Fit Your Own Oxygen Mask First

‘In the event of a sudden drop in pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the panels above your head. Pull the mask towards you to start the flow of oxygen. Be sure to fit your own mask before helping others.’

Every time I’ve been on a flight, I’ve heard those words. Every time you’ve been on a flight you’ve heard those words. And the chances are, like me, they pass you by without a second thought.

The reason for the guidance is that in the event of a sudden drop in pressure, if oxygen were to no longer be readily available, you would have a finite amount of time to fit your own mask before becoming starved of oxygen and drifting out of consciousness. If within that window of opportunity, you were taking the time to help other people first, you would inadvertently put yourself at risk. Therefore, as the briefing goes, it’s far better to take care of yourself first before attending to other people. After all, it’s far easier to help them when you’re conscious!

Consider the oxygen mask metaphor with respect to everyday life – to the choices we make and the things we do or don’t do – and it often rings true with alarming relevance. And let’s face it, we’re all culpable of this, probably on a daily basis. But the point to understand is that it’s not sustainable. Sooner or later you’ll lose consciousness whether that be metaphorically or literally!

What are the reasons why we don’t help ourselves first?

Part of the reason for this daily approach is conventional wisdom, which tells us to work like a dog – that more effort for an unlimited period of time will equal better results. This often means that we focus first on the drudgery rather than what’s of critical importance. Put it another way, we can find it easy to avoid the important issues, to put off or to procrastinate. And we do this because of the feeling of well-being it can create by just doing stuff – and lots of it. After all, it’s great to tell people how busy we are!

How do these elements manifest themselves day-to-day?

Take your pick. There are literally hundreds of ways in which this happens. From not exercising, not eating well, not getting enough sleep, not taking a break – in other words, ’burning the candle at both ends’; to spending too much time talking about what we’ll do without actually doing what’s required; to adopting the ‘I’ll be happy when’ mind set, and as such, spending too much time focusing on the wrong stuff.

A note on the ‘I’ll be happy when’ mind set club

I’m sure you’ve the seen people who are in this club. They may not know that they’re members, but they are. You can spot them and their affiliation to the club a mile away, because they’re the ones who say things like: I’ll be happy when I’m fitter/richer/thinner/more successful/better balanced/promoted/have a holiday/buy a new car…. the list is endless. But the reality is that they’re looking to a point on the horizon in the hope that it will result in a change in feeling, when all along the way to have achieved that feeling was ‘to fit their own oxygen mask first’ – put differently, to first take care of themselves.

What can we do to change this habit?

Bucking conventional wisdom and hundreds of years of conditioning isn’t easy and the naysayers may well look at you as if you’ve fallen from a tree and cracked your head.

But fear not for it will be ok, although first there needs to be a change in mindset on several fronts:

1. Manage your energy not your time

There is a great article that was published in Harvard Business Review titled, ‘Manage Your Energy Not Your Time’ written by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy which you can access directly here. The article and principles within it traverse industry and culture and I strongly recommend reading it now and doing the quiz, ‘Are You Headed for an Energy Crisis?’ The premise of the paper is that working longer and longer days isn’t sustainable because time is a limited resource. On the other hand, personal energy is renewable and that by taking simple steps to replenish energy, individuals and companies can benefit from increased fulfillment and profits.

2. To look after yourself first isn’t selfish

Accept and feel comfortable that it’s not selfish to ‘fit your own oxygen mask first’ but actually is more about optimising your own performance. No one can function at maximum effort for unlimited time, putting the needs of others first. In order to give more and create more significance for others, you first need to have replenished your energy and accomplished your critical tasks, lest you go through your day in a semi-conscious, sub-optional state.

3. Play as if you’ve got nothing to lose

Imagine going to work in a casino. The manager comes up to you on your first night and says, ‘Here’s £500 in wages for your work tonight. That’s yours to keep. In addition, and to encourage others to play, here’s £5,000 for you to gamble. If you’re down at the end of the night, don’t worry we won’t ask you to repay us. Conversely, if you’re up at the end of the night you don’t keep the profits either. You’ve nothing to lose so just enjoy the experience’.

How would you play under those conditions?

What if you applied that thinking to the vast majority of your choices? After all, they are seldom a matter of life and death. Yet we get stuck in the drudgery, often procrastinating over choices which need to be made for fear of failure. But to know that you’ve come this far and done pretty well should be reassuring to you, as should the knowledge that it’s likely you’ll keep doing pretty well in the future. So go with what your instinct tells you.

Wouldn’t that be liberating?

Apply these points in the way which resonates most with you. But let me apply them to the principles of GO NAKED.

If to GO NAKED means to strip away behaviour which doesn’t contribute to success; if to GO NAKED means to be willing to take a risk and step out of your comfort zone; and if to GO NAKED means to focus on those elements which are fundamental to the development of great relationships; then to ‘fit your own oxygen mask first’ means to focus on critical tasks first; to give yourself a break and do something every day for you and your development; and to take a risk safe in the knowledge that it’ll probably work out ok.

How does ‘fitting your own oxygen mask first’ apply to you? 

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