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How to get yourself out of a funk

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2018

On Tuesday, I woke up feeling a bit tired, uninspired, and just generally not in the mood to tackle my to-do list for the day. I understand myself well enough by now to know how to react to this situation (most of the time) but was curious about how other people deal with such episodes.1 So I asked on Twitter: “What do you do to get yourself moving when this happens to you?” I got tons of interesting responses, which I’ve organized into some broader categories in the hope that they’ll help someone out in the future.

Please note: the activities on this list are intended for those who need a little kick in the pants every once in awhile to get going. I am not a doctor or therapist, but if you feel listless and unmotivated on a regular basis, you should talk to your doctor or find a therapist or talk to a trusted friend or family member about it. Depression and anxiety are serious and treatable medical conditions that can’t be addressed just by taking a walk in the woods or buying a new watch.

Exercise. Take a run. Go to yoga. Walk around the block…or wander around the city for an hour. Hop on a bike. Meet a friend for a class at the gym. Lift weights. Tons of research has been done on the mental health benefits of exercise. To quote one paper: “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.”

Friends and family. Arrange to spend some time with someone you care about and who knows you well enough to understand how and why you’re feeling this way. Texting is cool, but there’s no substitute for a real-life hang. FaceTime or phone calls can help too.

Get out in nature. If you can, head to the ocean, the forest, the mountains, the lake. You don’t even need to run or walk or bike or kayak, just sit and commune with the natural world. The Japanese call this shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”, which has been shown to lower stress levels, blood pressure, and even blood glucose levels.

Pets. I was going to group this under “friends and family”, but so many people specifically mentioned hang time with animals that I broke it out separately. Take the dog for a walk, cozy up with your cat on the couch (if your cat allows such behavior), or play with your snake if that’s your thing. Don’t have a pet? Head to the dog park, borrow a friend’s pooch, or ask a friend if you can join them on their evening dog walk.

Press the reset button. Tackling the day’s activities when you’re down can feel like walking straight into a stiff wind. Doing something a bit different with your day can reset your mood and brain into a better mode. Take a different route to work. Try a new coffee spot. If you listen to NPR in the morning, switch to music. If you usually listen to music, try some silence. Take a cold shower…or a long hot one. Scream into a pillow.

Think small. If your lack of motivation stems from a lengthy to-do list, tackle the easiest items on the list first. Or break down some of the bigger to-dos into smaller items and do those. The idea is to score some easy wins and build momentum for the rest of your day.

Treat yourself. If you can, take the morning off or even the whole day. Go see a movie. Don’t eat lunch at your desk; pick a favorite spot and dine out. Make yourself a healthy breakfast. Or an unhealthy one! Buy yourself that breakfast pastry you normally abstain from. Play a game on your phone. Order dessert. Buy yourself something you’ve been wanting that you don’t really need. Note: Use this option sparingly and watch out for unintended effects. Treating yourself to a new coat or gadget every once in awhile is fine, but retail therapy can quickly turn into financial problems.2

Gratitude. To quote a line from Hamilton, look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now. As photographer Clayton Cubitt put it: “I think back to my struggles clawing my way out of the trailer park, the violence I survived, all the shitty jobs I had to work and the shitty bosses I had to tolerate, the extra 15 years it took me, and I find the renewable energy of gratitude for my survival.” Recalling the specific ways in which things could be worse and remembering how lucky you are can be extremely helpful.

Help others. Sometimes the best thing for snapping out of a low mood is to refocus your attention away from yourself and toward helping others. Sign up to volunteer next week. Write a handwritten note to a friend who has been through a rough time lately. Make a donation to an organization you care about. Tell a mentor how much their influence has meant to you. It doesn’t need to be a big thing or an ongoing commitment…”think small” works here too.

Get inspired. We’ve all got our favorite sources of inspiration. Watch a favorite I-wish-I’d-made-something-this-amazing movie. Go to a museum and look at art. Read some poetry. It’s a little weird, but something that always seems to do the trick for me is watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. It gives me chills every time.

Sleep. Maybe you’re not getting enough rest? Go back to bed for an hour or take a nap in the afternoon…the day will still be there when you wake. As I wrote recently, “One of the best things I’ve done for my work and my sanity is going to bed at about the same time every night and getting at least 6.5 hours (and often 7-8 hours) of sleep every night.”

Meditate. Along with many other items on this list (sleep, exercise, pets, socializing), mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve mental health, including stress reduction, reducing anxiety, addiction, and even chronic pain relief and depression. But you don’t need to sit in the lotus position on a velvet cushion to meditate…it can be as easy as sitting up straight and concentrating on your breathing for 5 minutes. Listening to relaxing music with your eyes closed or even playing video games can be meditative in their own way.

The best thing about many of the things on this list is that they provide benefits beyond just snapping you out of a temporary rut, especially if you can develop a practice around them. Exercise strengthens the body and mind. Feeling gratitude can alter your views on any number of political and social issues. Getting sufficient sleep can upgrade your entire life. Meditation can alter your reality. Helping others makes the world a better place. String enough of these together and perhaps waking up unmotivated and inspired can be a thing of the past. Definitely something to aim for anyway. Good luck!

  1. If you’re curious, here’s what I did to get motivated that morning: made my bed (I usually don’t), meditated with Alto’s Odyssey for 10 minutes, did the dishes, went through all my mail & paid my bills (a task I’d been putting off and dreading), did three other little tasks I’d been putting off, and took a long hot shower. Things I wish I’d been able to do as well: go for a walk (it was muddy and rainy and the nearest walkable town is a 30-minute drive), have lunch with a friend, go to a museum, stand in the sand at the ocean listening to the waves roll in. VT can be a challenge sometimes.

  2. Part of the reason I asked this question on Twitter is that I wanted to avoid treating myself on that particular morning. I didn’t want to play a game on my phone (I do that too much), take the day off (I’d already done that a few days earlier), or treat myself to an afternoon cookie (my diet lately has been terrible). And I definitely did not want to buy a TV I don’t need or a Nintendo Switch I wouldn’t really play.