Humans are engaged in a never-ending battle to regulate their emotional and physiological states. This ranges from simple stuff, like keeping our body temperature within a certain narrow range, to more complicated stuff like managing our emotional state, usually trying to keep it positive in the face of various challenges and upsets.
The latter can be difficult, and it’s all too easy to default toward short-cut solutions with long term costs, like overuse of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, or entertainment, or drugs with potentially serious side-effects.
Late summer here in NYC was recently interrupted by a few days of cloudy weather, which reminded me (and somehow I’m always surprised) just how fast I get cranky when I can’t see the sun. It usually takes no more than a day or so of this to make me start feeling like an angsty teenager.
As such, as soon as I realized what was going on, I broke out my feel-better toolbox, and started working through it. I’ll recount the highlights here, in the hope that some or all of it will be helpful to you next time you’re feeling less like your usually chipper self.
No given thing here is that likely to make a large, permanent boost in your overall feeling of well-being – unless, for example, you go from never exercising to exercising frequently. However, all of them can reliably make for a small, consistent boost.
When you’re feeling down, or even just in need of a slight lift, this article will give you a big toolbox of stuff to draw from. If you’re in a slump and can’t be productive, just pick something and do it. If that doesn’t work, pick another. Odds are that you’ll soon find the thing or combination of things that finally pushes you over the line from “not motivated” to “motivated enough,” without indulging in bad habits that you’ll pay for later.
The thing to remember is that just over that line is almost a valuable as way over it, and that just over is a lot easier to do consistently. The difference between “not motivated” and “motivated enough” is WAY larger than the difference between “extremely motivated” and “motivated enough.”
Sweat – Even Just a Little
In college and parts of grad school, I used to be a bit of a gym rat. Well, maybe not quite serious enough to be a gym rat – think of me as a gym mouse. I went frequently, I rarely spent less than an hour, and I chugged A LOT of protein powder and was a little bit addicted to pre-workout drinks with excessively macho names.
Now, there were some benefits to this, but it isn’t sustainable and puts you well past the point of diminishing returns after awhile.
For starters, those pre-workout drinks can have some weird ingredients and often leave you more wired than you should be, which can mess with your sleep. They’re also not clearly any more effective than a good cup of coffee, while costing way more.
And as to all that protein powder – let’s just say your gastrointestinal tract just wasn’t designed for that much processed protein traffic and leave it at that, shall we?
If you do want to put on 30 pounds of muscle, use a simple program like Starting Strength. It will show you the important exercises, on a plan that’s a reasonable time commitment.
If you want strength without having to go to a gym, calisthenics are the way to go. Pushups, pullups, leg lifts, bodyweight squats, and especially the mighty handstand/handstand pushup and back bridge (my personal favorite), if you do them frequently and at the right number of reps and intensity, can make you very fit with low risk of injury, and can be done with a small time commitment just about anywhere. You Are Your Own Gym is a great start here.
If you really want to make calisthenics effective for gaining strength, do them quasi-isometric, that is to say, do the exercises really, really slow. It hurts, but it’s very effective with low risk of injury. I use this sometimes for pushups, bodyweight squats, pullups, and back bridges.
To combine calisthenics with cardio, do a Tabata workout. This just means that you do an exercise as hard/fast as you can for 20 seconds, then rest for ten seconds. Repeat that 8 times for the same exercise, then rest for 30 seconds. Then repeat with a different exercise. Do that four times, 16 minutes in total, and you’re done – and pleasantly exhausted. These days, most of my workouts are this.
My preferred sequence is running in place, followed by burpees (basically a pushup followed by a vertical jump, repeated multiple times quickly), followed by back bridges, followed by vertical jumps.
If you really want it fast and basic, just do the 7 minute workout
I sorely (heh) neglected stretching in my gym rat days, and that was a mistake.
Not only does stretching improve your results while helping to prevent injury, it makes you feel GREAT if you do it right. Doing it right generally means holding each stretch for about 90 seconds or more, and doing it hard enough that it isn’t quite comfortable (don’t overdo it and hurt yourself).
I’m no expert, and there are plenty of good resources out there. I mostly learned from Gymnastic Bodies, but there are any number of other resources, either free or cheap, that will show you the basics of what you need.
This very much depends on you and your needs, but I personally put heavy emphasis on stretching my quads/hamstrings, back (mostly through the back bridge), and chest/shoulders. I hold each stretch for 2 minutes and most of my sessions last about 15 minutes. If I’ve worked out that day, I stretch right after.
I’ve found that stretching consistently gives me a rush of endorphins – the same stuff that runner’s high comes from – and makes me feel better the rest of the day and helps me sleep.
In fact, sometimes I’ll also stretch right before bed, especially if I’m still feeling awake and think I might have trouble sleeping.
This is a really big one. Everyone knows you need sun for vitamin D, but it goes way beyond that. I don’t even know all the details but in addition to vitamin D it also boosts your serotonin (which is important for keeping you in a good mood, among other things) and testosterone (which also boosts your mood and energy, especially if you’re a guy).
I spent 5 years in Seattle, which is cloudy most of the time, and the cost to my happiness and productivity was HUGE. I always made a point to get outside, especially in those rare moments when the sun was out, but this wasn’t quite enough.
