Do you ever feel like the job is just too big?
Say you’re trying to lose weight and get in shape … or pay off your debts or repair a relationship. Maybe you want to start a new business, build a house, or overthrow the government (I kid!).
But sometimes it seems like the task is too much.
It will take too long. There are too many hassles and roadblocks. And you’re not sure exactly how to do it.
You worry that you don’t have the energy, willpower, tenacity, or drive.
Or maybe you think there is something intrinsically “off” with you, that makes the whole thing impossible anyway.
Yes, other people might have achieved the same goal, but down deep you think they’re somehow different than you in a way you can’t describe.
I have a motivation trick for you that isn’t really a trick, but a smart tool that actually began in the car industry.
First, though, here’s the truth: tackling big goals is hard work. It will be hard. But my firm, 100-percent belief is that if you’ve got a big goal in your head, it’s there for a reason.
And with some smart strategies, you can make it happen. You just have to figure it out why you want it.
How to Stay Motivated
It’s easy to get pumped up for a day or a week when it comes to tackling a big job or goal. We all do that from time to time.
In fact, one of the biggest “tells” for me when it comes to client success is the level of enthusiasm people throw at me during our first meeting.
If new clients come at me with a plan to work out several days a week, embrace a spartan ketogenic diet, and hit their goals at a rapid pace, I’m always cautious about a big crash-and-burn within a week or two (heck, even after a day or two).
Because you can’t push through on staying pumped or “getting tough.”
In fact, while an element of discipline and toughness is necessary, I actually think too much toughness is counterproductive.
Real change – the kind it takes to get big jobs done – requires going deep.
Making big things happen in your life – changing the very shape of your body, or your bank account, or your interpersonal relationships, or the way you live – starts from the inside.
And if you’re covered in a shell of armor or toughness, you can’t penetrate it to make those deep changes.
True change requires reflection, thought, open-mindedness. It requires evaluation and course correction.
Plus, it’s scary.
And while, yes, making change does involve actually DOING things, it starts with some deep inquiry.
You Must Ask Why
I’m not talking about asking, “Whyyyyyy??!!!!” in a rending-of-the-clothes, beseeching God way. (Although sometimes …)
You have to ask yourself why in a curious, investigatory way. Usually asking the question “why?” five times is the magic number, because it lets you see your true motivation, rather than the shallow, “pumped-up” reason.
Now, this is not an original idea. If you google “5 whys” you will come up with lots of templates for how to do this. This method of inquiry was actually developed for the Toyota corporation to help with its manufacturing process. (1)
But it works incredibly well for pinpointing the root of nearly every problem.
Here’s a Sample ‘Why?’ Inquiry
- Why do I want to lose weight? So I feel better.
- Why do I want to feel better? My knees ache, and I just don’t have any energy when I get home from work.
- Why do I want more energy? I feel like I’m missing out on things. When I come home, all I want to do is sit on the couch.
- Why don’t I want to sit on the couch? I’m starting to feel disconnected from everyone, like life is passing me by.
- Why don’t I want to feel disconnected? Because I’m lonely and I’m starting to feel depressed. I am not having any fun lately because things seem like such a chore.
So, the reason for losing weight isn’t necessarily just to lose weight to feel better, it’s about not feeling so lonely.
Get a Little Uncomfortable
It’s hard to let yourself feel lonely – but letting yourself feel that way (at least temporarily) might be just the kick in the pants you need to take action so you don’t feel that way any longer.
While it’s tempting to want to numb out that lonely/depressed feeling by sitting on the couch and bingeing on Netflix or playing video games, you’ve pointed out to yourself that ultimately, it’s just making you feel worse.
So every time you feel the lure of the couch, you can tell yourself: “Hey wait, this isn’t serving my goals. I need to do something else.”
But it’s kind of important to do that with some gentleness. Because ….
You Can’t Hate Your Way To Success
Let’s use education as an analogy here.
Say you decide to go to college to earn a bachelor’s degree because you need one to advance in your career.
Do you accept the fact that it’s going to take four years (or maybe slightly less if you go year-round) to attain your goal? Or do you immediately start hating on yourself because you’re not already there yet? Or maybe even because you weren’t somehow born already possession the degree?
Many years ago when I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get graduate. I have quite a history when it comes to school (another story for another day), but sitting through boring lectures was like a slow death to me. Seriously, I’d have actual anxiety in class, just waiting for it to be done.
I worked hard to go to (almost all) my classes till I reached the finish line because I wanted to get started on what I called my “real life.” That was my personal why – proving that I could actually see it through, and then being free to pursue “real life.”
And years later, when I decided to compete in a figure show, it wasn’t because I wanted to walk across the stage wearing a tiny bikini or felt that I was somehow lacking and needed to “get shredded” in order to shore up my self-worth.
In fact, I really wasn’t so pumped about wearing that tiny bikini, to be honest.
It was about wanting to feel strong and to prove to myself after surviving a few punishing years of losses, I could do hard (and scary) things on my own.
Honestly, if it had just been about having my physique judged, I wouldn’t have seen it through to the end because that doesn’t interest me so much.
What are YOUR Whys?
Once you have your “Whys” in place, then you can start with the actual nuts-and-bolts how-tos, and employ some of the get-tough philosophy to help keep you going when your willpower is flagging.
Watch motivational YouTube videos, read positive self-development literature, surround yourself with people who will make you feel better, so you can keep marching toward your goal.
But be sure you have your own strong underpinnings in place first – and that you revisit your “whys” often. Because otherwise, all that motivation can end up feeling a bit like an indictment if you’re not clear about why you’re doing all the work in the first place.
When it comes to keeping a gratitude journal, I’m kind of like the malcontent sitting at the end of the bar.
Like, I want to keep a gratitude journal, but it just never seems to work out. I get bored, antsy, and I feel like I’m giving in to questionable woo-woo “magic” that will somehow miraculously create peace and abundance in my life.
In the past I’ve tried to keep one … and there actually were a few months-long spells when I was successful at regularly writing in one.
