Some days are harder than others. Everything seems to fall apart on these days.
I could not sleep last night. At 2:50 am, the hour of deepest sleep, I woke up when an intruding mosquito buzzed in my ear. I went to the bathroom, came back, drank some water, and lied down. I was drowsy and it hurt to keep my eyes open. But the first step to sleep was killing the mosquito. After many desperate attempts, I took its life away.
Meanwhile, the brain kept at its activity. The ideas of my mother about me encroached me from all directions. If I think about me the way she does, I start believing that my life is doomed. Then I judged the nooks and corners of my romantic relationship.
As I started falling asleep, another mosquito buzzed in my ear. This was a tough one. I waggled my arms and slapped myself many times but he did not buzz. That is ironic. He buzzed and buzzed but did not die. I turned on the flashlight of my phone hoping that he would close up on the beam of light but he was smarter than I thought; he silenced into some hidden corner.
Whenever I started falling asleep, he reappeared and buzzed in my ear. I jumped out of bed. This happened many times for about an hour until he gave up. I think I killed him because the last time I got up, a dead mosquito lay next to my pillow.
I was happy, conditions applied. The negative thoughts in the wee hours of the night in a drowsy state of mind and worries of work and buzzing mosquitoes had become a nightmare. The emotional saga clouded me and I could not see the clear sky of a dreamy night anymore. Hunger pangs rolled up in my stomach. The worst had hit me.
Are people so unsupportive and not understanding? How come love is not enough?
The night was fine, apart from a few mosquitoes.
Then what was wrong? The mind was spinning its own negative web.
Though I knew that all those thoughts were real but not true, I could not help it.
Next morning, I woke up with a drained mind and a nagging headache.
The reasons attributing to a bad day could be anything — your own web of negative thoughts or issues at work or a fight with your partner or a phone call from your mother reminding how ungrateful a child you are or your own disappointment as you have not achieved the goals you had set for yourself or a bad night’s sleep.
You feel hopeless, exhausted, distraught, and meaningless. You want to give up.
Do you give up and think of all that hasn’t gone well and criticize yourself to fall deeper into guilt and self-pity and anger?
Or do you think of yourself as human and progressing and remind yourself that you are doing okay and tomorrow you would do better and not be overly critical of yourself and others around you?
You do the later.
We all have bad days. If we give up on those days, we would lose at least half of our time.
Let us deal with these pain-in-the-ass days.
1. Accept — Some days are meant to suck.
You struggle to code fifty lines that day. You burn the gravy. Your presentation misses the conclusion. Your partner makes an issue out of nothing.
The world seems stacked against you.
Don’t let these days surprise you. Who said every day would start perfectly at 8 with a perfect mind?
You cannot expect everything to function smoothly and as per how you like — even you yourself. We are not machines — even they fail.
The first step in dealing with these bad days is to accept that they are a part of life and they are going to stay.
If we rely on everything being perfect, then even at the slightest discourse, our fragile house of cards would shatter.
2. Take it easy —
Once you have accepted that a bad day is paying you a visit — take the day slowly.
Rather than going along with the frenzied activities of your upset mood, you have to first fix your mood and calm down. Otherwise, you would commit mistakes and say things that you would regret later.
Breathe. Take out some cooling down time to pull the two lines of — reality and your perceived reality — closer. Sit in a silent corner; it could even be the bathroom. Put all communication gadgets on silent. Make some nice tea. Wash your face. Look at the bigger picture. Tell yourself everything is okay. The world — in general, or yours — is not falling apart. Smile.
Daniel Kahneman, one of the most influential psychologists, wrote in his book Thinking Fast and Slow that simple, common gestures can unconsciously influence our thoughts and feelings. If we smile, we feel relaxed and better, and go into cognitive ease. If we frown, we feel miserable and angry.
Do not over think what you could not do or what went wrong or who said what. Don’t try to perfect everything in that moment. Give your body and mind time to adjust. Take it easy.