These days, weather permitting, I try to get outside and get as much sun as I can on my skin and eyes for 20 to 30 minutes. Obviously you have to be careful to avoid excessive sun exposure, especially if you’re naturally pale like me, but those 20 minutes (with no sunscreen, no glasses, and usually no shirt) make a BIG difference in my mood and productivity.
This is hardly revolutionary advice, but a good walk is worth a lot. Even if it’s just a short walk around the block to clear your head.
I add this not because it’s profound but because it works and is very easy to neglect or forget about.
The thing about focus is that you really cannot sustain it with intensity for much of your waking hours. To make sure your focus is at a maximum when you really need it, it should be deliberately rested at regular intervals. There are several ways to do this. One is clearing your mind, so you’re not really focusing on anything (more on that below), but another effective way is by de-focusing or letting your focus and attention wander in an undirected way.
Walks are one of the best ways to do this. In fact, they somewhat require it, because as you move through the world your attention is naturally moving around as you navigate, avoid running into lamp posts or other pedestrians, etc.
This nice thing about this is that it keeps your mind somewhat active but the lack of forced direction is restful. Also, as your mind wanders, you’re more likely to spontaneously generate ideas.
So, next time you’re frustrated, or your too tired to get real work done, don’t default to surfing the web. Get up and walk for a bit. This will allow your mind to rest while also setting your subconscious free to make creative leaps.
It’s virtually a foregone conclusion that most Americans eat way too much of it and should seriously cut back. Excessive sugar consumption is bad for just about everything. It’s bad for your health, it’s bad for your energy levels and focus and it can even prematurely age you even if it’s not making you gain weight.
That said, it’s worth thinking about WHY so many people find it so easy to overdo.
Some of it is just habit, but a lot of it is the fact that the taste and quick elevation of blood sugar levels do give you a quick rush of energy and happy chemicals. Obviously this comes at a cost if you do it too much, but this effect can be valuable IF you know how to harness it correctly.
There are several things you need to know to do this.
In general, your sugar intake should be the minimum necessary to achieve the desired effect (that is, that it tastes good, and there’s enough of it increase your blood sugar a little bit). Also, it should get to your bloodstream slowly rather than quickly – which you can accomplish by consuming it with fat and/or fiber.
The best way to achieve these things is to use good sources of minimally processed sugar, such as low-sugar dark chocolate or berries (especially with yogurt), or something like an RXBar.
These things have just enough sugar to give you energy and taste good and due to fat and/or fiber deliver that sugar reasonably slowly.
(Sort of) Sleep
I have a complicated relationships with naps.
For one thing, I don’t fall asleep quickly most of the time, unlike my Dad, who can power nap at will and wake up bright-eyed and ready to go for hours.
If you’re one of these people, you’re set. If you’re not, read on.
In addition to not being able to fall asleep quickly, when I do sleep, I sleep hard and heavy, which can mean the nap often runs overtime and leaves me both groggy for a while after I wake up AND makes it harder for me to sleep at night.
Over the past few years I found a solution to these problems. I call the general set of techniques “Accelerated Downtime” (discussed in much more detail in my course), but a key part of it is brief, waking rest aided by binaural beats.
Binaural beats are an auditory illusion created when two slightly different pure tones are played in either ear. For some reason, when you do this, you perceive a third, much lower frequency tone, and for some other reason, this effect can work really well for putting you into various mental states, such as alert, relaxed, daydreaming, etc.
I haven’t found any particularly good explanations of why this works, but I definitely does work well for a lot of people, including me. I’ve found that binaural beats in the theta range are excellent for resting and relaxing, so if I’m feeling really tired, stressed, sad, or anxious, I lay down and close my eyes, preferably in a dark, quiet room, and play theta waves through my headphones for between 5 and 20 minutes. I use an iPhone app (there are lots of good apps for this, just search for “binaural beats”), but you can try it here:
Note that you have to play this through headphones or earbuds – the effect doesn’t really work through speakers.
I find that 5 minutes of this is a good quick break, and by 15 minutes or so, I’m usually in a sort of waking dream state. If I can make it to this waking dream state and then stay there for a few minutes, when I get up, I feel like I’ve had a good nap, without the grogginess or trouble sleeping later at night.
If I really find my mind still racing or unable to let go of what I was thinking about, I do some box breathing.
Box breathing is easy to learn and most people find it effective for relaxing on command. Simply breathe in deeply as you count to 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, breathe out slowly for a count of 4, then hold with empty lungs for a count of 4, then repeat. All breaths should be deep, and you should breath as if you’re pulling air into your stomach, and then pushing it back out. To make it most effective, try to keep it up for at least 5 minutes.
Summing it Up
So, there you have it. These are all little things, but one of them might just be enough to make the difference between a slump and a good day, and if one doesn’t, several together probably will. How effective each of them is will depend a lot on you and the exact context you use it in.
Most of these work pretty consistently for me, but exactly how effective they are varies. If one doesn’t do it, I keep running down the list. It’s a very rare thing that I’m so low that a few of these together won’t make me feel at least decent.
When you’re down, it’s easy to overdo it in an effort to feel better again. Going overboard, like eating a pint of ice cream to spike your energy and mood at one extreme, or spending two hours in the gym at the other, often either has negative consequences down the road or is not sustainable.
However, small, controlled doses of mood- and energy-boosting activities are cheap, easy, and reliable, without negative consequences.
Develop a set of things you know work, and ingrain the habit of defaulting to one of them, or a sequence of them, when you aren’t feeling your best.