But it never felt quite “right.”
At least not until I implemented a few tweaks in the format, based on ideas I’ve picked up along the way from various sources.
Gratitude Journal Benefits
There are numerous documented and proven reasons to keep a gratitude journal. For instance, studies show:
- People who keep weekly gratitude journals exercise more, feel better both physically and mentally, and are more optimistic than those who just journal about random life events.
- Study participants who documented gratitude were more likely to have made progress toward their goals.
- People who kept daily gratitude reports were more apt to have helped someone else with a personal problem. (1)
And 20 years ago, even before all those studies reported measurable benefits, Oprah Winfrey was talking about the general awesomeness of gratitude journals.
Back when I watched her shows about them, I was all in.
Gratitude! Abundance! New notebooks! And pens – lots and lots of inkjet pens.
I bought all the Sarah Ban Breathnach books. In fact, I still have them in a box somewhere. Talk about abundance: they survived the cut after I decluttered some 300 books (or more!) from my collection.
Old-School Gratitude Journals
If you’re not familiar, the original idea of a gratitude journal is pretty simple.
Every night you take stock of your life and express gratitude for 3 to 5 things, people, or events in your life. Some people recommend writing for 15 minutes, while others recommend just writing the list.
Even if you’ve had the crappiest day ever, you can still write down something for which you’re grateful: having a bed to sleep in, a blanket to cover you, whatever.
Which is really nice.
But at least for me, there were a few problems with the conventional gratitude journal.
- I am tired at night and want to go to sleep. Or rather, my body demands that I go to sleep. Like, I will straight-up nod off.
- After a couple nights, writing the lists seemed like a rote exercise. “I am grateful for the coffee someone brought for me today. I am grateful for a warm house on a freezing night.” The thing is: I was grateful, but … day after day of writing this didn’t seem overly meaningful.
- And while I did (and do!) feel grateful after writing these things, as a very goal-oriented person, it felt almost as if the journal was creating a sense of complacency. Like, the underlying message was: things are good enough. “Just be grateful” … not said in a happy sigh, but in an admonishing tone (but that could just be my issue).
Updated Gratitude Journals
Sometimes my reading veers heavily into the “energy medicine” woo woo area (although, as above, even as I’m drawn to it I’m also skeptical of it). As a result, I struggled with the thought I wasn’t able to fully embrace gratitude because of my problems with journaling.
So over the years, I’ve jacked my gratitude journal up a bit, customizing it based on things I’ve read/heard/etc. or what just “feels” right.
And here’s my latest formula, which kind of kicks ass (and yeah, I’m grateful for it).
1. Don’t Write Daily
This one took a huge load off my sleepy shoulders. Studies show that you don’t have to go overboard and write every single day in your gratitude journal in order to get the results mentioned above.
In fact, writing in your gratitude journal weekly is just fine. (2)
If you’re a goal-oriented person who plans out your weeks in advance – through time blocking or some other method – wrapping the gratitude journal into that practice would be a great way to tie it all together.
2. Gratitude, Plus
I still write down the things I’m grateful for – but I add a why.
“I’m grateful for x being in my life because she made me feel special by being so thoughtful. She brought me coffee without me asking her. Not only was it sweet and caring, but also a good lesson.”
“I’m grateful for a warm house on a freezing night because it lets me be comfortable when so many others aren’t. Grateful I was born into a middle-class family I was, in a first world country.”
Again, those studies I mentioned above? They find going deep with your gratitude rather than simply making a list is particularly helpful. (2)
2. What Went Well
Next, I document what’s been going well. Maybe I had a great week of workouts, felt strong, or I’ve made significant progress on something business-related. Or, maybe I kicked my afternoon coffee habit (yay!), or enjoyed time with friends.
Basically, I just take stock of my week and say “attagirl” on stuff that went well.
But that also means noting:
3. What Didn’t Go Well
So yes, I even document the things that didn’t go as I had hoped. Maybe I let my schedule get out of control and bailed on my planned workouts. Or – as happened last week – I lost an old friend.
This isn’t about scolding or being “mad” at myself if things don’t go as I expected. Sometimes stuff just happens – but I think it’s valuable to do an assessment because acknowledging problems allows us to see possible solutions.
4. Was This Week Better than Last Week?
Why was it better? Or why wasn’t it?
Again, as above, this isn’t about beating yourself up. And not every week is going to be stellar. For instance, for me, despite not getting in my workouts and taking a break from the friend, I think the week actually did go better than the prior week, because I took some much-needed downtime.
Sometimes when we can see trends of things not working the way we’d hoped, we can make course corrections that help us regain ground.
5. What’s The Intention for this Next Week?
Keeping this simple – maybe even just setting a single priority – is the key here, at least for me. Otherwise, I can get spun out with well-intentioned and overly long to-do lists.
Maybe the intention/priority is to improve a relationship. Or maybe it’s to clean out that living room closet or not eat sugary foods. It’s up to you and what resonates for you and your life.
6. Express Gratitude for the Coming Week
I think it’s important to end on this “gratitude” note – and expressing what you’re grateful for in advance (especially if it’s related to your intention) can be a powerful way to bring it to fruition.
Not because it’s “magic” but because it gets you psyched.
For this coming week, I have two intentions. One of them is to lean into my fitness and nutrition program a little more, and the other is to put the finishing touches on a new program I’m going to be offering.
And I’m really grateful that I’m able to buckle down and focus on my fitness. I have friends going through some health struggles right now and it really drives home the point that, as the Roman poet Virgil said:
“The greatest wealth is health.”
And as my business evolves, I’m so grateful for opportunities that just seem to “happen.” And I’m even more grateful when I wake up enough to see them in front of me. Seriously, I was asking the universe for something and when it showed up, it looked completely different than I expected so I didn’t even recognize it.
And I’m grateful for (and psyched about) the opportunity.
Daily Thoughts, Weekly Practice
Those are some really practical ways that I tweaked the conventional gratitude journal to make it fit into my life.
