The cycle of wellbeing and misery – and the way out
Last Friday I had a bad day. I was sleep deprived, frustrated and demotivated. It was the end of a busy week at work and I had almost no time to do the things I was planning to outside work. By Friday, I’d long given up on tracking tasks and my to-do list looked like mayhem. So did my living space. Dirty clothes and pieces of paper everywhere. I was sitting on my unmade bed in the middle of the mess doing nothing, just being miserable for hours.
A few days later, my place is clean and tidy and I’m on track with my scheduled tasks. I’m well rested and feel on top of things. I’ve been productive and can’t wait to get to the next task.
Sounds like an unlikely transformation in a matter of days?
I’ve noticed that I live in a cycle with two distinct phases. One is productive and happy, the other is just miserable.
My transition into the negative phase is always gradual and is like a downward spiral. I get busy, don’t sleep enough, want to be more efficient so try to save time by eating junk food and not exercising. Tasks build up, my place gets messy and everything gets out of control.
On the other hand, the positive phase almost always starts with a conscious decision induced by the collapse of all my life systems.
I know it’s impossible for me to always be in the positive phase, but I want to be there as much of the time as possible. So I made a list of things that, if missing or neglected, get me started on a downward spiral.
I urge you to make your own list. The phases of your cycle may not be as distinct as mine are, but I’m sure you have better and worse periods too.
1. Stay healthy
What’s your number one priority?
If it’s not your health, you might want to reconsider.
If you let anything else, a job, a relationship or passion, take number one priority, you’re health is going down the drain. It’s only a matter of time. When you’re sick or dead, you can’t do much about your number one priority any more, can you?
There are not many things I’m absolutely sure about, but this is one of them: make health your number one priority today.
Here is how.
a) Get enough sleep
The human body is amazing. It can take a lot of abuse before it breaks down. You can go for a long time not getting enough sleep without experiencing any problems.
Imagine that your life energy has an indicator (there must be an app for this) just like the battery of your phone does. Every night you don’t sleep enough, your life energy decreases a little bit. It’s a small change so you don’t notice it until it reaches a critically low level.
To me, nothing makes this more clear than the fact that I get totally unmotivated and uninterested in everything once I’m seriously sleep deprived.
If you are like me, sleep has to beat some pretty tough competition for your time. That’s why we need to keep reminding ourselves that by taking time away from sleep, we are making ourselves less efficient, less passionate and less happy. It’s not smart.
Sleep experts say go to bed at the same time every night and get at least 8 hours of sleep. Great. Why didn’t I think of that?
What I try to do instead is make sure I get at least 20-24 hours sleep within any 3 day period. By doing that, I never allow my life energy to drop below a critical level, while also being somewhat flexible and open to spontaneity.
On the first day without exercise, I’ll be mostly OK, especially if I had a big one the day before. On the second day, I’ll feel numb and low energy. On the third day, my body will demand its dues and let me know in no uncertain terms that I need to get my ass off the sofa (or out of the office chair): feeling indifferent, headaches, missed heart beats, painful veins and loss of focus.
It wasn’t always like this. For a long time my norm was getting no exercise at all. I only started running regularly when I realized I was headed for a health disaster and decided to do something about it. I hated running initially, but grew to love it over time.
But you don’t have to run.
You can choose from hundreds of other stuff. Pick one that you enjoy, have easy access to and can do with other people. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you keep doing it regularly and it makes you sweat.
Ideally, you’ll get some exercise every day, but at least 3 times a week. Actually, really ideally, you’d be physically active most of the day, every day, as nature intended.
Travelling doesn’t make getting enough exercise any easier, but ultimately it’s only an excuse. I’ve managed to get some exercise without going to the gym in the busiest of cities. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. In the worst case scenario, I’d just do some push ups and shadow boxing in my apartment, hostel or wherever the hell I am.
c) Eat well
I have a tendency to binge on anything sweet and have to make a real effort not to. Travelling makes this really hard too. Not only do you have to taste local delicacies that are often full of fat and sugar, but sometimes you just don’t have access to good food, not to mention a kitchen.
