What I learned in Beirut
I feel exhausted. Yes, I’ve been up for over 35 hours but I’ve been feeling like this more or less for the past three weeks: basically the whole time I’ve been away. Being a supposed expert in energy, motivation and good habits, it was a bit shocking to see how far I could fall. I feel like I’ve been dunked in a vat of mollases and ordered to do hill sprints. How did I get so drained?
Back at home in San Francisco, I was energetic and lively. It wasn’t unusual to wake up at 5am, go for a run around the lake, prepare a hearty, delicious breakfast, write an article, meet with several clients, train at lunch time, meet more clients, and still have plenty of energy left when I finished work at 7:30pm. Right now, I couldn’t send an email to save my life.
At the beginning of this trip I was excited to see friends and family that I haven't seen in 3 years. I imagined having a lot of free time to work on articles and other projects. My fantasy was nipped in the bud the moment I entered my old apartment and flipped on the light. The electricity immediately short-circuited, only the first in a long chain of obstacles strewn the length of the trip: a flooded attic, electricity blackouts, nonexistent hot water, gas leaks, gmail needing 30 minutes to load, the list goes on.
Outside, too, my scenic view of grass, trees and lake was now replaced with busy streets and narrow sidewalks. Dust and smog filled the air from car fumes and construction sites. My sinuses quickly barricaded themselves in.
I used to not be phased by those things, afterall I grew up here. But maybe I should say I was phased by them but I didn’t realize it. It was normal, after all. It wasn’t until I left and changed my environment that I noticed, oh I feel so much better now. It’s shocking the mental reserves you suddenly have when you aren’t playing wack-a-mole all day long.
The truth is, you're probably in a similar situation to the one I described above. You might not recognise it at first since you probably don’t live in a third world country with constant infrastructure issues. But if you are spending a lot of your time doing busy work, feeling like you're always behind, getting stressed and de-motivated, then you might see another application for the term “failed state.”
You see, we aren’t very different from a school of fish living in an small aquarium. You might be a healthy fish, but dump in a bunch of dirty water and you’ll slowly get sick. Unleash a pack of sharks and watch your cortisol levels spike. Whatever state your in, environment has a huge role on your psychological, physiological and material well-being.
To put it in most basic terms, there are things that give you more energy and things that drain your energy. Those outside things have a big impact on how much energy you have, regardless of how much energy you intend to have.
Take a good look at how your environment influences you, because taking charge of your environment is the easiest way to start taking charge of yourself and stop feeling helpless in your fight to improve. Don’t look at what you intend to do (since you probably aren’t doing it anyway), instead look at what your environment is guiding you to do. Because unlike fish in a tank, you get to some choice about what water you swim in.
Examining the daily goings on in your life, you’ll find activities that contribute to your energy and mood, and those that take something away. It should be clear which ones you need to cut down and which ones to increase. Some draining tasks are unavoidable, but others you can eliminate entirely.
Here are some to consider:
Work. Being productive uses up energy, even fulfilling work will drain your energy. Not to say all work is equal, but recognize that the more you work the less energy you have for other things. The important thing is to be effective with your work: get results for your efforts. Avoid busy work and mindless tasks, instead focusing on things that get you the best return on your energy. Cut out things that feel like work but don’t actually get you anywhere (eg. checking your email millions of times).
Toxic people. You know who I’m talking about, individuals who are so insecure about themselves that trashing you somehow helps them feel better about themselves. They are literal energy vampires as they thrive on draining others. If someone doesn't believe in you, that's okay. That's their prerogative and choosing not to associate with them is yours. I made huge leaps in my life once I limited my contact with those who drained me.
Electronics. Not all the time, but for the most part all electronic devices will drain your energy. I’m talking about television, phones, computers, etc. How? First they tend to be sedentary activities which by nature make you less energetic. Second, your brain uses up processing power to interpret and interact with these devices. It may seem effortless, but try a simple test. After several hours of being on the computer guage how you feel: energetic?
Bad food. Sugary drinks, snack foods, anything that adds calories but is not a meal. These foods throw you off a caloric fiscal cliff and you probably already realize it. They give you a shot of energy or flavour or both, in the short term, then leave you feeling tired, spent and worse off than before. I also recommend avoiding food that doesn’t taste good or satisfy you. You can pack a plate with healthy foods but if they don’t taste good you’ll probably end up feeling like your stomach is full but you still need to eat something. Every bite is contributing something to your goal, whether positively or negatively. Make every bite count.
While reducing energy sinks is important, it’s equally if not more important to increase how much energy you have coming in. Afterall, you can’t save money if you have a great budget but no income.
Sleep. The most important activity by far in determining how much energy, willpower and motivation you have. You can accomplish this by following this bed time routine.
Activity. It may seem counter-intuitive, but expending some energy in exercise actually increases your overall energy level. If you start looking to be more active, you’ll be amazed how the path to more activity is already there. It’s just a matter of simple choices you make every day. For example, your office job can be a lot more active if you park further away, use the stairs, and take regular breaks to do short walks or stretches. Changing your environment doesn't mean you have to actually change anything about your surroundings, it can mean viewing the same places in a way that lets you make better choices.
Exercise. To get more exercise, train in the morning since you'll have more energy and drive. Prepare your workout clothes and lay them next to your bed before you go to sleep, so you have one less obstacle in your way when you wake up. By making exercise easy it becomes the path of least resistance and you can easily flow into it.
Good Food. When it comes to eating, stock up on good foods, get rid of anything you don’t want to eat, and have the tools necessary to cook great meals. It's a lot easier to eat a healthy meal if you have a clean, organized kitchen and all the ingredients are waiting for you in the pantry. Contrast that with a sink full of dishes and the ingredients sitting in the store 20 minutes away.
Positive people. Surround yourself with positive people and stay away from the toxic ones. Once you decide to cut out toxic people from your life, you open up a space to bring in positive people. When you make the choice to become energetic, motivated and engaged, other people take note. A positive mindset attracts positive people.
Routine. Start piecing together the better choices into personal rituals. Prioritize those rituals, and don't let people or activities transgress on them. Solidifying a ritual is about protecting and maintaining it, the easy part is starting one. When you set clear boundaries that protect and maintain your healthy habits, positive people respect your drive and determination and will be happy to respect your boundaries.
It might seem as if we've arrived at some pretty deep changes from a simple matter of environment. But every journey begins with a single step! Change the simplest, easiest things first and then build on your layers of habit. At first, you won't see much of a change but as you work at it, you will hit milestones where your efforts crystalize. Once you start seeing the fruits of your labor, and the energy, mood and motivation you reap from taking charge of your lifestyle, you'll find your energy investment only grows. The key to having more energy is to do more and better, not less and sloppier.
Changing yourself directly can be a daunting task, but working with your environment is an easy entry on deeper issues. But in just the week since I started writing this article, I've slowly seen myself re-energize and start to feel great again. It’s amazing how much influence things around you have and how a few simple changes really add up. So, figure out what you want and start influencing yourself to do it.