvas to get started, and you can, if you are brave of heart and strong of character, get engaged in the awesome new program designed to help you get this allllll straight: "Get Strategic NOW!" You'll get pretty far down the road to healing, and before you know it, you'll be back to your old, jovial, committed, passionate, loving self again - with a strategy to pin your purpose to, you will ROCK your mission, your career, and your life.

And, if you're so inclined, you can read up on this whole process in my new book, Strategic Planning That Actually Works.

And, if you'd like to know more for FREE, check out my upcoming webinar, Secrets of Strategic Success on February 4th 2015. I'm sure it will be VERY therapeutic.