What has worked for me is I try to eat well 5-6 days of the week and then just go crazy for a day or two and eat absolutely anything.
I’m not vegetarian, but I only eat chicken, fish, and the odd burger. I try to stay away from refined sugar and bread as much as I can. I realized I can much easier resist the temptation of chocolate and cakes if I eat lots of fruit. Also, whatever food I have at home, I will eat it sooner or later. So my most important rule is I don’t keep unhealthy food at home. This way I don’t have to resist the temptation every time I open the fridge, only when I go shopping, which I always try to do after a big meal.
All this is a lot more difficult if you share a house or an apartment with friends or family. They will keep offering food and it’s difficult to say no. I try to eat as much healthy stuff as possible so I can honestly say I’m full.
I’m not big on cooking, but I’ve been experimenting with simple dishes and realized that I can make a huge variety of meals out of a few basic ingredients without following any recipe. Soy sauce, lemon juice and honey go really well together for instance and you can add them to almost any combination of fried vegetables, chicken or tofu and get a very tasty and healthy meal in minutes.
When you feel stressed out, it’s not because of your boss, job or busy schedule. It’s because you’re not handling these things right and you stress yourself out.
I cannot explain how not to stress yourself about your deadlines and shouting boss. All it takes is a different frame of mind I guess, which I sometimes have, other times I don’t and I stress myself.
What I do know is staying relaxed is definitely easier if I do some of the following every once in a while.
Babies apparently laugh 300 times a day on average. How many times do you laugh a day?
Laughter can set your mood for hours. Don’t believe me, try it.
Some people do laughter yoga, others just do self induced laughing. These might work, but I prefer having an actual reason to laugh. There are a few stand up comedians that make me laugh even if I watch them 500 times in a row. He is one of them.
You might find other things that make you laugh, perhaps people around you will take care of it. The point is be aware of the importance of laughter and get enough of it.
b) Listen to music
Music is as old as humanity itself. Our ancestors thousands of years ago knew and used its therapeutic and relaxing powers. When we listen to music these days, it’s almost always a background activity.
For a change, sit down in your living room when no one is at home, put on your favourite piece of music and turn up the volume. For the next few minutes pay attention to nothing, but the music. If you do it right, this will make your day.
Have a bath for two hours, get a massage or sit in the sun topless. Let yourself be pampered and give your whole being to the sensation.
I grew up in a culture that looked down on worldly pleasures. Indulgence was a serious sin.
So I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not.
3. Stay on top of things
For me, following some sort of a schedule is a vital condition for feeling in control and staying on top of things. Travelling, staying in hostels or sharing apartments, makes this extremely difficult. When people ask you what you are doing tonight, and you say “I’m going running” or “I have some writing to do”, you often get strange looks.
Following some sort of a plan means to me that I’m doing what I want and not what other people want me to do. I’m not a victim of circumstances, I control my life to some extent at least.
This is not to say that there is no room for spontaneity. If I’m in the mood, I’ll go out with you on the spur of the moment Monday night. And I will reschedule the things I was supposed to do for later in the week. Only I can’t let every night be like that.
I’ve been using Trello to list my tasks and for my schedule. It’s amazingly simple and easy to use.
b) Say no
I had periods when the best thing I could do was say yes to anything and anybody. I was the Yes man. These days, especially travelling, I get too many invitations and offers. How do I stay sociable, spontaneous and still follow my own plans?
Most of my schedule isn’t carved in stone. But I have at least two or three nights a week when I’ll say no to any kind of invitation or temptation.
There was a time I didn’t track anything. But one day I got fed up with not knowing where all my money went. I often felt like I was losing it. So I started tracking my expenses.
I used to be very bad at time management so I started tracking how I spent my time. I wanted to lose weight so I started to track my weight. I took up running so I started to track how much I ran.
That’s when I realized I developed a new obsession, this time for tracking things.
