I’m going to take full advantage of the morning. I’ll wake up early, exercise, write or work on my own creative endeavors, eat a healthy breakfast at the kitchen table with my partner, and be ready to start the workday by 9am.
Wake up. Body feels tired and run down. Coffee first. Grab phone while coffee brews. Check Twitter feed.
Numbers still going up. Yet we’re still reopening.
Hatred, violence, and injustice abounds.
The world is awful, and we’re going to die.
10am. Guess I’ll start work now.
This is a common script for many of us.
Everything feels like a struggle. Getting out of bed. Getting dressed. Focusing on work.
Where is the motivation?
The usual creative stress relievers and outlets are unappealing. Painting, writing, drawing, even reading books seems to require too much concentration to focus on. You look around your home and all you see are things that are falling apart and need to be fixed. The mind turns to self-criticism and judgment. You want to move your body and do something healthy but the brain fog is pervasive.
The overwhelm of the uncertainty and magnitude of the problems are stealing every ounce of motivation, discipline, and energy you have. Bad habits and even addictions are creeping back in. What used to be a once a week drinking habit has turned into a daily habit. Comfort foods are now just your everyday meals.
You’re stuck in a rut. The stench of stagnation permeates the air, but you can barely smell it because the air is so thin. Your partner reaches out a hand, but you don’t have the strength to hold on.
Thank God for Candy Crush.
Why We’re Stuck
The coronavirus has brought the world to a standstill. There is civil unrest about the pervasive racism in the country. The economy has plummeted and life as we know it is disrupted by lockdowns, social distancing, and face masks. But it can be helpful and even useful to dig beneath the obvious and understand exactly what mechanisms of these circumstances make it so difficult to function normally.
We’re all grieving the loss of human connection
Grief is a funny thing. I always thought of it as losing a loved one to death. But grief happens when we lose someone or something that we are attached to. We are grieving the loss of our way of life. The dramatic and sudden upheaval of our daily routines and structure of life is a huge distress.
It’s important to recognize the value that small human interactions have on our spirit and psyche. Losing water cooler talk and daily connections with baristas, store clerks and work acquaintances is significant. We should not underestimate how much these small activities affect our wellbeing. When we don’t allow ourselves to process that grief, it overcomes us. When we bury it with distractions, denial, and avoidance, it holds us down and settles in the body, creating pain, discomfort, fatigue, and general malaise.
There is Increased Collective Anxiety
Anxiety has increased on a societal level. It’s in the news. It’s in our social worlds. This makes slipping into unwelcome habits much easier. Suddenly it seems more acceptable to have that extra drink each night or to reach for the comfort foods or the mind-numbing smartphone games that distract us from the rising anxiety.
When it seems like everyone around us is doing it, we lower our guard and discipline takes a back seat. Social norms dictate how we feel and act, whether or not we’re aware of it. What used to feel unacceptable is now creeping towards acceptable as we see others around us imbibing more or turning towards easy crutches to handle the uncertainty. The gauges have been recalibrated, and it is shifting our energy and habits in the wrong direction.
We’re Suffering a Loss of Identity
Many people have lost their jobs and with it went a sense of identity. For others who still have their job, they are trying to adapt to an alternative way of working whether it’s working from home or managing COVID safe guidelines in the workplace. The structures that used to ground us in who we are have been dismantled, leaving us wondering where we fit in at work and in our careers.
Our social identities have been uprooted as well. We no longer have the yoga studio, spinning classes, or gyms to go to. We don’t have the weekly outings, networking meetings, or other engagements that create a sense of who we are and what we contribute to the world. While we are all doing our best to rebuild these connections in an online space or socially distanced way, it has created upheaval and questioning in our minds as to who we are and what we mean to the world. This leaves us feeling lonely and isolated.
Acceptance Before Motivation
Understanding why we’re feeling stuck underneath the obvious (pandemic, racial injustice, economic ruin), is important for getting to the next step. The key to getting unstuck is acceptance. We have to accept the circumstances and the way we are feeling before we can move on. Acceptance is what will get the energy moving again.