There are so many great reasons to keep a gratitude journal that I think it’s worth playing around with ideas to make them work till you find your secret formula.
Still not convinced? Here’s a good article outlining more benefits.
And I think that’s the key to any of these journals/hacks/programs. You try them, see what works for you, discover what doesn’t, do a little self analysis to find out why, and then come up with your own routine.
Do you keep a gratitude journal? I’d love learn more! Leave a comment or inbox me.
Are you feeling stuck anywhere in your life?
Like you’re in a rut, but you can’t quite put your finger on what it’ll take to pull you out of it? Or maybe you know what it’ll take, but you’re just not sure whether you’re ready to actually do it.
Or maybe you just want MORE: a more abundant, richer, fulfilled experience (or heck, even more money and more stuff).
I know it might sound pretty crazy, but I have a great tool for you. And it’s basically free (although you do need a pen and a notebook … or your computer).
That tool is morning pages.
What are Morning Pages?
The writer Julia Cameron first came up with the idea of morning pages in her classic book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, as a way for people to unlock their creativity and find their voice.
But I was writing morning pages way before I first heard about them … as far back as the 70s. Basically, all you do is get up first thing in the morning and – before you’re fully awake – start writing. Preferably three notebook pages worth, nonstop (there’s a reason three pages is the sweet spot for results. I’ll explain in a bit).
Now, if you’re me, the first thing you have to do when you wake up (before you can start writing) is deal with hungry pets who also need to go do their business outside. Also, there’s coffee to make.
But as soon as possible, I like to sit down and write.
Well, let’s be honest.
Sometimes I don’t “like” it. Sometimes I’d rather poke around on Facebook, get caught up on the news, or stare out the window. However, the times in my life I’ve been consistent with my morning pages, I’ve felt clearer, more focused, and generally on-target.
There’s something about writing before you’re fully awake, before you’ve turned on your internal editor or raised your invisible “wall” against the world, that helps you connect with your inner compass or internal radar.
And your compass/radar is super important to help you uncover where you want to go, and your unique path to getting there. It’s also one of the first things we tend to squelch in order to “get along” in life.
What if Your Mornings are Too Busy?
If you have kids, a family, early-morning clients, etc., sometimes you just can’t find early time to write.
I am not going to tell you to get up earlier. Because sleeping is awesome.
You actually can write your pages any time of the day, but it’s good to set a schedule. And on mornings when you CAN write them, try to bang ’em out early and get them done because your internal editor is less mouthy in the morning. It takes longer to shut it up later in the day.
Morning Pages Helped Me Get Through:
- a super lonely time when I lived overseas, a time when everyone thought I should have been oh! so! happy! (my morning pages helped me realize I actually had legitimate reasons not to be oh-so-happy, and to have the guts to do something about it)
- taking care of my terminally ill mom (so many amazing moments, so many hard-but-worth-it lessons)
- a divorce
- training for a triathlon that was way out of my comfort zone
- getting ready for a figure show (that diet, though)
- figuring out who I want to be when I grow up (i.e., entering a new decade of life)
- and so much more
But sometimes, I write them just to write them, not because of something I’m trying to “get through” or figure out. In fact, that may be when they are of most value.
How to Write Morning Pages
There’s really no right or wrong way to write morning pages.
That being said, a lot of people freeze up as soon as they think they have to write something – their writing voice gets formal, and they edit themselves before they even begin to write. (That’s one of the beauties of writing first thing in the morning.)
But here’s the thing with these pages: No one is going to grade them. No one is even going to see them! So you won’t pass or fail a class because they suck, because there’s no way they CAN suck.
You could write the word “blue” over and over again for three solid pages and voila! morning pages done!
Seriously: there’s no idea that’s too crazy to write about, and you don’t have to worry about being politically or socially correct. You just write.
All you’re doing is emptying your brain onto a piece of paper. And if you’re not sure how to write morning pages when you first start – how to actually get going – you can check out my prompts below.
Three Pages for the Win
Here’s why I think three pages is the magic number:
- On page 1, you’re just warming up. You might even write about how you don’t want to write and how it’s stupid.
- On page 2, you’re starting to get into the groove. You’re still a little formal though, because you’re trying too hard. This is where it can get a little academic and you might sound like you’re trying to please your picky sophomore English teacher.
- But on page 3, your defenses are worn down. You’re finally looking at the end of the final page, and you let loose, and often that’s when you find a little nugget that helps you get clear on a problem you might be having or a question you’ve been wondering about. Or maybe you discover some random thing that makes you go, “wow!”
But even if it doesn’t come together, so what? Sometimes it’s like that.
In the words of Julia Cameron herself:
Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page … and then do three more pages tomorrow.
Maybe There are Rules, After All
Years ago I loved the classic writing books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. She is a Buddhist and her form of meditation is writing. She fills notebooks, entire pages from top to bottom, margin to margin.
Here are some rules she offered in Writing Down the Bones:
- Keep your hand moving.
- Don’t cross out.
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.
- Lose control.
- Don’t think.
- Go for the jugular.
Here’s a Little Caveat
There have been a few times when writing morning pages definitely has NOT worked for me. In fact, I’ve gone on hiatus from them at those times.
Because the writing turned into amplified worrying … turning the same issues over and over, reinforcing the problems or issues I was trying to solve.
It happened when I was burned out, overtired, not feeling well, or just emotionally done-in. In fact, I took a lengthy break when I was picking up the pieces of my life, after my mom died and my divorce. I was emotionally spent. Although looking back, I think maybe continuing to write would have helped me stay focused on feeling better, rather than diving full-force into my business.
At those points, my writing just became a rehash of the frustrations of the day before.
Or, I’d wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, but as soon as I started writing, all the old crap would start bubbling to the surface and leave me feeling tired and defeated.
So I took a hiatus so I could break those negative thought patterns. And when I felt ready, I restarted.
Not sure how to get started? Check out these writing prompts.
