2 April 2020

Maintaining your spark amidst the darkness

by Lyndon Purcell 0

Well, this is what it has come to it seems.  As things currently stand in Australia (as well as many other parts of the world), a significant portion of businesses­, including gyms, have been or are about to be shut down. In addition to this, social distancing is in full effect and a more severe…

Well, this is what it has come to it seems. 

As things currently stand in Australia (as well as many other parts of the world), a significant portion of businesses­, including gyms, have been or are about to be shut down. In addition to this, social distancing is in full effect and a more severe lockdown—which would entail even harsher restrictions on movement and socialising—is a very real possibility. 

Much to the credit of the fitness industry, both in-person and online coaches have risen to the challenge and developed home workout guides and templates, for clients and non-clients alike. If you haven’t already, you can find JPS’ HERE.

This response has been great. It will help people continue doing some training and will allow for their physique progress to continue in these less-than-optimal times. 

Something of great concern however, and isn’t as easily addressed, is the looming mental health concerns. I know that I am not the only one worried about the very real possibility of declining mental health en massein the coming weeks and months.

Now I don’t want this to turn into a melancholic situation where you become depressed about your impending depression. The idea is to realise that your mental health may suffer is you are blasé about the situation that confronts us. Efforts must be made in order to remain both positive and progress-oriented during these times.

However, if you and your family/friends are healthy, then there is absolutely no reason why you can’t make the next few days, weeks and months some of the most productive you have ever had. 

The following is an outline of the various measures I’ll be employing in order to maintain my zeal for life, the work I do, the projects I have on the go and my general upbeat-ness, which will be especially important for helping to lift the spirits of those I care about.  

This is now the part where I give you the whole “I’m not a psychologist spiel” etc. and signal how much of a good practitioner I am because I stay within my scope of practice. 

So, because I’m not a psychologist, take anything said below (and above) relating to mental health with a grain of salt. However, as a human, who has experienced human emotions—on the rare occasion—I can speak about some methods I have found useful in maintaining a positive outlook during trying times.

I’ll have my say and then you can decide for yourself if you think they are worth considering…

1. Consume the appropriate amount of media (including social).

Which often means less in times like this. 

“But I’m just staying informed!” 

No, for the most part you are just reading a bunch of opinions on the topic. There are very few sources of new and accurate information. Most forms of media are recycling and repackaging the same content all day and milking each announcement, interview or press conference for all its worth.

My suggestion would be to set limits to how often you are engaging with the news. Maybe you check in the morning—to find out the developments overnight—and then check again an hour before bedtime to see if there’s been any new developments. Are you really missing out on much by not engaging with “news” sources between 8am and 8pm? My guess is no. 

You will undoubtedly find out about the important information whether you actively seek it or not. Because of this, for the most part, your efforts of seeking information are only offering returns of information that is of relatively low importance.   

And trust me, I get it. I know that during these uncertain times we want to feel like we are doing what we can to stay up to date. However, often the responsible thing to do isn’t the same as what our emotions—if left unchecked— would lead us to do.

Do your best to remain calm, engage with media sources in the appropriate amounts, consume their content objectively and then shift focus during other parts of the day to things that you can focus on and control. Get up to date, then disengage and get productive.

Of the time you do spend on social media, I would strongly suggest curating your feed for optimal results and limiting the people you follow to ones who provide you with appropriate value in return. Now is the time for much less pseudoscience and extremism in your newsfeed. I strongly suggest following pages that will offer practical, positive and helpful information such as dailystoic, Luke Tulloch, Examine.com or all the JPS coaches (many of which don’t have massive followings but post some amazing content nonetheless). Be sure to check them all out
Just as physical health is highly dependent on what you put into your body, the same goes for mental health and content you consume.

2. Read fiction

“In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read.It is not true that we have only one life to lead; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.” – S. I. Hayakawa

I think the above quote basically says it all. Reading good literature allows you to “live” experiences that you wouldn’t otherwise. 

While the ability to go out and live our own lives is hampered, picking up a good fiction book is a relatively easy way to satisfy many of the criteria that would be left unaddressed.