Tracking things makes you feel in control and can be very motivating. It allows you to see progress. For instance if you want to lose weight, by all means, weigh yourself every day, make a chart and all. It’s an instant feedback mechanism and the downward line is a great reward for the daily sacrifices you have to make.
But once you’re down to the weight you want to be, only stand on the scale once a week or even less frequently.
Track what you absolutely have to. Obsessive tracking is just as bad as not tracking anything.
d) Tidy up
I’m a messy person by nature, but I love tidiness at the same time. Keeping my living space tidy takes a real effort. I often surprise myself by making a huge mess out of the few things I carry while travelling.
Keeping my space tidy or should I say, tidying up every few days, goes beyond a liking for order. The immediate space you live in is ultimately a reflection or perhaps an extension of your inner self. If your mind is messed up so is your space and vice versa.
I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I know by experience that a messy environment messes me up.
4. Be in touch
a) Meet a friend or a group of friends in person
This has been the smallest of my problems while travelling as I’m almost always surrounded by people. But I remember living on my own slightly out of town and working online from home. It was quite the opposite.
There are people, who admittedly can’t stay alone more than a few hours, which I think is the symptom of a deeper problem, but I also think that it’s normal to long for personal human interaction after some time spent alone.
I enjoy being on my own tremendously, but really need human company after a few days. And not just on the phone or online. I want real personal human interaction. If I don’t get it, it will affect my mood and energy levels.
b) Meet new people
Many of the people I know get the above right, but they tend to forget about the importance of meeting new people. Growing your network is a good thing, but to me, the excitement that meeting new people brings is a lot more important.
There is something you can learn from everybody. Every new human encounter makes both you and the other person richer (with few exceptions). Meeting new people is also a skill that needs to be practiced, otherwise it will fade away. If you don’t get to meet new people by default, you need to intentionally put yourself into situations where you will.
5. Take time out
a) Alone time
I need some time alone every other day otherwise I’ll start feeling neurotic. My alone time may coincide with running, but I also need to make time for intellectual activities. Just for a few hours every other day, I need to retreat and be left alone with my thoughts, books, writing, ideas and daydreams.
b) Sit still
I’m not going to quote Gandhi on meditation and time management, because you’ve all heard it many times. But it’s true: if you feel you’re too busy, you need to take time out. And just sit still.
I’ve been trying to meditate for a long time, but it was a struggle. These days I just sit still and extract myself from daily issues by not thinking of them for a short time. I might just look at a flower or a ladybug trying to get back on its feet for while. The point is that I give myself a break. I give myself a new perspective and reframe reality. Sometimes, this makes the difference between impossible and possible, crazily busy and manageable.
I often get wrapped up in the things I’m doing though and forget to sit still. The consequences start to show within a few days. I become restless, feel stressed and inefficient. That’s why I have to remind myself again and again.
c) Drink tea
With a friend or alone, drinking tea is magic. Such a simple thing and yet it has the power to calm and slow you down at the busiest of times.
Drinking tea is one of the things I constantly need to remind myself of. To my mind it’s mundane and even boring. But my whole being is very grateful every time I take some time out and drink tea.
6. Stay productive
a) Know why
Turn off the autopilot, regain control. You can go through a whole day (or indeed every day) without knowing why you are doing whatever it is you’re doing.
I like to pause for a moment every time I switch tasks or start doing something new and remind myself of the purpose. This is especially helpful when my autopilot navigates me to a news site or other forms of wasting time. I pause and ask myself: why? What purpose does this serve? Do I really need to know about the latest plane crash or what Brangelina are up to?
Sometimes, I’ll rationalize it like “I need this just to give myself a break”, and go ahead wasting some time. But at least I’m mostly aware of why I’m doing things. Routine can serve you well in certain situations, but you shouldn’t let it control you.
b) Get into the zone – Single task
A fundamental human quality is that we can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth. You can only switch between tasks very frequently, which decreases your overall productivity and stresses you out.