17 Writing Prompts for Morning Pages
When using any of these prompts, start by writing the phrase, and then keep going until you can’t think of anything else to write. Then write the phrase again, with a new thought to finish it out.
“I feel strong when I can carry all my grocery bags into the house in one trip. It’s a good feeling and I like knowing I can take care of myself like that. I feel strong when I can actually pay for my groceries now without even thinking about it when I run my debit card. I remember a couple years ago when that wasn’t the case. But now I don’t even think about it. I feel strong knowing that I’m setting a good example for my daughter …”
But like I said: there are no rules, so if you want to use the prompts a different way, have at it!
Writing Prompts for Morning Pages
- I feel strong when …
- When I work out I feel …
- I love it when …
- I hate it when …
- The last time I …
- When I get up in the morning,
- Next time I go on vacation, I …
- If I had to change one thing, it would be …
- My favorite number (color, season, etc.) is … because …
- Right now outside my window,
- The last time I saw xxx ….
- I miss xxx because …
- If I could do anything, I’d …
- X is my hero because …
- When I was a kid …
- Next year I want to …
- If I could grant wishes, I would …
What About All Those Journals?
So: what happens with the pages after you’ve written them?
Should you keep your filled journals? Or should you throw them out? (Funny note: When I was a newspaper editor, my colleagues and I would always joke: NEVER KEEP A JOURNAL. Because it was shocking how often journals came up as evidence in court cases.)
That’s up to you. I have kept a lot of my journals, and I plan to go back and look at them now, and decide their fate.
That being said, I don’t recommend immediately rereading what you’ve written, unless there’s a compelling reason. It’s better to let them sit until time has passed – they will be an interesting record of your life, thoughts, and ideas.
But if you live in a situation where you’re not sure whether your recorded thoughts are safe, throw them away. The simple act of writing them is enough in itself.
It’s up to you. Go with your gut.
And get writing!
The other day I was listening to a podcast, in which a fitness coach and business guru was outlining his morning routine.
Now, I love this kind of advice, especially when it comes from people who seem to have their lives pretty squared away. Or at least who appear to have their lives squared away (because honestly, he could have been broadcasting from a rusty old camper parked in someone’s side yard, on “borrowed” WiFi, right?).
Anyway, I’m always on the lookout for new things that work for other people, on the chance I can use it for myself. Plus, it’s fun to hear about, in a slightly voyeuristic way.
As I was listening to this guy talk about his routine, I did some calculations, and I was like, “WHAT?”
He couldn’t actually be doing the routine he was outlining, could he? Because as far as I could figure, getting through his entire morning routine would take at least an hour, maybe two.
An Hour-Long Morning Routine?
Who has that kind of time? I mean seriously, how did he manage to get all this stuff done before he started his day? Here are some of the items he was outlining:
- Cold water plunges
- A yoga/stretching routine
- Drinking some specially brewed tea
- Setting intentions
- Performing affirmations
I mean, really. How did he do it all?
And then it hit me. Sorry. I don’t mean to be sexist, but just bear with me for a sec.
He is a dude.
And then I got a double-whammy hit. Nearly every one of the morning routines I had failed at trying to replicate over the years had come from a dude.
Dudes who don’t have to worry about the state of their hair, or their makeup, before leaving the house.
Dudes whose jobs don’t entail getting to work before 7 a.m.
And not only that, but dudes who have a support staff (or a wife) to handle the little nagging details of life. (You know, like keeping the bathroom and kitchen clean.)
Women, Can You Relate?
The guy on this podcast has three kids. I’m sure he’s wonderful, caring, giving, kind, and more. But do you think his wife has an hour-long personal-care morning routine? (Rhetorical.)
I mean, I don’t have any kids and can barely get out the door within 90 minutes of my wakeup. I do have a dog that needs walking, and (TMI) I take medication first thing that requires me to wait an hour till I eat breakfast, so there’s that.
But still, I always feel slightly rushed, like I barely have time to brush my teeth, much less my hair.
And that’s usually because I make a daily swipe at only ONE of the recurring items on all those morning routines I’d failed at over the years: writing morning pages (a post about them is coming up soon, because they’re kind of magical).
As I was fretting over this morning routine problem, I had an a-ha moment.
What if I flipped the script on these morning routines, and focused on the routine that was actually the most important?
And one that was actually doable?
The Evening Routine
Yes, the key to an awesome start to your day actually originates the day before, with what you do before you go to bed.
Every time I’ve made serious progress on my goals, I’ve always paid special attention to my routine before I go to bed. Here are just a few examples of times my evening routine powered me through:
- When I went from rookie newspaper reporter to sweeping the awards at a journalism event, I spent some time each night organizing for the next day.
- When I prepared for my figure competitions, my nighttime routine was a must-do in my pre-show process.
- When I wrote my book, I woke up each day with a clear plan that I’d charted the night before.
There are loads more examples, but you get the gist, right?
Hit the Ground Running (or Sip the Coffee Productively)
Basically, when I followed my evening routine, I woke up each morning with all the bothersome little details of getting my day started taken care of. My marching orders were in place.
And that stopped me from wasting time trying to figure out what to focus on. Because God knows when I don’t have a plan, I’m kind of all over the place in the morning. I flit from one activity to the next.
The fact I am all about this routine is beyond weird, because I actually hate routines. Like a lot of creative people, I naturally shy away from them.
Are Routines Creativity Crushers?
The truth is, a lot of good comes from the calm of having a basic structure (yes, a routine) in place. Because once the structure is there, you can free-range around it.
This is actually a pretty big debate among creative people – does routine promote or kill creativity? (1)
As much as I hate to admit it, Aristotle was right. A routine helps.
My Bare-Bones Evening Routine
This is my current (and very unglamorous) routine:
- Make a prioritized to-do list for the next day – appointments, projects, errands, etc. (NOTE: Because I hover toward the characteristics of a “Type A” personality, my list is always too long, so it never gets done. I have accepted that. But beware the too-long to-do list … in fact, limiting it to 3 to 5 things is awesome.)
