Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

What To Do When You’re Tired of Being Tired

A mind-set shift can be a powerful tool.

Brad Stulberg

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

person sitting on couch, looking exasperated

In our first session this year, my coaching client Jane told me that she has rested, given herself permission to feel down, and lowered her personal bar, just as we all have been advised to do as we wearily approach the third year of the pandemic.

But even as she goes through the motions of self care, she told me, she still feels blah. “I’m just kind of stuck,” she said. “And I don’t exactly like it.”

Jane, a 50-year-old entrepreneur who lives in New York City, isn’t alone. Many of us felt seen when, last April, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote of languishing, “a sense of stagnation and emptiness … as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” There was a relief in having a name for our experience, and a kind of solace in realizing that we weren’t alone in experiencing it. But now, nearly a year later, as with just about everything related to Covid, we’re sick of languishing too.

We want to feel motivated, and to get unstuck. The question, of course, is: How? Sometimes when we are languishing and feeling exhausted — emotionally, physically, socially or spiritually — the best thing we can do is rest. But at a certain point, rest creates inertia. Our minds and our bodies are as recovered as they’re going to be. Yet we still feel off. At this point, many can benefit from deploying a psychological concept called behavioral activation.

First developed in the 1970s by the clinical psychologist Peter Lewinsohn as a way to help people work through depression, apathy and negative moods, behavioral activation is based on the idea that action can  create motivation, especially when you’re in a rut.

To be clear, this is not about trying to think positive thoughts, a mantra that became a pillar of the self-esteem movement last century, with mega-best-selling books such as 1952’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” arguing — we now know, falsely — that if you just think positive thoughts and suppress negative ones, you’ll gain health, wealth and happiness. If anything,  research has shown that those strategies often backfire: The more you try to change how you feel, the more stuck in your current mood you’re likely to end up. As much as you might want to, you cannot control your thoughts or feelings.

The challenge with behavioral activation is mustering enough energy to start acting on the things that matter to you: Make that phone call, schedule that walk with friends, write that email, get off social media and start on the creative project you’ve been procrastinating on. This may sound simple, but when you are languishing, simple does not mean easy.

But a mind-set shift can be a powerful tool. When you feel down, unmotivated or apathetic, you can give yourself permission to feel those feelings but not dwell on them or take them as destiny. Instead, you shift the focus to getting started with what you have planned in front of you, taking your feelings, whatever they may be, along for the ride. Doing so gives you the best chance at improving your mood.

It can be helpful to think of this initial oomph as activation energy. Sometimes we need more, and sometimes we need less. For many of us, even the little things require more these days, and that’s OK. It won’t be like this forever. If anything, the more we get going, the easier it becomes. Just as rest and languishing can create inertia that builds on itself, action and energy can be self-reinforcing. It just takes some extra work to overcome the initial stasis and friction — it can feel like the laws of physics apply to our psyches, too.

Brad Stulberg researches and writes on sustainable excellence and wellbeing. He is bestselling author of the new book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Brad Stulberg

This post originally appeared on Brad Stulberg and was published March 31, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

Want the latest findings on the science and art of human performance and wellbeing?

Subscribe to the newsletter