Instant messaging is one of the greatest hindrances to productivity. Unless your job is to be available and responsive, you never need to read any message instantly. If you do, people will find a way to let you know. IM is also a painfully slow and inefficient way of communication compared to a conversation.
I need good chunks of uninterrupted time to get things done. Once I get into the zone, I can stay there for hours and be really productive. But I’m easily distracted so I try to minimize possibilities for distraction whenever I can.
- Close all browser tabs other than the one I’m using.
- Go full screen.
- Turn off skype, Google voice and others.
- Put my phone on silent or switch it off.
- Check email only twice a day.
Well, this is what I aspire to. When I catch myself multitasking and giving in to distractions, it’s always the beginning of a downward spiral.
7. Stay challenged
If I don’t get my share of intellectual stimulation I start to feel bored fairly quickly. Anything can do the trick: a conversation, a good read or thought provoking movie, and especially a piece of art.
That’s important, but is only the intake part. The real challenge is putting something out there that will be looked at and judged by other people.
Write, take photos, draw, paint or do whatever challenges you intellectually and let people see it.
Writing is the ultimate challenge for me. Distilling the chaos in my mind into a coherent piece of writing that other people may understand is a real challenge and great fun at the same time. Not writing in my mother tongue adds another level of difficulty and fun.
When I say writing is the ultimate challenge, I really mean that creating is. Whatever you create, you’re making something that wasn’t before. And that’s always scary, because you have no idea how it’s going to turn out and what you and other people will think of it.
You need to be creating to stay challenged intellectually.
A child will jump to see if he can reach the branch of the tree. Why? Because he is curious whether he can do it. Because it’s a challenge. Why don’t we? Because we’re adults, right?
I like to be reminded of my caveman origins and do something I’m not sure I can every now and then. If I don’t, I’ll feel out of place.
c) Do something naughty
In Medellin, I ran up a hill at night through the woods without lights and without knowing where I was going. I ended up in the middle of some military facility and was swiftly told to get the fuck out by one of the guards and his dog. I got the message even though I didn’t understand what he was shouting in Spanish. I had about a minute to enjoy the incredible view of the city at night. It was totally worth it.
I like to provoke people and see how they react. I’ve been asking strangers to let me use their phones. I actually needed the phone urgently and offered to pay cash for a quick call. A lot fewer people refused to help than I expected and no one took the cash. And that’s despite (or perhaps because of?) my broken Spanish.
I need to do something like that every now and then. Not something gross or outright illegal, but something I’m not supposed to do. Just so that I know I’m still alive.
8. Get intimate
This is one of our most fundamental human needs and we so often deprive ourselves of it. If you’re in a relationship, your need for intimacy is taken care of you might think. Yes, if you are in a good relationship, it perhaps is.
I was in relationships for months where I was physically close to another human being, but there was no intimacy whatsoever. We even managed to have sex without getting intimate. Intimacy is so much more than sex. Having sex can be no more intimate than a game of tennis if you want to do it that way.
Intimacy to me is a mutual thing between two people. When you both open up and become vulnerable. Yes, intimacy involves taking some risk. That’s why it’s so damn exciting.
You can have a sense of intimacy over the phone or any other means of communication, but the real thing requires personal presence and physical touch. You can talk for hours and not say a thing. But one touch and you both know everything there is to know.
Getting intimate while travelling is definitely one of the greatest challenges. But not nearly impossible.
To some extent all of these things have to be present in my life at any one time to keep me in the positive phase of my cycle. They complement each other but they also compete with each other for my only nonrenewable resource: time. Finding the delicate balance between them is my lifelong quest.
While I’m pretty sure that none of us can go for long without any one of these 8 things, I didn’t share this because I think this is the blueprint for happiness. It’s merely a collection of what’s important for me to stay well. I really hope you’ll write your own list, because being aware of the things you need to stay well is a good first step to staying well.
I’d love to know how your list may be different. I’m sure I didn’t think of everything. Please let me know in the comments!