If lockdown was code for “one big rest”, I’d wipe the floor with the competition. I love nothing more than to while away the hours catnapping in the sunshine, stretched out like a lion for a languid afternoon in bed, or lying on a cool tiled floor in one seemingly endless savasana (a.k.a the 'corpse pose' in yoga).
Sadly, the reality is the polar opposite. Tensions are heightened, money is tight, life is precious, and it’s a scary world out there. The only similarity is many of us are still stuck inside, or at least spending our working hours in the same environment, surrounded by the same people, or none at all – just a biro face on a wall that has become our “Wilson” in these pandemic times.
Layer upon layer of increasing anxiety has left us feeling overwhelmed, paralysed by indecision and uncertainty, and drained of energy. It’s hard to keep on keeping on. For me, it is like the ultimate endurance test: I’m swimming against the tide in a sea made of treacle just to get through the week. Every week. For months now.
In a desperate search of a way out of this endless lethargy, I turned to the experts. Not the ones advocating “pulling an Adele” via endless streams of Joe Wicks PE sessions and a strict diet of boiled chicken and kale, but those with ideas even a naturally horizontal individual like me can use to break the mental stalemate.
There is, of course, no magic cure, but after giving the following tips a go, I can confirm they make a difference – if you are able to muster enough brainpower to stick with them. Without further ado…
Ever heard of the Pomodoro Technique? Me neither, until the rather brilliant executive, career and personal coach Lisa Quinn mentioned it in my inbox.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the mammoth task of another day of work to get through, breaking it down into timed 25-minute chunks, with a five-minute break between each one, makes it far more manageable. After you’ve done four chunks of 25, take a longer break of 30 minutes, before starting the process again.
“While it might seem counterintuitive, there is quite a bit of research to show that our brains respond to constraint with creativity,” Quinn tells me. “When you use a timer, you are putting a constraint in place. When I use the Pomodoro Technique, I feel like I’m tricking my brain and selling it a story: ‘It’s only 25 minutes, you can do that.’
“It’s a small enough amount of time that I’m persuaded to make a start. By starting, you tend to overcome all of those negative stories about the ‘perfect’ conditions that your inner critic told you needed to be in place. Once you get going, you’ll often realise that the thought of starting is so much worse than actually starting.”
Like many writers, I’m an Olympic-level procrastinator. So I was intrigued to find out there could be a way out of the hours of endless staring into space that often precedes a 60-minute article. Quinn once again came to my rescue.
“If you are avoiding doing something, it’s likely that there will be a story you are telling yourself about procrastination. It might be, ‘I work best under pressure,’ or, ‘I can’t write something unless X is in place.’
“So ask yourself, ‘What’s the truth in this?’ There might well be some facts in your story, but it’s likely that your inner critic has added a whole other lot of negative rubbish on top which is getting in the way.
“Try to work out what you are scared of. What’s underneath your procrastination? And if it isn’t fear, what is it? Because it will be an emotion. And once you know what the emotion is, you can see things a bit more clearly, which can help you move forward.”
Before diving head-first work, try to carve out time to do something you love, advises mindset and business strategist Lenka Lutonska. “I believe to keep you energy levels high, it’s really important to fill your cup first,” she says.
“For instance, it is not uncommon that I start my days with a bit of gardening now. Why? Because feeling great puts me in flow. And when I am in flow, everything flows. The most inspiring ideas, executing those ideas, writing, marketing, selling, you name it.
“My biggest piece of advice is to focus on doing something that lights you up as a priority,” she continues. “There are many ways to go about this – meditation, visualisation, gratitude, playing with your cat, journalling, walking in nature. There are lots of opportunities for getting ourselves emotionally ready for having the most productive day.”
I’m a big fan of the intermittent resting promoted by expert somatic and founder of The Human Method, Nahid de Belgeonne. This idea ties in rather nicely with the Pomodoro Technique, in case you were wondering what to do with all that break time you suddenly have in your day.
“The brains has a finite time that it can focus on a task in hand, so pushing beyond this can lead to fatigue and eventually burnout,” de Belgeonne tells me.
To allow the brain and body to “recalibrate” from being so alert and recharge, she recommends taking to a safe space, such as a garden or a park, away from any dangers you have to keep an eye on. “Without any dangers nearby, your brain can shift into a state of soft fascination where you allow the sights, sounds and sensations to float in,” she says. “A regular resting practice will allow you to be present in the moment, which in time will quieten down an anxious mind.”
Who better to ask about creating better mental energy than Tibetan Buddhist medicine app entrepreneur and mum-of-three, Tenzin Metok. Her mantra? A clear space is a clear mind. “Devote one evening a week after kids are asleep – this is a Friday for us – to decluttering, with no other responsibilities or distractions,” she says.
“We laugh and call it Kondo-ing, even making a game out of finding the food with the oldest expiry date to throw away. It makes such a difference mentally and physically when there is more order and less clutter. Such a small change has such a positive, great impact.”
Freediver Helena Bourdillon is so good at holding her breath, she’s become a breathing coach to help us reduce anxiety and get more oxygen into the blood.
Here’s what she recommends: “Breathe in and out through your nose. Sit upright or lean back slightly – this helps you draw the air down into the lower part of your lungs, which will help with the feelings of well-being. Make your exhalation longer than your inhalation to stimulate the rest and digest side of your nervous system. Gently extend the exhalation as you feel yourself calming and relaxing.
“To do this, count the length of your inhalation and then double that for the exhalation (eg inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of six). Make sure you are not causing any stress by counting too slowly at the beginning. As you feel your body relaxing, slow down the pace of the counting.”
Richard Reid, CEO and founder of Pinnacle Wellbeing Services, has 13 years’ experience as a psychotherapist working with high-net-worth individuals and top performers within business, sport and entertainment.
Among his recommendations for anchoring ourselves during uncertain times is to track as much of what we do as possible.“Record things — the days, the distance you walk, the exercises you do, the books you read, the things you see and hear,” he says.
“You do not have to record all of them — that would be overwhelming in itself— but choose one thing to thread your days together. It might sound odd, but tracking gives us a firm foothold in the world when the days are starting to blur together, and the lights feel permanently dimmed.”
I’m not going to go there with nutrition and diet as there’s already enough pressure for women to maintain absolute perfection at all costs as it is, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic. You want a third slice of banana bread? Just have it. You are worth the same plus or minus that extra helping.
But it is worth checking that we are doing some of the more obvious things, too, as clinical nurse consultant Emma Selby reminds me (great surname, sadly no relation). “My biggest tip is movement and sunshine. Doing a small amount of movement either outside or near windows, where you can appreciate the natural light helps to boost your happy hormones and your energy. It doesn’t have to be an intense HIIT workout. It can be some gentle stretching, gardening, hoovering, dancing or chasing the kids.
“When we move our bodies, even lightly, our brain starts to release endorphins that result in what is sometimes called ‘runner’s high’. These hormones give us an immediate boost in mood and wakefulness, and can even act as low-level painkillers.
“Spending time in natural light reduces the hormone that makes us want to sleep – melatonin – and ups the body’s production of vitamin D, which helps keep bones and muscles healthy and us feeling good,” adds Selby.
Don’t forget to stay hydrated – on water, rather than wine – and have a good, regular sleep routine. But you already knew that.
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