The Best Way to Spend Bad Days
When you’re feeling zero motivation, lower the bar
Lying in my bed, on my back, I can feel it: Today is going to be a shitty day.
I briskly turn on my side — a desperate attempt to go back to sleep and wake up again, and maybe, miraculously, feel good. It doesn’t work. I’m awake. The bed is uncomfortable. But the alternative — getting out from under the blanket and working on my dissertation — sounds even worse. In this moment, it feels pointless.
I’m not a stranger to mornings like this, when negativity spreads its message to my every cell. When you know you’re facing down a bad day, it can feel as though the motivation has drained from your body. And when no one is around to push you, things you’ve committed to doing — things you’re invested in, and are even good at — can lose all appeal. You convince yourself that these things don’t matter to anyone else, and shouldn’t matter to you, either. You see an endless gray horizon of indifference, and think: “Not today.”
A fundamental mistake people make is believing that motivation is supposed to be there before you begin working on something, and if it’s not, you probably shouldn’t be doing that thing in the first place. Not feeling it today? Rethink your life, man.
The problem: That’s just not how our brains work. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness, we suck at predicting how the future will make us feel. Our imaginations are lazy. Instead of accurately assessing what may happen, they merely make a projection based on how we feel now.
“When imagination paints a picture of the future, many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present,” Gilbert writes. “Anyone who has ever shopped on an empty stomach, vowed to quit smoking after stubbing out a cigarette, or proposed marriage while on shore leave knows that how we feel now can erroneously influence how we think we’ll feel later.”
In a way, this can be comforting. When you’re thinking about your work and you feel an uncomfortable lack of excitement, that might say more about your current mental state than about your overall view of your job. Just because…