- Quick-clean my home (Kitchen sink empty!).
- Get tomorrow’s meals ready to roll, or at least have a plan.
- What am I going to wear?
- Take dog for a final outing.
- Set alarm for the morning and program coffeemaker.
- Skin-care regimen, etc.
- Take vitamins.
- Unplug and relax.
Now obviously this isn’t rocket science. But that’s what makes it so great: it’s common sense, and it’s designed to make your life easier.
The Importance of Nighttime Routines
Having a routine in place is really calming for me, personally. Right now I have a lot of balls in the air with various projects I’m working on. And when I get going on my day, it can be very hard to know what to focus on. It gets overwhelming, due to a phenomenon known as “decision fatigue.” (2) (3)
Basically, your brain can only handle making finite number of decisions each day before it gets tired out, a situation that studies show wears down your willpower. (4)
Think that sounds like a stretch? Well, that can happen to me when I don’t follow my evening routine.
That’s because the next morning I end up rushing around trying to find something wear, taking the dog for a quick walk while fretting over what to make for breakfast that will hold me till I’m done with my morning round of training clients. Inevitably, by the time I finish up at the studio for the morning I’m thinking about grabbing a muffin and coffee from Dunkin’. And I don’t even really like their muffins all that much.
What’s Your Routine?
So now, I make sure I go to bed with my kitchen clean, my early-morning to-dos handled, and my day-long checklist in place. (Bonus: I can fall asleep without worrying that I’ll forget something I’m supposed to do).
Want to know the evening routines of some successful women? Check them out here.
Do you have an evening routine? Or maybe morning routines actually work better for you. I’d love to hear about it! Let me know in the comments.
I’m declaring the coming year as the year of extreme self-care, and I hope you’ll join me.
The other day I was walking my dog Zoey, and while she was sniffing in the bushes I took a second to relax and take a deep breath.
And I suddenly realized that I felt … better? more awake? calmer? … than I’d felt in a long time (maybe even a decade). Even though it was barely 0-degrees Fahrenheit outside.
I’m not necessarily talking physically better – that’s another story for another day – but just “better” in general.
When You Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up
You might be able to relate to this: I didn’t realize how bad I felt until I started to feel better. Because when you’re in the midst of of a stressful situation, you can often overlook the signs you’re too stressed.
And I don’t want to jinx anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months I’m going to look back on NOW and think, “Wow, you still felt like crud when you wrote that blog post.”
But that’s OK, because to pull out that cliched quote from Émile Coué, “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”
It’s All Because of Stress
Stress can be a really good thing – it’s generally caused by anything that puts pressure on us or forces us out of our comfort zone. It can help us reach new levels of achievement and growth.
You’ve heard that saying, “Pressure makes diamonds,” right?
That “good” pressure can come from competing in a sporting event, the birth of a new baby, or a job promotion.
But often, stress can be negative. It can be from work demands, the death of a loved one, relationship issues, or financial difficulties.
The thing is, your body can’t tell the difference between good stress and bad stress. It just senses all of it as “stress.” And it responds as such (more on that in bit).
And thanks to modern technology – where we’re available 24/7 because of our smartphones – we can heap more stress onto the pile. A study has shown that the more we use or respond to our phone for personal (not business) reasons, the more stressed we are. (1)
And while we’re busy handling all those stressful demands, we often shelve our personal needs. Which then can lead to stress overload.
How I Became Wayyyy too Stressed
When it comes to stress and self-care, I’ve survived a long trial by fire (yes, that’s a little dramatic) and I’ve learned a thing or two.
And I know firsthand what can happen when you let your own needs fall to the bottom of the list. In fact, a part of me used to take pride in being able to “soldier on” in the face of never-ending crises.
My story might be a little extreme, and no worries, I won’t get into all the details right now. (But honestly, the story would make an awesome Lifetime movie, including premonitions, affairs, international travel, and lots of dramatic telephone slamming and yelling.)
Basically, I was living overseas with my then-husband when my mom got sick with terminal cancer and I ended up moving back to the States to take care of her.
By the time the cancer was discovered, we were in a crisis mode that pretty much pummeled us nonstop for almost two years. I had no local support network, but everyone around me (except her docs and nurses) had an opinion about what I should do, and it felt like what I was doing would never measure up.
There was one spell where I was taking my heavily medicated mom back and forth daily to the chemo and radiation center, trying to help my not-yet-ex deal with a health issue while he was still overseas (even trying to find a doctor for him in the non-English-speaking town he was in), giving my mom’s cat twice-daily shots for diabetes (and boy, did that cat ever hate me), and helping with some other huge family crises.
Plus, my then-husband was furious with me for not “knowing where my place was” and not returning to our home.
I felt like a failure most (all?) of the time.
And then, of course, there was eventually a transcontinental divorce to deal with. And the death of my mother, who had been the rock in my life until she got sick. (Thank God I kept a lot of notes and journaled extensively during that period, so I can look back and see that despite criticisms, I actually did a pretty good job taking care of her, but there’s always that nagging guilt.)
Anyway, not surprisingly, all of that was followed by a series of bad-for-me decisions because I was in NO state to make decisions.
And all of that was followed by a decade’s worth of fallout.
Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back now, I can see that at least some of that fallout might have been averted if I paid attention to the classic signs you’re too stressed. I needed to take some time and engage in some serious stress management.
My Story is Not Unique
Here’s the thing: I know a lot of people have been through similar stressful scenarios. The details might be different, but the outcome is the same.
It happens to those of us who are thrust into caregiver situations (because of other issues in my family, I have been a caregiver since pretty much the day I was born).
Or maybe you’re in a dicey work or business situation. Perhaps you have two preschoolers at home, a full-time job, and you’re trying to keep a household together all by yourself. Maybe you’re going through a messy divorce. Maybe you grew up in an unstable home, filled with crises, and you only know how to live in a stressful environment.