As Josh Waitzkin, a chess champion and Tai Chi Push Hands champion of many times, said in his book The Art of Learning, “I learned at sea that virtually all situations can be handled as long as the presence of mind is maintained. On the other hand, if you lose your calm when crisis hits seventy miles from land, or while swimming with big sharks, there is no safety net to catch you.”
3. Deal with your mood, rather than ignoring it, and pushing yourself into routine —
Daniel Kahneman talked about the importance of mood on intuition and creativity — “Mood affects the operation of System 1 (the impulsive and intuitive system): when we are uncomfortable and unhappy, we lose touch with our intuition.”
Our impulses are more of a miss than a hit.
Sometimes, I ignore how I am feeling. Result — I complete all tasks impatiently and hastily. My creative instinct is zero. I start losing it even with a one-page redirect of Google Chrome or ring of the doorbell or a useless phone call from Airtel. I am at the edge.
Josh Waitzkin admitted that blocking his natural emotions was never the solution. Instead of being thrown off by or denying irritation, he had to channel it into a profound state of concentration.
Rather than running away from our emotions or be completely swept off by them, we need to acknowledge them and sit with them to work out things together.
Once sitting with our emotions becomes a practice, instead of being at their mercy, we would be able to use them in our favor.
4. How to deal with mood and work with our emotions?
Break out of the thinking loop and utilize your emotions to build inner resistance instead of being swept off by them —
Your final presentation was top-notch but your boss still yelled at you. You are spinning down in a whirlpool of what went wrong.
After being repeatedly jabbed at Adam’s apple by a strong competitor Frank in Tai Chi, Josh was flustered.
I repeatedly think that I was not mindful the past few days. Result — my present productivity gets affected.
What is the problem?
If you are getting disturbed or annoyed by someone or something external, then it is your problem. These external distractions could range from useless phone calls to a yelling boss to a partner who got up with a bad mood to an unstable wifi.
I had booked a movie for 10 pm, after my 8-9 yoga class. But rain started pouring down, streets flooded, cell phones lost signals, and the power went off. I waited on the ground floor of the yoga building for an hour before I could walk back home. The idea of a refreshing movie relief, after a hectic work week, was washed away with the rain.
More often than not, the problem is external.
What if the problem is internal? Self-doubt or meaninglessness or lack of focus might also make us lose our way through the day.
In these situations, emotions overpower and we fall into a thinking loop which leads us nowhere.
How to pull out of this incessant thinking loop? How to stop spinning with the spiral of surrounding negativity and our own imperfections?
Real life is far from perfect. No matter how much we safeguard ourselves and prepare in advance, real-life situations always surprise us. The outside world appears to fall apart. But we cannot let that ruin our peace.
Josh had serious struggle with distractions while playing chess and fighting in martial arts competitions. In his own words, “If you are tense, with your fingers jammed in your ears and your whole body straining to fight off distraction, then you are like a dry twig, brittle, ready to snap under pressure.”
To go on consistently, instead of being brittle, we have to be flexible, focused, relaxed, and look peaceful (as we start feeling how we act). We cannot expect the world to run as per our liking. We have to be tofu — malleable and soft as per the situation we are being put in.
You have to catch yourself when you feel you are falling down. Let us go through a few techniques to become tofu.
The internet is bombed with the benefits and techniques of meditation. It is not over-hyped. When I meditate, even for a minute, my system is cleansed and filled with positive ready-to-burst energy. After listening to Tara Brach, a psychologist and a strong proponent of Buddhist meditation, whenever I had a negative thought, I told myself that all thoughts are real but not true. Try meditation — sit with your thoughts and control them — even if for five or ten minutes. Those ten minutes of mindfulness would wipe over many hours of negative thinking.
Meditation is like restarting your system.
Think of what affects you and find solutions —
Josh gave the example of an athlete who began each day by waking up and sitting quietly in his room for a period of introspection. His goal was to observe his mood down to the finest nuance and then use the mood details.
If I know phone calls and WhatsApp messages bothers me, I switch off my phone.