Motivation is not the answer. That stuck energy comes from resistance. You’re fighting against reality. You don’t like what’s happening and therefore you are pushing it away (leading to fatigue) or trying to cover it up (numbing out with bad habits like drinking, eating, etc.).
Though it feels counterintuitive, you want to turn towards the feeling you’re pushing away. If you’re feeling stressed about your job and the state of the world, recognize that those feelings are there. Feel where they show up inside your body. Focus on the feeling, not the story around the feeling. Keep it grounded in the present moment. As soon your mind starts racing into the incessant doomsday stories, let go, and come back to the body. Do it as many times as you need to. This is how you move towards acceptance.
Acceptance is not complacency. It does not mean you have to like the feelings or the situation you are in. It simply means you are not resisting it or pushing it away. If you can’t find the energy to be productive and creative, it is because you are resisting your reality. You have not found acceptance and the resistance is stealing all your energy and focus.
If acceptance does not come, you can try to just accept that you’re not accepting. Even that small shift in thinking will free up some of that stuck energy. It will release the resistance and allow you to move through stress and anxiety.
This is an important step. Do not skip it.
Again, acceptance does not mean complacency. Nor does it mean you are okay with the way things are. The idea is to see reality for what it is without pushing it away, avoiding or denying. A good test for this is to check the attitude in your mind. What is the tone of your thoughts? Are you bullying yourself to get out of bed or go for a run? Are you ruminating about people not wearing masks? Are you dwelling on the numbers spiking and the ways in which it should have been done differently? These are all signs of resistance.
If you notice these thoughts, direct your mind back to your body and feel where the stress is living. Recite some words of compassion.
This is difficult. I don’t have to like the situation, but I will accept it. Acceptance will allow me to move forward.
Acceptance will bring you freedom from the debilitating thoughts that are devouring your energy. Remember to take baby steps. If you need to, accept that you’re not accepting. It’s a step in the right direction.
Once you have a little bit of acceptance, the energy will start to move. You can begin to add in other strategies to increase your productivity and creativity. But don’t stop working on acceptance. That needs to be the foundation of your work. Once you have monitored the tone of your thoughts and loosened the resistance in your mind, you can start to work on the following four habits to get you out of the darkness and into forward progress.
This sounds simple, but most of us underestimate the impact that sleep has on our health, mood, and general effectiveness during the day. Sleep is when the body gets to repair all the built-up stresses that accumulate. It’s when it gets to clean out toxins (improving our immune system), consolidate memories (helping us to learn better), restore energy (so we wake up feeling refreshed), and release hormones that regulate appetite and growth (helping us to make wiser food choices and not overeat).
When we look at all the things that sleep is responsible for it is easy to see how lacking quality sleep can affect our energy, mood, and productivity levels each day. Using a sleep tracker can help you understand what’s happening when you sleep and where you fall off track.
I use the Oura ring to track my sleep and I have learned that when I get less than an hour of deep sleep a night, my mood suffers. I am much more susceptible to negative feelings and ruminations. While I could write an entire post on how to improve your sleep, for now, I’ll suggest some basic guidelines and some resources to dive deeper into this extremely important health habit.
⟹ Have a nighttime routine along with consistent bedtimes and awake times. A nighttime routine is something we all had as a kid and know the value it has for children, but we dismiss it as adults. Yet the same principles apply to adults. Additionally, if anxiety and a racing mind keep you up at night, having a routine in place can help combat that. Journaling, taking a warm bath, meditation, or breathing exercises can all be great ways to reduce anxiety and prepare the mind for bedtime.
⟹ Reduce or eliminate blue light (computer screens, tv screens, smartphones, LED lights) at least an hour before bed. Alternatively, or in addition to, you could wear blue blocker glasses that cut out the blue light that disrupts your circadian rhythms which interrupts our sleep.
⟹ Avoid eating at least two hours before bedtime. Or at least avoid high protein or heavy meals before bed. Asking your body to digest lots of heavy food means it doesn’t have time to do all the other repairing and restoring duties it usually tends to during sleep.
