3 Habits to Turn to When You’re Just Not Yourself

If you’re anything like me, you go through inexplicable rough periods now and then, those times when you’re just not feeling it. Not quite depression … just a funk.

You know what I mean: Things don’t excite you the way they usually do. You wake up at night wondering if you’re doing what you should be with your life. And those demons you thought you had licked start to inch their miserable way back into your life.

And during these times — whether as a consequence or the cause — you tend to do fewer of your good habits, and more of your bad ones.

So how do you break out of the funk?

The hard part about these episodes of down-ness is that what you feel like doing is exactly what you don’t need to be doing — eating more (and more junk), drinking more alcohol and caffeine, watching mindless TV (I’ve been on a ridiculous Parks and Recreation on Netflix bender), and generally choosing comfort now over happiness later.

I’m not very good at avoiding the bad habits when I get down, and I don’t think many people are. But I’ve played this game enough times to know that it’s okay — as long as I’m doing the good habits too.

Which good habits?

Depending on my emotional season, three of them split time as my “anchor habit” — the habit that I do every day, without fail. Your anchor habit (or keystone habit, Charles Duhigg and James Clear call it) is the one that makes everything else easier, the one that constantly nudges you towards being your best self. It might be yoga, running, meditation … something that brings you joy and just makes the rest of the day — and you — better.

So, you know how some people take mega-doses of vitamin C when they start to get sick? I’ve started taking mega-doses of anchor habits when I’m not feeling like, mentally and emotionally, like myself.

And I’ve found that it works — at least, better than anything else I know.

Here are my three. They won’t necessarily be the ones that work for you, but I hope reading about mine will inspire you to think about which ones are yours, and that you’ll use them to take care of yourself the next time you’re in a funk.

3 Habits for Your Head

1. Running & listening.

I should think of a better name for this pairing, considering how much I love it. Thirty or forty-five minutes of exercising your body is a known funk-buster by itself — but combine it with distraction-free immersion in an inspiring podcast or audiobook, and you’ve got an activity worth building your schedule around. And this is before you even consider whatever synergistic effects come from doing the two simultaneously: they say “emotion is created by motion,” and I’ve found that to be true.

And one feature that makes this one a great weapon against the funk? The two habits reinforce each other: for example, a lot of times when I don’t feel like running, I do it anyway, simply because it’s my chance to listen to something I’m really interested in without any distractions.

Right now, I’m rotating through several audio options: Seth Godin’s Leap First (a live recording from the week I spent in his office last summer), Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the New Rainmaker podcast, the Tim Ferriss show, and the James Altucher podcast.

2. Reading. 

Reading has always been something I spend a lot of time on, but this year I made a change to how I do it. Instead of reading new books — which are easy, immediately gratifying, and in this way addictive — I’m sticking mostly to the books I’ve had on my to-read list for what seems like ever. I wrote a list on my chalkboard wall of what I’m going to read this year, and made the rule for myself that I can’t add anything to it. The result is that it’s a little harder to sit down and read (there’s a reason I haven’t gotten to these books before) but I feel more accomplished and fulfilled than I used to by every minute I spend reading. I just finished up Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling, a 500-pager that’s been on my shelf for years — and I feel so much better having read that than three new business books that I’ll forget about as soon as I shut.

3. Morning pages.

Probably my quirkiest habit, but one whose legion of devotees is growing. Every day this year (and many days last year, too), I’ve done three pages of long-hand, stream-of-consciousness writing as soon as possible after I wake up. The point isn’t to produce anything good, but instead to purge your mind of all the thoughts that would otherwise bounce around in circles all day. For me, it’s meditation and medication, and I love it that way some people love yoga or tea. (The morning pages habit is just one part of The Artist’s Way, a program that I’m working through now. But I think it stands just as well on its own.)

“I’m Running, Wanna Come?”

Seth Godin shared a mindset with us last summer that’s summed up this way.

What it means is I’ve made up my mind, here’s what I’m doing, here’s what I’m going to do until it’s done.

This, to me, is how good habits pull you out of a funk.

Have you ever been finishing up your run, when just a few minutes from being home, you make an unexpected turn and decide to keep going? It’s almost reflexive, as if your body makes the decision, and your brain is just along for the ride. And inevitably, this impulsive, split-second decision turns out to be a great one — for your brain. Even when it’s raining.

This captures the effect I’m talking about. When you’re feeling down, uninspired, unsure, and you make the decision “I’m doing this habit, even though I don’t really feel like doing anything” you’re telling the rest of yourself, “I’m running, want to come?”

Put differently: I’m going to spend my time on these activities that I know are good for me. I don’t know where that will lead, or how it’s going to help with the situation that’s causing me stress, but here’s the standard I’m going to hold myself to. So, other part of my brain, are you in?

And what always happens is that it works. When you’re true to yourself and you spend the time in activities that you know connect you with the part of you that you’ve neglected, inevitably something happens for you. Something inspires you, or excites you, or so commands your attention that the funk you were in dissolves without your even realizing it, while you get furiously to work on whatever is going to become your life’s next chapter.

Thanks to Leo and Chelsea for the inspiration to get off my butt and write this one.

Two Related Heads-Ups

1. Last time I checked, March had 31 days in it … which means it’s time for another round of #writeandrun31! There’s nothing like a month-long daily habit commitment to bust a funk, and we’d love to have you join us (it’s free, too). “Write” and “run” can be symbolic if you want — pick a creative habit and a physical one, and do each for 31 days, with a community of friends cheering you on. Good times.