I know I cannot write in noise, so instead of going to a cafe or some other place, and getting annoyed, I stay at home. But I have made myself used to the noises of traffic and of the pre-school children coming from the balcony. We need to draw a line.
If I have not slept well and am short on patience, instead of getting involved in household activities in the morning, I stay in my room and take it easy. Why give myself a chance to get irritated when I am already not at my best?
Mark out what works for you and what puts you on the edge, preemptively. Talk to the people involved, look at the possible options, and figure out a solution rather than ignoring the problem. Ignoring never helps.
Understand your emotions and reactions, and use your psychological knowledge in your favor.
Books can place you in the right frame of mind. I break out of the inertia of not reading when I am down and read philosophy and good articles on personal growth and they direct me and inspire me. We are all going through the same things; reading connects us with those other people and how they handle the problem.
Writing is a good vent out. We incessantly think of the events that have happened or that might happen or how we could have resolved them. But we never seem to catch hold of the beginning or the end of the thought trail. With writing, you hold it and nail it down in the form of words on paper. When you have written down your thoughts, you have no reason to keep thinking.
Work out releases positive hormones.
Josh reported in his book that at a performance training center called LGE, the sports psychologists had discovered that physical flushing and mental clarity are very much intertwined.
He added, “There was more than one occasion that I got up from the board four or five hours into a hugely tense chess game, walked outside the playing hall, and sprinted fifty yards or up six flights of stairs. Then I’d walk back, wash my face, and be completely renewed.”
Physical workout cleanses and rejuvenates our mind. It restarts our system.
One of the above activities or maybe spending time with your family, sports, music, painting, cooking, or something else would cleanse your mind of the existing thoughts and give you a new positive direction.
Find out what works for you.
When I missed the movie, instead of being frustrated, I went back home, made dosas, and watched a movie with a glass of wine and the delicious dinner.
My idea of meal and movie could be a game of football with your son or a reading session with your mother or a game of badminton with your friends and partner.
Don’t make the external problems internal.
I woke up feeling miserable and meaningless. I read Nietzsche and Camus to find meaning and prepared articles to channelize my hopelessness into a positive lesson.
We have to deal with the issues, and our mood swings and of the people around us without getting frustrated. You get to decide if the imperfect parts of the day, define the day or they stay as parts.
Break the thinking loop. With practice, you would not even fall into the thinking loop. Even when emotions would steam-up, you would stay rooted.
The great stoic Marcus Aurelius said, “You can only control your actions”. Remember this the next time you start feeling annoyed.
5. Continue with your routine and work —
Once you have learned how to deal with your mood, use your clear mind and a channelized state to focus on your priorities. Do not stay in the bed. Don’t wait for things to be perfect. That might never happen. If the clock strikes 12 and you haven’t made any progress with your day, instead of being disappointed, acknowledge that you still have at least 8 hours to work.
Do best with what you have.
After one of the many failed testings of the Falcon engine, SpaceX’s onsite rocket engineer Mueller called Elon Musk and informed him how they had failed, yet again. Other people who were around Elon said that he had tears in his eyes when he received that phone call. But Elon replied to Mueller, let us do this again tomorrow.
Even all successful people would have had their share of hard days. They would have needed discipline, courage, confidence, belief, hard work, and patience. They knew how to handle the nuances and go on.
Remember, nuances would always be there, we need to deal with them.
Set reasonable goals for that day. Stick to them.
If you skip the bad days, there would only be so much left. Power through. Once you are at it, you would forget the nuances. You would find meaning even in your doubts and fears.
The days I give up on writing, I have nothing to remember them with.
But when I go on, I structure the most unstructured thoughts.
You strive harder on meaningless, emotional, and angry days but you find something more valuable and deeper.
These days make you who you are. They make your relationships stronger. They make your work and art bleed.
Navigate your psychology. Anchor in your strengths. Accept your weaknesses. Build intelligent and robust systems so that when storms strike, you can take the hit.
Would love to know your opinions on how to make a bad day better? How do you channelize your negative thoughts?
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