⟹ Keep your bedroom cool and dark. Your body temperature lowers when you sleep, so keeping your bedroom cool at night helps your body stay in the comfort zone. According to Dr. Rachel Salas at Johns Hopkins the ideal temperature for sleep is 65, but she allows for a range from 65–69 degrees for most people. Keeping your room as dark as possible, including covering up alarm clocks or any other blue light-emitting devices like cell phones, will have a positive impact on your sleep as well.
Compassion is already a part of the work you’re doing through acceptance but it deserves a category of its own. It’s really hard to be productive and impossible to be creative when you are beating yourself up and comparing yourself to others.
I challenge anyone to keep a pen and paper with you for one day and write down all the thoughts you say to yourself throughout the day. Most people are surprised at the harsh, negative words that arise when they see them written out on paper. All-day long, we are chastising ourselves for not being good enough at everything we do. That kind of negativity is exhausting.
Try replacing some of those thoughts with kindness. Remind yourself that what you’re going through is difficult. Recall instances in the past where you’ve overcome struggles that you didn’t think were possible and use them as proof that you will get through this too. And if you can’t think of anything from your past, think of what you would say to a friend. How would you encourage them? What words would you use to pick them up? Research shows that people who have self-compassion are more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about the future (something we could all use more of).
Many of us recognize the impact that the constant news cycle has on our mood and energy levels but how many of us are intentionally finding positive information sources to nourish our minds?
If we think of news and information sources as nutrition, then we want to feed our minds with the superfoods of the information world and reduce or avoid the junk foods. Are you listening to news that talks about solutions? Are the stories you watch or read infused with hope and encouragement? Can you actively seek out inspiring people and conversations to broaden your perspective?
Notice if you constantly have an argument against people who are trying to give you solutions. Notice if it’s easier to get sucked into the negativity spiral and you are gravitating to anything that bolsters this outlook. This is the junk food of the mind that needs to be avoided. It is toxic for your creativity and resilience muscles.
Here’s a few sources I use for positive reinforcement to make sure I’m balancing out the negative news cycle:
Once you’ve started prioritizing sleep and being friendlier with yourself, you’ll notice your energy will rise. This is when you can start incorporating some easy wins into your routine. An easy win is the smallest thing you can do to set yourself up for success for building habits.
For example, if you are trying to get yourself to write every morning but can’t find the motivation, maybe your easy win is to sit at the computer for 5 minutes at 8am every weekday. Sitting at the computer is the goal, whether or not you write is irrelevant. Some days you may end up writing, and other days you may stare at the screen. But the WIN is just sitting at the computer. This allows you to avoid the negative self-critic who wants to berate you when you didn’t write. More importantly, it builds the habit of sitting down at the computer to write every day. Eventually, you will gain momentum from your easy win and up the ante.
This idea comes from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. He writes,
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
Easy wins can be used as a strategy for rebuilding a sense of identity which, as stated above, is part of the reason motivation is lacking. In Atomic Habits, Clear writes,
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
Your easy wins become the evidence of who you want to identify as and thus become sources of energy and motivation. Rather than waiting for motivation to strike, easy wins become the driving force behind our motivation. It’s a bit of reverse engineering. Another way to say it is “start by starting” or “action is the antidote to anxiety.” Don’t try to do everything at once, just take one small baby step. Get the easy win and slowly build the momentum from there.
Grief and anxiety are suffocating when we don’t take time to process them. Losing our identity is destabilizing. The uncertainty of the future is blatant right now but the truth is, it’s always there. Pandemic or not, we are not in control of how things unfold in life. The more we work on accepting this truth, the more resilient we become. We become less reliant on motivation to be the driver of creativity and productivity. These 4 steps,
2. Building self-compassion
3. Using positive reinforcements
4. And easy wins
will help build resilience and momentum to weather you through any storm.
Let me know in the comments below if these strategies work for you. Alternatively, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me how you are coping with stress and anxiety.