If you don’t own any books, then you have the audiobook option, or tracking down one of the many free fiction books that can be read or downloaded online. There are options available to you, you just need to want to do it. What I am trying to do is explain it is a good idea, and thus help encourage you to want to do it. 

The point is though; until you can go back out into the world and run wild, let your imagination instead. Books, especially fiction, are a simple way to do this.

3. Meditate

Nowhere can man find a quitter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul” – Marcus Aurelius

Finding some clarity and calm during these times is also important. Not only should you be consuming sources of information to keep you updated (such as the news), sources of information to keep your imagination running (such as literary fiction), but you should also be finding periods of time where you consume no information at all. I would highly recommend a period of introspection or meditation where you can just let your thoughts arise, be noticed and then watch them pass. This is a very healthy mental practice to undertake.

Meditation is one of the most popular methods for dealing with stress, anxiety and uncertainty and variety of other negative emotions, and thus it likely has a very high utility during this time.

If you’ve never meditated before, my suggestion is not to just sit down and try keep your eyes closed for 10 minutes. Start with a guided meditation. 

There are a number of meditation apps or YouTube videos you can try. My personal favourite is Sam Harris’ app “Waking Up,” which you can try for free for a month. 

I would think now is as good a time as any to try some meditation. Turn inwards to a bit and endeavour to find some calm. 

4. If you can’t make progress, potentiate progress

One of the important things for remaining optimistic and achieving goals, is to have an internal locus of control. When you have an internal locus of control you see opportunities, not limitations. You believe your destiny is in your hands and you are not simply at the mercy of the universe. 

So do your best to not dwell on what you can’t do, look for what you can. Work on your business if you cannot work in it.

There are almost endless amounts of things we all want to do, but say we never have time. If you’re cooped up at home, as you likely should be, then now is the time! Sit down and have a think about all the things you have put off doing in the past, and the things that will allow you to hit the ground running when all the madness is over. 

If you cannot directly make progress now, do things that will allow you to magnify your progress in the future: write out a new welcome email, restructure your accounting and finances, map out an annual plan, create additional templates, begin filming educational content… The list could go on and on.  

Only you know what your business, career or life needs—so get to it!

If you can’t “tick boxes” as normal, do what you can ready yourself for when that time comes again. Creating structures for the future is one of the ways to remain optimistic about it. 

5. Get outside when you can and try to see some greenery

Getting outside is important. 

Yes, you must maintain distance and avoid social gatherings, but that doesn’t mean you should become a recluse who is locked in their house 24/7. Humans evolved in much less sheltered conditions than those in which we currently live.
Get outside, see some greenery, feel the sun on your face and the breeze on your skin. You’ll be amazed at how your mood changes with 10 minutes outside.

6. Exercise (both resistance training and aerobic)

I know I don’t really have to promote the benefits of exercise to this group, however, this is still one of the foundational pieces in any program that intends to improve or maintain mental health.

If anything, I think the benefits of aerobic exercise aren’t given enough weight by the fitness industry, and I know I will at least be trying to get multiple runs in a week in addition to my bodyweight workouts. They don’t have to be massive, just get your heart rate up and try to keep it there for a bit.

Yes getting some steps in and expending some calories is good for body-composition purposes, but times like this call for measures beyond calorie-balance and macros. The mood and cognition promoting effects of endorphins and various other things that are realised after challenging aerobic exercise is well-documented. Don’t miss out on some big rocks; lace up those runners and hit the pavement.

7. Learn a new skill

Download Duolingo, learn chess online, do a Coursera course in biochemistry, whatever! The internet provides almost endless opportunities IF you use it effectively. Working on a project or adding another string to your skill-bow during this time will certainly help you feel like an accomplished and competent person. Make the most of this situation.

You’ll be glad you did and it likely won’t take you as long as what you think…

In his book The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman argues that we have let some of our ideas about skill acquisition get out of hand. 

