Work and other adulting duties are flat-out tiring; that’s a given. But life is full of smaller, subtler energy zappers -- lost keys, a cursed commute -- that leave you truly tapped out. Use these strategies to seal up the leaks, and experience an instant boost.
The Leak: Your Morning Scramble
The whole “where’s my phone, what should I wear, who finished the milk?” scene may rev you up in the moment, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. If you start the day out of control, it takes energy to recover your rhythm.
“Stage-manage your life,” says organization expert Julie Morgenstern, author of "Never Check E-mail in the Morning" (Touchstone, 2005). In other words, have all your “props” (outfit, packed bag) in place the night before so that your morning goes off without a hitch, she says. “There’s no question that when you do things when you’re not in a panic, you get them done in much less time and at significantly higher quality.” Then, when the curtain rises on your day, tackle only the things you can’t do in advance -- morning stretches, brushing your teeth, showering, getting dressed. You’ll walk out the door feeling in command of the day, rather than as if it’s grabbed you and spun you around.
The Leak: Mainlining Caffeine
Down a big mug of coffee the second you get up, and you squander its ability to power you through the day. Your first cup doesn’t energize you so much as it staves off a potential headache: “You are really only having it to treat withdrawal effects, because you haven’t had caffeine since yesterday,” says James K. Wyatt, Ph.D., an associate professor of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical School, in Chicago.
Pace yourself. “A good strategy is to sip a small amount in the morning, perhaps even a cup of half-caffeinated,” says Wyatt. You might try saving it till you’re at work, when it’ll pack more of a punch, since “caffeine is less effective when you’ve been awake only an hour or two. After that, have a serving with or shortly after lunch to lessen the impact of the notorious midafternoon dip.”
The Leak: A Tedious Commute
Being stuck in an assembly line of honking cars can zap your mental batteries and seriously mess with your mood. The average American spends around 26 minutes a day getting to work, per the U.S. Census Bureau -- that’s four and a half frustrating days a year.
If you can’t shorten your trip, shake it up. One way is to build in exercise or a chat. Bike riders and walkers rate their well-being higher than drivers do, according to a study from Portland State University, in Oregon, and people who talk to others on the way get a boost, too. Map out new routes and tactics: Can you drive partway and bike or walk the rest? Catch up with a friend as you go? (But not on a train, which is aggravating to everyone around you.) If not, at least try to keep your brain moving. It’s your perception of being blocked by traffic, emotionally as well as physically (“If I can’t finish prepping for my 8:30 meeting, it’ll wreck my day!”), that burns up your energy, explains Raymond Novaco, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine. So when you’re in a jam, do what you can to pre-empt negative thinking. Tune in to a bucket-list audiobook or funny podcast, or try a mindfulness exercise: Notice the thoughts you’re having, then let them float away (expect to have to do this more than once!). As Princess Elsa says, let it go. You can’t control traffic. No amount of cursing or hand-wringing will get you there faster.
The Leak: Scrolling through Social Media
Whenever we crave a distraction -- in line for coffee, between emails -- Instagram and Facebook are there for us. But they chip away at our energy and ability to focus. “When you keep interrupting yourself, you’re not present,” Morgenstern says. You start tasks but don’t finish them, and they pile up for later.
First, cut yourself some slack -- your brain is wired to look constantly for shiny new things, and it processes an amusing or inspiring post as a reward -- which drives you to keep scrolling. The trouble: “It puts the brain in a stressful state, because it’s continuously scanning the environment,” says Gary W. Small, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. To break the cycle, take note of when you get the twitch to check your phone. Then set rules around those time sucks, like putting it in a drawer during the day. Even better, but harder: Ask yourself what you’re really seeking (connection with others? an endorphin-stimulating laugh?) and try to get it in person.
The Leak: Your Four-O'Clock Snack
Lunch was three hours ago. You need something to quiet your rumbly stomach and help your momentum.
Don’t succumb to the leftover doughnuts in the office kitchen or a packaged food. Most energy bars, for instance, are high in sugar -- “some are practically candy bars,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic -- and send your blood sugar soaring, then drop you right back at the intersection of tired and hungry. Instead, eat something with fat and protein in it, too. Those nutrients take longer to digest, so you’ll feel sated and alert until dinner. Squeeze a packet of peanut butter onto apple wedges, top full-fat yogurt with berries, or bring two hard-boiled eggs from home. Feeling fancy? Pack prosciutto slices and cantaloupe chunks for antipasto power bites. If you need to grab an energy bar on the go, follow Kirkpatrick’s criteria and pick one with fewer than five ingredients, less than four grams of sugar, at least three grams of fiber, and no aspartame, sucralose, or saccharine.
The Leak: Coming Home to a Mess
When you open the door to an entryway scattered with mail, shoes, dog toys, and the skirt you keep meaning to take to the tailor, you’re “walking into a to-do list,” says Morgenstern. “How can that not steal your energy?”
Transform this landing zone without a full purge. “Identify what’s there by category -- pet gear, bags of old clothes, and so on -- and catch the stuff where it falls,” she says. Add a bench with built-in storage to hold dog toys or giveaway items. Put a few hooks in the wall, “staggering them -- bags in a straight line tend to smash into each other,” Morgenstern says. This way, “you’ve created a place that rises up to greet you at night and tells you to relax.”
The Leak: Being Together, but Not Together
Connecting with loved ones is uniquely revitalizing. “Navigating relationships effectively is one of the best things we can do if we’re trying to keep our energy up,” says Eli Finkel, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology and management and organizations at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, and the author of "The All-or-Nothing Marriage" (Dutton, 2017). If you’re on the sofa with your other half, but one or both of you are “too busy” to relate, you’re not connecting or reaping those benefits.
There are times when life is crazy and you need to ask less of your partner, says Finkel. When that happens, “ideally you’ll have an honest conversation about it.” Explain that work will be brutal, and you won’t get the time together that you want for, say, the next month. Then, stay in sync with small gestures -- Finkel calls them “love hacks.” Hold hands or find other ways to give an affectionate touch, and boost your mood and energy.
The Leak: Binging on TV
Watching just one more episode (or three) leaves you overtired but wired at 2 a.m. “Streaming video makes it really tough to stop watching,” says Jan Van den Bulck, Ph.D., a professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. It’s pleasurable, so we reach for another, and another, until we’ve lost precious hours of sleep.
Part of the reason it’s so hard to turn off the TV is that there’s no longer a natural break (like commercials) when we can reconsider what we’re doing and adjust our behavior, Van den Bulck says. But you can create one: Switch off the function that automatically cues up the next episode (for Netflix, go to “Your Account” and click “Playback Settings”). Set your TV’s timer to turn off at a certain hour. Do anything you can to press pause and ask yourself if another episode is worth having to drag through the next day. Then drift off to sleep with this pleasant thought: You have more drama (the good kind) to look forward to tomorrow night.
The Brain Drain
There’s one habit that can exhaust you around the clock: trying to be perfect. No matter how many times you change the wording in an email or rearrange a garnish, you can’t ensure that it’s flawless -- but you can waste away trying. Does that mean you should stop caring? Of course not. Instead, aim to be what Brené Brown, Ph.D., author of "The Gifts of Imperfection" (Hazelden, 2010), calls a healthy striver. Perfectionism is about avoiding negative judgment. (“Will they think my dinner party isn’t nice enough?”) Healthy striving means setting high but attainable standards and enjoying the process as much as the outcome. Adopt that attitude, and you may have energy to spare.