We all pick different ways to motivate ourselves—some choose a big goal (like a marathon or an adventure trip), some try to recapture past glory (like fitting into our high school jeans), some try to keep up with the Jones (like those insufferable holiday card updates).
But as we all know, it’s really hard to stay motivated over the long haul, and a lot of times, those goals never quite come true. Because even if your rocket is pointed directly at your “moonshot” life, if it runs out of gas halfway to its destination, it’s going to fall right out of the sky.
So what’s the missing link? Energy. It’s the rocket fuel we need to get to the life of our dreams.
Studies have shown that willpower, our simple ability to delay gratification and do the right thing rather than the easy thing (and reach our goals)—is finite. We only get so much each day, and when it’s gone, so is a large chunk of our self-control.
That’s why we’re way more likely to hit the fast food drive-through after a crazy day at work, even though we chose a healthy salad for lunch. It’s how we end up spending hours mindlessly surfing online rather than getting to bed early like we’d planned.
But if we know that willpower can be depleted, and everything from advertisements, to managers, to kids and spouses are relentlessly competing for what little we’ve got, how else can we keep our energy tank full? How can we stick with our goals when the going inevitably gets tough?
Four things that make the biggest difference are sleep, movement, food and renewal (and you don’t need an app for any of them).
The simplest and most important is good old-fashioned snoozing. An overwhelming majority of Americans are chronically underrested. Researchers determine this by putting subjects in a darkened room lying down in the middle of the day. If you nod off within ten minutes, you’re sleep deprived. It’s also why traffic accidents spike the first week after daylight savings. Even that one hour time-shift leaves people less alert, slower to respond and more likely to bend a fender.
The Navy SEALs, some of the burliest men on the planet, had their testosterone levels (a factor in mental alertness) tested while on night deployments in Afghanistan, and they averaged scores lower than that of thirteen-year-old girls.
But most of us are doing two things wrong that we can fix to get much better sleep (and more energy from it):
First—prepare your bedroom. Keep it cold, keep it dark and keep it quiet. If possible, keep it 70 degrees or under. Use blackout curtains (or an eye mask), and earplugs (if you have snoring partners or loud neighbors).
Second—NO SCREENS IN BED. The light emitted by iPads, phones and laptops is in the blue range and tricks our eyes and brains into thinking it’s midday outside. Watch the TV to unwind, then go to bed to go to bed. There’s only one other activity approved for this room, and it’s not binge watching. How will you know if you’re no long under-rested? Simple. You can wake up readily without an alarm clock. Your energy and motivation will go through the roof.
Next, move your body more. Emile Conrad, a pioneer in dance and wellness, once said “movement is not something we do, it is who we are.” And we’d have to agree. The trouble is, most of us think of purposeful movement only in terms of “working out”—steps counted, calories burned—all that stuff.
In reality, if we want more energy, get outside in the sunshine and move your body. It doesn’t need to be fancy — just do what kids do, walk, roam, climb, play. Want some company or the weather’s not great? Awesome! Go to a group class, feed off the instructor’s example and feed off of everyone else’s energy. What you do matters way less than the fact that you continue doing it. Keep going, week in and week out.
Third is food. If we’re saying that energy is the rocket-fuel to power our goals, then food is the raw material for all of it. As they say in the computer industry—GIGO. Garbage In/Garbage Out. You can’t keep your energy up, if you’re putting in crummy calories.
But don’t get too wrapped up in which diet is exactly right for you, keep it simple. As Michael Pollan said, “eat real food (meaning single ingredient stuff), mostly plants (including high quality animal proteins) not too much (stop when 80% full).” That’s it.
Minimize packaged and processed. Stay away from refined sugars and flours and gnarly additives you can’t pronounce. Have fun, and don’t overthink it. Stanford Medical Center did a two-year study on the best diet, and you know what they found? It mattered less what people ate, and more that they paid attention to what they ate. Be mindful.
Fourth, and probably hardest for many of us these days is renewal. In our 24/7, always-on society, finding the off-switch for our bodies and our minds is next to impossible—but that makes it even more essential. In one study of the top 100 professional tennis players in the world, you know what they found separated the best-of-the-best, from the runners up?
In-between game points.
When they were pacing the baseline and adjusting their rackets, the top-10 players were able to drop their heart rates to 65 percent of maximum, while the rest were still revving along at 85 percent or more. With almost identical skills and strokes during a more than five-hour match, who do you think had the power to go the distance?
So take a page out of their book …
Don’t just save “recovery” for those two weeks of vacation you probably don’t let yourself take each year. Practice “micro-recovery” during the day.
(Download a Pomodoro productivity app that tells you to work for 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break), take five minutes when you first wake up in the morning to collect your dreamy thoughts, breathe and set your intentions for the day (instead of hitting the alarm and stumbling straight for the shower). At night, pause at the beginning of dinner and share gratitudes with yourself or your family. On weekends, take a 24-hour “Internet holiday” from Saturday dinnertime until Sunday dinnertime.
And that’s it—we all have goals and many of them could transform our lives in ways we only dare to imagine. But to get there, we need to manage our energy to make sure we can go the distance. Sleep and move more, eat cleanly and recover more deeply. Simple advice to be sure, but who ever said life had to be as complicated as we’ve made it?