It's always tempting to look for complicated or clever solutions to our problems. We love hacks and secret unknown solutions, rather than straightforward answers to our problems. There's a time and place to get creative, but usually it's best to exhaust the basics first.
Whenever I'm not feeling my best, whether it's a lack of motivation, a lack of energy, not being able to focus, on anything else, I go through a standard set of diagnostics. Usually they fix the problem and I don't need to go overboard.
1. Sleep. I talk about sleep all the time because so many people are chronically underslept and it has massive effects on health, focus, productivity, and well-being. I think it's very likely that as a society we will look back and think it's crazy that we didn't prioritize sleep.
If I'm not well slept, I don't trust anything I feel because I know that I'm not at my best. Do I really not want to do this project, or am I just too tired? Is this task really too hard, or am I just exhausted? No way to know.
Prioritize your sleep. Take a nap. Make sure you sleep at least 8 hours. If you're underslept, you might need more than that. If I haven't gotten 8 hours for a few nights in a row, I'll tend to assume that's the culprit and fix the problem.
2. Hydration. Another boring one, but it's very easy to not drink enough water. If I feel tired or sluggish but have been sleeping enough, I can be almost certain that I'm not drinking enough water.
This happens to me mostly when I'm in a new environment, or when I'm traveling. In a new environment I don't have the habit of walking to my kitchen to drink more water, and airplanes really dehydrate us badly. If I'm not sure that I've had enough water to drink, I'll just drink a few tall glasses and wait. Usually I'll feel better in 30-60 minutes.
3. Social time. Despite mostly being an introvert, not having any social time for a week or so makes me feel less engaged sometimes. This isn't always true, especially if I'm working on an exciting project, but if I'm not motivated or feel really distracted, sometimes I just need to spend some good time with friends.
4. Nature/Sun. I have a tendency to spend too much time indoors and to not get out in the sun. Sometimes I'll have to leave to go get mail or lunch and just walking to my car in the sun feels so good that I remember how important it is. So if I'm not feeling great, sometimes all I need is a nice walk outside, preferably through the woods.
5. Good diet. I used to be 100% regimented about my diet, but now I give myself some grey area and let myself autoregulate. However, sometimes I lower my guard and start eating too much crappy food, especially if I'm traveling to a new city. So if I feel like I'm not at my best, I use that as a prompt to tighten the diet back to perfect for a while.
These are all things that we should or could just be doing anyway, but between the five of them, I'd say that 80% of the time when I'm not at my best, the culprit is one of these things. I just quickly go down the list, identify anything that hasn't been really good recently, and make the necessary adjustments.
Because these are all such common habits, they're very easy to fix and get back on track. Plus they affect so many different things that focusing on them has a bigger effect than just breaking out of a slump.
One bonus one that I haven't tested yet because I haven't gotten sick since I heard about it: if you feel sick, try fasting until you feel better. My good friend Todd swears by it, so I'm going to add it to my personal list next time I feel sick.
Photo is an amazing view from the pagoda at Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan. It's worth all the flights of stairs.
I have exactly one spot left for Superhuman 2. If you'd like to come, please send a short bio and let me know what you'd like to work on. The group so far is excellent and I'm really excited about the event.
I think that some might be surprised to hear how much I sleep and how important it is to me. I average right around eight hours per day (tracked for a few months), and prioritize sleep very strongly, even over most work.
Once ten pm comes around, I have four options for things I'm allowed to do: I can play violin, read a book, work, or sleep. Computer is off at midnight every day, at which point I usually read for an hour or two, and then go to sleep.
The other night I was tired at ten, but I was really excited about my work so I tried to push through and keep at it. I was stuck trying to fix something, but I managed to try five or ten solutions out before getting in bed. At the time, it felt like a good choice.
I woke up the next morning, took one look at the code, and spotted the solution instantly. Within five minutes it was fixed. Once is a fluke, but I've noticed this pattern over and over again with work when I'm tired-- it feels like I'm working, but often I'm just spinning my wheels.
Question from a reader about waking earlier --