For instance, I’m sure we’ve all heard of the 10,000 hours rule, which was an observation stemming from work done by performance psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Over years of research—which reached mainstream popularity thanks to the book Outliersby Malcolm Gladwell—Ericsson studied a variety of experts in highly competitive and technical fields including sports, chess and music. 

The idea that it takes 10,000 hours to reach expertise in a highly competitive and technical enterprise is still contentious, but not considered wrong prima facie. Kaufman’s argument, however, is we have let this rule get into our heads and we have started to blur boundaries a little too much. 

For the sake of argument, let’s say it does take that amount of time to become an expert. Even given this, it takes considerably less time than this to become good at something. And however long it takes to become good at something, it takes considerably less time than that to learn something.

Kaufman believes we can learn and become surprisingly proficient at new things in as little as 20 hours. I strongly support this, and I would highly encourage you to look upon this idea with optimism. 

So pick your target. It might be learning behavioural economics, how to play the harmonica or how to cook an apple pie. It can be anything, all it takes is a little focus and effort.

If you learn something during this time then there’s no way you’ll look back and say that you wasted it.

8. Keep in contact with people via Text, Messenger or FaceTime

The idea here is to decouple behaviours. We want the connectivity and communication enabled by social media, but not the scrolling.

It is my own personal opinion that mindless scrolling and the infatuation people have with acquiring likes and followers is a much more pervasive problem than people realise. The data on the addictiveness of social media and its impact on mental health is becoming increasingly alarming. 

I think the addictiveness point is also evidenced by the fact that people rationalise its necessity as of the utmost importance now, in order to “stay connected”. However, the same justifications were being used months and years ago before COVID-19 or social distancing was even heard of. 

One of the major problems confronting this social media addiction issue, though, is that no one feels like they are addicted—but then again, neither does someone with a gambling or alcohol problem. I implore you to consider this however, for the sake of your mental health.

It’s very difficult to be happy when you have little to be happy about and the overwhelming majority of “things to be happy about” require creation or cultivation, they do not spontaneously appear. This is one reason why I think that productivity and happiness are so strongly related. Becase of this, I would caution you to limit your social media use. There is little you can create or do on there that is productive and provides and long-term sense of satisfaction. 

That deals with the here and now, but there are considerations to be made about the future also.

I would be very wary of not becoming overly reliant on social media during this time, as there will come a time where things get better. At a point, the economy will improve, and much more work will need to be done. Don’t develop bad short-term habits that inhibit your ability to do this. Irrespective of what it feels like the data suggests that social media and its fast-paced, instantaneous-reward nature is destroying our ability to concentrate for long periods of time and do valuable work. I strongly suggest Cal Newport’s book Deep Work if this idea intrigues, or even frightens you. Additionally, Newport’s subsequent book Digital Minimalism is a look at how to maximise your effective use of technology and minimise its negative repercussions on your precious neurons. Both are very worth checking out in my opinion.

With all this in mind, I will be attempting to communicate with the people I care about via text, Facebook Messenger or FaceTime. These mediums—as opposed to DM’s on Instagram—don’t put a newsfeed in front of you and tempt you away from your intended use of the platform. 

If staying connected is important, make sure you’re actually talking to people and not just getting sucked into liking photos by people you don’t even know.

9. Sleep

I’m not even going to elaborate on the importance of this one. We all know it is crucial. 

Even if you were just concerned about maximising your body-composition during this time sleep would be a key factor, however, both mood and productivity purposes mean that sleep is non-negotiable at this point.

Be consistent with your wake and sleep time, have a dark and cool room, don’t over consume caffeine or alcohol and give yourself some wind down time beforehand so that your body can recognise it’s time to rest. You won’t be disappointed that you did.

The end…?

That’s it. Those are the steps I’ll be putting in place in order to maintain my productivity as well as my physical and mental health during this time. While no single factor is potent in isolation, I think the synergy created by them all in combination will go a long way into preserving optimism and output during these less-than-ideal times. 

I wish you nothing but good luck and good health in the days, weeks and months to come. I hope you consider what I have said here, and I encourage you to share these ideas with those you care about. We want everyone to make it through this as smoothly as possible.

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