I can’t even count how many clients I have worked with who have forgotten (or never knew) they deserve and need to take the time to care for themselves, to de-stress and chill out.
Why does this matter?
Because eventually, your body will start to wear your stress with aches and pains, injuries, and sometimes even illness. Yes, you’ll go through a period when you feel impervious … but it’ll catch up, trust me.
Think that taking time to care for yourself is for the selfish and weak?
So wrong. Even Mother Theresa took several hours in the middle of the day for “internal time” to pray, meditate and reflect. (2) And for the past 40 years, Clint Eastwood has included meditation in his everyday life. (3)
Wondering if you’re too stressed? Check out this list.
Top 10 Signs You’re Too Stressed
We all respond to stressful situations differently, and this is not a comprehensive list of signs you’re too stressed. Chances are if you’re even reading this post, you have a fair amount of stress going on in our life.
1. You are Exhausted
We all get tired – or even overtired – from time to time. But when it goes on for a while, you can become downright exhausted.
Pushing through fatigue can be like a badge of honor. That’s why God invented coffee right?
Wrong. Well, maybe. But if you absolutely need coffee – or Mountain Dew, Red Bull, or whatever – to get through the day, it’s a different story.
When you’re exhausted, your stress hormones – like cortisol – get out of whack. And this matters because cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone that affects many of your daily functions – among other things, it’s one of your “fight or flight” hormones.
Let’s say you’re walking through the forest and a grizzly bear comes at you. As soon as you see it and realize the threat, your body kicks into action, pumping out blood sugar and adrenaline, to fuel your muscles so you could run away (or stand and fight). (4)
But here’s the deal: it does that whether the stress is a good one, a bad one, or because your cellphone has spat out 20 notifications in the last 10 minutes.
Cortisol affects your blood pressure, your sleep, levels of other key hormones, your thyroid function, and so much more. And so when your cortisol levels become out of balance, that means a lot of your daily cycles (when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when to eat, etc.) become screwed up. For real. (5)
Compounding this fatigue is the fact that normally, cortisol levels are higher in the morning to get you going for the day, and lower at night, so you can sleep. But when you’re chronically tired, this can actually get turned around, which is why you can find yourself wide awake at bedtime.
2. You Can’t Stop Eating Junk Food
You might think it’s all about willpower. And it is, to a certain extent. But these food cravings can also be the result of hormones.
You can blame cortisol, which affects some of your other key chemical responders, like leptin and ghrelin, the hunger hormones.
Ghrelin is your “I’m hungry” hormone. It tells you that you need to eat. Meanwhile, leptin is your “I’m full” hormone, which tells you to stop eating.
What can happen is that these hormones get goofed up so they are always kind of “on.” Plus, you can become resistant to leptin, which means that you never get that “full” feeling. (6)
Not only that, but when you’re stressed or depressed, your body craves calm, and the hormone serotonin provides that. What boosts serotonin? Carbs! And new research is showing that the combo of fat and sugar may also have a calming affect.
That’s why we can crave junk foods when we’re under a lot of stress and/or overtired. (7) (8)
3. You Start Gaining Belly Fat
Gaining extra weight from all that stress-release snacking is bad enough, but when your body starts developing belly fat, it’s another deal altogether.
Belly fat is the most dangerous kind of fat, because it’s linked to a whole host of metabolic disorders (like metabolic resistance) and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
You can blame cortisol for this, too. Remember the blood sugar surges I mentioned above, when it comes to the stress response? Well, that roller-coaster blood sugar response is linked with visceral fat, the kind that builds around your organs and is related to those diseases. (9)
4. Everything Hurts
This is one I see with a lot of my super-stressed training clients. They are always in some sort of pain – often in their shoulders, necks, and backs. And sometimes it refers to their elbows and other body parts.
A few years ago I realized I was guilty of “wearing” problems and issues on certain body parts. Like, something would come up at work and I’d “take the punch” or sometimes it almost felt like I would literally put it on my back to deal with later.
I’ve heard other women mention something similar.
All of that adds up. As much as you might not like to hear it, you are not made of iron. Yes, you might be Wonder Woman but you are still made of flesh and bone, and sooner or later all of that will catch up with you.
It’s true: studies show that women who lead demanding lives are more than twice as likely to have more aches and pains. (10)
5. Everyone Gets on Your Nerves
If you notice that everyone around you is incompetent, “doesn’t get you,” or is ticking you off, look at the common denominator. It’s you.
The trouble with feeling irritated all the time is that it’s catching – your bad mood can rub off on others, and it’s like a self-fulfilling cycle. You’re irritated because someone does something that gets under your skin, and they get irritated because you’re irritated, and it escalates.
And also, actually feeling irritated is uncomfortable. Other people can get out of your way and avoid you, but you’re kind of stuck with yourself. (11)
6. You are On Strike or “Numbing Out”
You might not notice this one until one day you wake up and everything in your life is in chaos.
Your home might be a mess. Your car might be filled with mail or food wrappers (all that stress eating). Maybe you have let your personal care slide a little. Maybe you have a pile of bills on the counter that needs attention.
You come home and crash on the couch to watch Netflix marathons, avoiding chores and responsibilities.
Or instead of eating a healthy diet, you have cake for dinner.
Basically, you’re living in avoidance. And this can happen when you’re full-up on stress.
Occasionally this kind of behavior is fine. But when it gets to be a habit, the resulting mess can seem overwhelming – and create even more stress, causing even more numbing-out behavior. (12)
7. You Get Sick Often
Have you ever noticed that you get sick after a period of stress?
Like coming down with an awful cold during exams when you were in college? Or after meeting a particularly harrowing work deadline, like dealing with tax season or a book deadline?
The longer the stress lasts, the worse it gets: studies show that with stress lasting a few months or years, all aspects of immunity go downhill, ravaging your immune system.