2. I’m really proud to announce that I partnered with coach.me (formerly the habit-change app Lift) to produce a special version of Wake Up, my own 31-day program for setting goals and creating habits. This new version is streamlined, with each day’s assignment delivered to your phone in a way that coach.me has found most effective for taking action. But even better, I also recorded an audio version of each day’s reading that goes with it. The program usually costs $30, but if you use the coupon code NMA20 between now and Monday (March 2) you’ll save 20 bucks and get it for $9.99. Pretty sweet deal, if you ask me. Check it out here.

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Comments

  1. This is so true. I’m going through slump, especially with work and wondering if I’m using my life how I am supposed to. But running is my anchor habit, and as long as I’m running in not doing nothing.

  2. You have totally just described the last couple months of my life. Surprisingly comforting to know it’s just me! I have been picking myself up limb by limb one good habit at a time so your post really resonates. For me, the first steps are always about getting back into sensible bedtimes (including reading before bed) and waking times, and making more fresh and healthy food and snacks. In theory, meditation, but that one seems to be harder to nail for some reason!

  3. Hey Matt.

    For me the most important keystone habit is my morning routine. It sets the day up right and since it’s done as soon as I arise, nothing is likely to interfere with me doing it.

    I wrote about it in a post called, “How To Build A Better Life With Morning Habits” (http://www.garmaonhealth.com/build-better-life-morning-habits/), wherein I refer to this keystone habit as my “morning dance”, the steps of which are:

    1. Eyes open, close, and I go through a 10-minute visualization and mantra that primarily touches on work and body stuff.

    2. Swing the legs off the bed; the feet touch the ground, which automatically sets off another mantra just 11 words long.

    3. Shuffle to the kitchen, warm some water, squeeze a lemon in it, face Angel Island framed in the kitchen window with the Sun hovering over it, and toast the day while sipping the lemon-water and muttering a gratitude prayer.

    4. To the living room I go where I spend seven minutes performing a mobility routine to awaken me, open my joints, get the blood flowing and set the day up right physically.

    5. I then lift a card off a nearby desk and with each slow inhale and exhale I read the seven things written on it that I wish to bring into my life.

    Make up your own morning dance, do it regularly and notice how the quality of your life steadily improves.

    Right Matt? 😉

    -Joe

  4. Matt I’m so excited to learn you’re doing MPs. I’m on week four of the Artist’s Way and I’m addicted to Morning Pages, I don’t know how I made it to this point in life without them. My morning routine was 90 minutes at 5:30am of Ashtanga Mysore style but when a friend gave me the Artist’s way I decided to put my morning routine on hold to give a shot to morning pages, I don’t have words to explain how incredible this has been for me. I don’t know what will happen after week 12, for now I’m split about my Ashtanga morning discipline and the Morning Pages morning discipline, each one has great arguments of why to do them first thing in the morning.

    I don’t like to run with anything on my ears but I’ll give try the podcasts/audiobooks.

  5. Alice Watland says:

    Matt, I hope you have some classics on your to-read shelf. Roll the Bones was just published in 2013 – he’s still doing interviews now and then. The book has enjoyed critical acclaim, but it’s hardly a book that you could have had on your shelf for years.

  6. This was a perfectly timed post for me. I just started earlier this week a personal challenge to run every day for a month and keep track of what exactly I am eating and why.

    “I’ve made up my mind, here’s what I’m doing, here’s what I’m going to do until it’s done.” This quote is a direct representation of my feelings with this objective. For once I feel dedication to follow something through if only in part from daily (b)logging my experience on my website blog.designingthroughlife.com

    Even if I am not able to immediately drop all of my bad habits, I can at least find comfort in that I am adding some healthy and positive habits to the mix. Best of luck with your own #writeandrun31 !

  7. These are some good tips. Morning often feels like a very productive time when ideas are more likely to come rolling in, especially after a good night’s sleep.

  8. Have you been spying on my life? Lol. Great tips though! I already use some of them. You are spot on! 🙂

  9. oh yes.
    my morning pages are INVALUABLE to remaining on my path and staying…me.

  10. Intriguing post, Matt. Definitely something that I’m going to pass along to a few friends who take similar introspective routes in their lives.

    Something I heard listening to the first Rich Roll podcast today was an interesting idea. That being, you should internalize who you want to be, BEFORE taking verbatim what someone else has written as a plan.

    Taking that in mind, I’m reading your morning plan, and think, “oh this is great! I should try this tomorrow!” But I know from experience when I’ve done that before, that I usually fail after a couple days, and then go back to not having any morning routine.

    With a new puppy in the house, I’ve been forced to create a morning routine, and it’s actually been very peaceful and a great way to start the day. I am going to use your post as motivation to reflect on my current routine and see how I can modify it to be better.

    Thanks much, Matt!
    John

  11. Good article on how to overcome borderline depression or a “funk”. I have a few tips that I would include. Definitely exercise helps. Really anything to distract a busy mind works.

    – Try a new activity or challenge – perhaps your life is becoming mundane when you just feel “blah”.
    – Get out in nature.
    – Reassess your goals and priorities (I have actually this on a Word document).
    – Sleep deprivation. Yes, this is a weird one. But I am not talking about chronic sleep deprivation. There are some studies that show this to be an effective way to treat depression. It sometimes can provide the bump I need to get back on track.
    – Take the focus away from yourself. Too much thinking and introspecting can get you in a fun. Make sure you go see friends and become a listener.

  12. Well worth revisiting this blog – thanks Matt

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