The Best Way to Spend Bad Days
When I feel depressed, I don’t see why I should do anything at all
“It’s all so pointless,” the voice was telling me over and over.
Depression has a life of its own.
It was making its bad-day morning routes, delivering its message to every cell in my brain. Soon I would feel it everywhere.
Lying in my bed, on my back, I realized: today was a shitty day.
I briskly turned on my right side. It was a desperate attempt to go back to sleep, and wake up again, and feel good. It didn’t work. I was awake.
I noticed that the bed actually felt uncomfortable. Yet the alternative of working on my dissertation still sounded worse than changing my position in the universe from under my blankets to anywhere else.
When no one is around to push you, pretty much anything can quickly become a more appealing option than doing something you’ve committed to, and are invested in, and want to finish, even are good at, but you deep down secretly think hardly matters.
I felt a soundless wave of futility invading me as all I could think was “Mehhhhhh. Not today.”
All I could see was an endless gray horizon of indifference.
A fundamental mistake people often make about motivation is that it’s supposed to be there before you start on something, and then when it’s not, the thing you planned on doing isn’t “what you really want”.
Not feeling it today? Rethink your life man.
The problem: that’s just not how your brain works.
As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert brilliantly explains in Stumbling on Happiness, we suck at estimating how the future will make us feel. Imagination pretends to know this shit, but instead of assessing the future, it merely projects 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. 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.
When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about the things that happen later.
When you’re thinking about something, such as working, and you feel a biting lack of excitement, that says more about your mental state now, than it says about your job.
If you don’t find yourself jumping out of bed on a daily basis that needn’t mean that something is amiss in the grander scheme of things.
And this works the other way around too: having all the pieces in place doesn’t mean you’ll always wake up smiling, for no other reason than that sometimes you just need that extra cup of coffee because some days are inevitably boring.
Even if your job provides you with the day you’ve been dreaming of at night, the excitement isn’t necessarily there when you hear the sound of your alarm.
So if you’re waiting for inspiration to make you get out of bed, you’re being unfair towards inspiration. It needs help from your side.
It’ll show up when you do.
When your inner Mr. Great is on holiday, doing anything positive is a huge win. Per the do-something principle,
Do anything you can to get the ball rolling.
I shouldn’t wait for that feeling to arise before I start writing. I needed to make the first step happen and it would come.
All this thinking about self-improvement must have gotten to me because in a sudden burst of inspiration I left my bed and found myself taking a cold shower.
“You’re gonna go out there and work on your dissertation because if you don’t you’ll only feel worse,” a soft, calm male voice commanded.
The icy water touched my skin. My heart rate spiked.
He went in for the mic-drop: “You know this is true.”
The voice — which is also me— was right. I agreed with the voice. I agreed with myself.
No idea why people say I’m weird.
For a second, I was pleased with myself. I let my guard down.
An image of the section I’d had to work on today flashed up. It was a mess of paragraphs under construction, half-decent arguments and a sky-high shitpile of ‘oh yeah this thing I don’t really understand yet but I’m pretty sure needs to be in here somewhere somehow but I’m gonna let future Maarten figure that out OK bye’.
It was hard. And useless. No one is going to read this, and I don’t want to continue in academia anyway.
The positive momentum was gone.
My friends Nick Wignall and Niklas Göke keep on hammering home that you’d best be kind to yourself. Engage in a gentle inner dialogue and don’t kick yourself. Forgiveness is the only way. Being hard on yourself doesn’t work in the long run.
Blah blah blah blah (blah blah blah, blah)
This is turning me into softie. Stick-mode, not mother-mode, is my default way of talking to me. The thing is, the arguments persuade me. It’s just how I’m wired.
I have accordingly been working on my self-love.
“You don’t want to work today, that’s okay. Whatever you do, that’s fine.”
This does the trick, because if not working is also okay, not doing it robs you of the self-righteous satisfaction you’re gunning for. You can’t rebel against a tyrant if there isn’t one. The resistance is hugged to death.
Bad days are a different beast. They deserve special treatment. Don’t hold them to the same standard as normal days. Applying a less strict norm doesn’t make you weak. It’s okay. This happens.
“Don’t think about the great pile of shit. One. By. One. Today, everything is a bonus. Nice and easy.”
As I got out of the shower, I realized where this was heading.
I tell myself to just do some light work on the outline for today and spare myself the heavy-lifting today, but also know that, once I do that, it often inspires me and so I write more and before I know it, I’m halfway through the shitpile.
I walked to my drawer and picked the new shirt I’d bought last week to look good, and feel good, on a first date.
My new morning routine continued to play on autopilot.
“I love myself,” I told myself without emotion. “I love myself” — it echoed robotically as I put on a pair of brown pants. I didn’t believe it. If I did, why was I seducing myself to work, applying strategies to and running lines on my inner dialogue?
At my desk, an empty sheet of paper with one question written at the top — green ink, underlined — was waiting for me to release my thoughts onto. It was the problem that got me stuck yesterday.
I had already solved the issue last night before dozing after 1 AM and knew what to do. It was still a muddle, but I had found a way out.
I knew that as soon as I let the answer out of its cave, the battle was decided.
I have been executing my habit for so long now that I know I’d slip into a flow state even if, on a conscious level, I resisted the thought of working on that stupid thesis no one is ever going to read. I have better things to do.
“Just three 50-minute bursts of concentration, that’s all you need to do for this day to be a success,” the voice spoke in a friendly tone to smash this last-minute resistance.
On bad days, lowering the bar is a golden strategy.
“Don’t bother with word counts. The only thing you need to do is to show up.”
He knew me too well: “I know you want it,” it sounded in a confident, conspiratory tone.
I sat down, cracked my neck from left to right, picked up the pen and jotted down the answer that had been simmering in my unconscious since last night.
When the initial tornado of concentration had hit my brain and went away not 50, but 75 minutes had gone by.
The first one always feels the best.
It was on.