(Rhetorical question: Do you think this has anything to do with the two bouts of pneumonia I suffered a few years ago?) (13)
8. You Have Haunting Dreams
Got nightmares? You can often blame life stress, as – not surprisingly – people with more stress tend to have more nightmares. (14)
Which takes that whole “exhausted” issue to a new level, right?
9. You Want Wine/Beer/Cocktail/Weed Every Night
It’s also not surprising if you decide to self-medicate your stress with something that blurs the edges a little – like alcohol or pot.
But just be aware that this falls into the same category as “numbing out,” above. It won’t actually help you avoid the stress – it’ll just delay it, and likely even make it worse. Especially if addiction runs in your family. (15)(16)
10. You Feel Wired/Tired
You know that feeling when your mind won’t shut up, but you’re really tired? When you just can’t seem to settle down, so you just keep pushing forward?
That’s called “wired-tired.” And it’s a classic symptom of overstress, or having messed-up cortisol levels. (17)
This is a huge one for me personally, as I have thyroid disease and the thyroid hormones also play a role with cortisol. Sometimes this feeling sneaks up on me and now I pay close attention to the signs to keep it in check.
11 Ways to Battle Stress
The good news is there are some very simple things you can do to lessen the impact stress has on your body.
And bonus: none of them require spending any money.
1. Put all Major Decisions on Hold
Even though it might be tempting to make a huge decision in order to get out of a stressful situation, don’t do it. At least not for a while.
Try to give yourself some space so your decision comes from a proactive place, not a reactive one. Wait before you make any major purchases, quit your job, get married, move, sell your house, or start a new business. You’ll be glad later.
2. Rest, Sleep, Vacation
What’s the first thing you’d do to help calm a cranky, crying, overwhelmed child? You’d probably do your best to get her to take a nap. Here’s the thing: your needs are really no different.
One of the most important thing you can do is get some rest. Make some effort to catch up on your sleep – go to bed early. Take a nap.
And if you’ve been under a lot of daily stress, taking an actual break or vacation can be a great way to get some perspective.
But if circumstances – like caregiving – make a getaway impossible, do what you can to sneak in rest time.
You can’t make good decisions when you’re tired. Most of us don’t get enough sleep – and the sleep we do get is often not very restorative. (18)
You’d be surprised the number of things a good nap can cure, from grumpiness to cravings to even given you giving you bursts of insight that can help with creativity and problem-solving. (19)
3. Get Some Exercise
Practically any form of exercise – cardio, weightlifting, yoga – will help you feel better almost immediately. (20)
I can’t even tell you how many clients have said to me, “You know, I didn’t want to come to my session today because I was stressed and tired, but now I feel so much better.”
Truth: I sometimes go through this, too. And I rarely regret the workout I was dreading because I always feel better when I finish it.
Don’t stress over the fact you don’t have an hour to devote to workouts. It doesn’t take long, hard exercise sessions to get this effect – 20- to 30-minute workouts can go a long way toward alleviating stress and helping you feel better.
4. Get Some Fresh Air
Even though we constantly hear about the dangers of sun exposure, your body needs at least a little of it, as it helps improve your mood and your sleep – both of which are intertwined with stress.
See, sun exposure boosts melatonin production, which as you’ve probably heard, plays a huge role in the amount and quality of your sleep.
It’s also a precursor to the “feel-good” hormone serotonin.
Also, here’s a random bit of info. Did you ever notice how calming it is to look out at a beautiful landscape? That’s because to take it in, the voice in your head actually has to get quiet so your brain can process it all.
There are numerous studies showing how nature helps calm us. (21) But you don’t really need a study to feel how quickly getting outside can help soothe stress.
5. Change Your Diet
I’m going to suggest something radical here. I don’t think completely overhauling your diet and going on a Spartan regimen is a good idea.
It can be super tempting to “cleanse” your system with a juice fast, or completely cut out sugar, or go on some kind of focused, intense eating plan. Especially when you’re feeling under stress and have been eating junk food.
But have you ever known a person for whom that kind of strict diet worked long-term? I haven’t.
Your body will respond better to a gentle prodding than a beating. Going cold-turkey on caffeine or sugar will make you feel like crap.
How about cutting back, instead? What if instead of having your 2 p.m. caramel latte-and-cookie, you cut back to 1 pump of caramel in your coffee … and you got it at 2:15 instead? The next day, you could order it at 2:30 p.m., and the day after that, at 3 p.m., etc., until suddenly you don’t need it any more?
And if the idea of fasting tempts you, here’s something to think about: many times we subconsciously load up on food before and after our fast, stressing our digestive system – which is kind of counterproductive, isn’t it?
Instead, there are some common-sense changes you can make to feel better and truly take care of your body. (22)
- Eat “real” foods, not those from a box.
- Cut back on sugar
- Eat veggies. Lots of them.
- Get lean proteins.
- Enjoy healthy fats in moderation (they have a lot of calories).
- Eat fruit and healthy carbs.
6. Drink More Water
I have a client who does great at drinking water when her life is going well. But when things get stressful, the first thing that goes is her water intake.
She’s not alone.
Guess what? This is another one of those vicious cycles, as stress causes us to drink less water, and being dehydrated causes more stress. (23)
Think of a houseplant. You know how they wilt when you haven’t given them a good drink, but when you water them, they spring back to life?
Well, that’s kind of like your body.
You don’t have to go overboard and suddenly start carrying around a gallon jug of water. Try to drink at least half your bodyweight in ounces of water every day. More if you exercise.
And if you want, experiment with drinking a little more. Your body will tell you how much water you need, if you listen.
8. Try Morning Pages
There have been times in my life when writing “morning pages” have been critical in getting through with some level of sanity.
Morning pages were “invented” by writer Julia Cameron, who suggests that the very first thing you do when you get up in the morning is to write three long-hand pages in a journal. (24)
There is no right or wrong way to write morning pages. In fact, you can write three pages of “I don’t want to write.” But probably you won’t do that.
When it comes to my own morning pages practice, I find that even though I’d often prefer to write fewer pages, three is the magic number.
