How to Snap Out of That Post-Pandemic Exhaustion You’re Feeling
I recently tweeted a piece of advice that I often tell my coaching clients: If I had to feel motivated to start a workout, I would have done 23 workouts last year, not 230. If I had to feel inspired to start writing, well, there’d be hardly any writing. If you want to stop 20 minutes in, fine. But give yourself a chance.
It’s a platitude, yes. But it’s also true and not just for the concrete tasks on your to-do list. In every part of life, there are highs and lows, periods of energy and periods of exhaustion. Sometimes all you can do is nudge yourself to show up and get started. Even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t feel like it.
Coming out of the pandemic, lots of people are feeling tired—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Psychologists call this languishing; in a New York Times piece earlier this year, organizational psychologist Adam Grant described it as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.”
“It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield,” Grant wrote. “Languishing might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
Sometimes you actually need rest. Your mind and body are truly tired. Shutting it down makes sense. But other times, what feels like a need for rest may actually be a sign that you’re stuck in a rut, your mind and body basically tricking you into feeling fatigued all the time—in other words, languishing. The cure in that scenario is to nudge yourself in the direction of action. It’s to not take the sensation of exhaustion too seriously and instead work your way out.
That’s clear-cut enough when it comes to something like working out or writing. But what about when the feeling of blah is hanging over your days more broadly? How do you “just get started” on an endeavor as broad as life?
Here, the work of psychologist Steven Hayes, who developed acceptance and commitment therapy, is instructive. Hayes’ program, backed by over a thousand scientific studies, points toward defining your core values—the things that matter most to you—and then showing up in service of those values day in and day out. His approach is simple if not easy.
Here’s how my coaching clients and I operationalize core values. First, we select them — no more than five, no fewer than three. Next, we define each value in a way that is personalized. Then (and this part is the key) we come up with concrete practices for each value. Presence could mean meditation for 15 minutes Monday through Saturday. Love could mean having no digital devices on during dinner with one’s partner. Health could mean 30 minutes of movement every day. Intellect could mean reading for at least 40 minutes four days a week.
And so on. It is a process that takes you from your highest ideals down to how you spend the minutes of your day. From lofty nouns to tangible if not measurable verbs.
You can’t think, feel, or will your way into a new way of being. But you can show up and act in accordance with your values. Sometimes you need a period of deep rest first. But inertia is strong, and eventually, you’ve got to get going.
Doing core values work is powerful because it gets you somewhere close to the equivalent of “just showing up” to work out or write. You don’t have to feel like getting out of bed. You don’t have to want to get dressed or shower. You may not be energized to go to church or temple or sangha or the neighborhood book club. That’s okay. You need only look to your values and then nudge yourself to practice them. It eliminates a good amount of psychic energy and willpower. You need only to show up and start.
My newsletter is the Growth Equation, where a version of this was first published. My latest book is The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success that Feeds — Not Crushes — Your Soul.