That’s because for me, the first page is basically a bunch of random stuff that doesn’t matter, the second page is filled with resistance to writing, and the third contains some useful insights that put things in my life into perspective.
But here’s a caveat: There have been times when writing morning pages hasn’t worked for me. There have been periods in my life when they’ve turned into long, scolding rants with lists of things I should be doing instead of what I actually am doing, which caused more stress.
At those times, it’s far more useful for me to get outside as early as possible and get some fresh air and nature. And do my own version of this next tip.
Meditation is enjoying a huge surge in popularity right now, and there are boatloads of studies showing how helpful it can be when it comes to reducing stress. (25) (26)
Meditation (and prayer) can help to reprogram thought patterns, by teaching you how to divert your attention from nagging worries, and releasing your attachment to them.
If you decide to try meditation, most experts recommend that you ease into your practice, starting slow and eventually working up to 20 to 30 minutes a day, which seems to be the optimal amount to feel real results.
10. Take Yourself on a Date
Years ago I read Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, and one of the best things that I got from it was to schedule a weekly “date” with myself. It helped shift my focus from serious to fun.
Every week I would go to someplace different than inspired creativity – an antiques shop, TJ Maxx’s home section, the craft store, a junk shop, anywhere. Or maybe I’d take the dog on a walk outside of my normal stomping grounds. Or I’d try a different workout class.
Looking for more “solo date” ideas? Check out this list.
11. Wash off the Stress
This one actually got me into a little bit of hot water (pun intended) with an old boss of mine.
Back when I was a newspaper editor I went to a journalism conference, which featured a presentation about the stresses of being on deadline every day.
One of the speakers talked about “washing off the day” with a shower as soon as you get home after work, because it helped with stress relief.
Well, that was probably the best thing that came out of the conference for me.
And so when I returned to the newsroom after spending a day away, my boss asked me about the conference. I made the mistake of raving about that tip.
Of course, he was all, “I send you to a conference and you learn about taking a shower?”
Yep. I did. <insert snarky emoticon> But it did make a difference.
Signs You’re Too Stressed
If you’re feeling under an extreme amount of stress, don’t try to do tackle all of those tips. Pick the basic ones: getting some rest, eating right, drinking enough water, getting outdoors if possible, and trying to fit in some exercise.
Yes, some days fitting all of those “basics” in can seem like an impossible task. And if it feels selfish to want to squeeze in a workout, realize that you’re no good to the people around if you’re not good to yourself.
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Are you feeling overstressed? Know someone who is? Share this post with them to help get them back on the road to calm.
As you might know, I’ve gone through a few changes this year.
One of them is opening a new fitness studio.
Now, I wasn’t ever sure I was going to open a studio. But then things started to happen, making opening the studio seem like a no-brainer.
- I found a location (although it feels more like it found me).
- I got some great deals on equipment.
- Resources seemed to open up for me, unbidden.
- Clients and friends were incredibly encouraging and supportive.
- I found some even greater deals on more equipment.
- There’s more, but you get the idea.
I was feeling really great about everything. It was almost as if the venture was enchanted.
And then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t feeling so great. Problems started erupting. I got some flak from unexpected sources. I felt a little overwhelmed.
I wondered, what does this mean? Is this a sign I’ve made a mistake? (Check that, maybe I didn’t wonder that – I might actually have whined it instead.)
And then it hit me, what was going on.
Change is hard.
Change is uncomfortable and scary and even though I used to be a change-seeker (move to a new city? a new country? yes please!), apparently now I’m not a fan of it.
With change comes challenge – expecting to escape those challenges is magical thinking.
And then this hit me:
I had moved out of my comfort zone.
Hello, discomfort zone.
And I knew that even though it sucked and I was feeling nervous and stressed, that ultimately I had to hang out here, firmly in discomfort, because I’d outgrown my old comfort zone – being back there kind of sucked, too.
Basically, I was screwed – I couldn’t go back, and I had to keep moving forward.
And to make an already long story longer, both of these realizations hit me as I was driving down South Main Street in Brewer, after
- getting some bad news and
- coming off a migraine headache.
This migraine was probably the result of drinking a blood orange martini the night before, which I had ordered after getting some other bad news.
And all of this – the migraine, the double-whammy bad news, and the realizations – made me feel even more kinship with my clients.
Because … yes …
Change happens outside the comfort zone.
And it can be scary and sucky and messy. It goes with the territory.
But I think we forget that.
We’re used to seeing the “before” and “after” pictures on reality shows and infomercials, without seeing the real struggle in between. Or if we do see the struggle, it’s often made more glamorous, without the migraines.
Because when you get down to it, here’s how real world change usually happens:
When we first start out, we’re excited. We’re looking forward to the results of our efforts – losing weight, getting in shape, feeling better.
Maybe we’ve gotten some new foods to try, some supplements, a trainer or a workout program, or some new kicks.
And for a little while, it’s so much fun we wonder why we waited so long.
And … stuff happens
But then our legs get sore, or we get hungry, or someone eats pizza and cake in front of us.
Maybe our husband/wife resents us spending time at the gym or making new “healthy” foods, or we have to pick up the kids after school/sports/whatever, or we’re just plain tired.
And then losing those pounds is harder than we thought.
Or maybe the pounds come off but we end up getting attention we aren’t sure we want, and we kind of liked the way it was before.
And we want to give up.
Don’t go back.
Look at this discomfort as a sign you’re making progress.
Live in it a while. Ride it out.
They’re a sign changes are happening. The old you is rebelling against these new habits that are going to change you and/or your life in the way that you’d hoped.
Embrace that discomfort, even though it’s a prickly and mean thing.
It’s your friend.
My discomfort ended … for a while.
But I know it’ll be back, because I have things I want to do.
I plan to ride it out.
You know, like that terrible moment the roller coaster crests the top of the incline and is about to speed straight down toward the ground.
I’m gonna hang on.
There may be some yelling and screaming, but I’m in it for the duration.
How ’bout you?