How to Keep Your Energy Up When You’re Totally Stressed Out

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Instead, I have the energy to focus on other things—most often work, but also friendships, playing Stardew Valley, the book I’m reading (Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, in case you’re interested)—the stuff that makes regular days interesting.

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Turning my priorities into a daily practice also makes my life less stressful. I want to note that even though there is a correlation between regular exercise and decreased stress, for example, I’m not actually saying everyone needs to get their 10,000 steps (or 15,000, if you prefer), because I understand that everyone has different priorities. Stress, for me, comes when I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and when I feel like I won’t have a say in what happens to me. (This is, no doubt, part of why we’ve all been so stressed since November.) Choosing what to prioritize, even if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, helps me stay focused on what I want to happen.

Know When to Satisfice and When to Maximize

I learned the terms “satisficer” and “maximizer” from Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and they’ve reshaped the way I think about prioritization and decision-making.

Some decisions are maximized, or optimized to get the best possible result: What do I need to do to increase my freelance earnings, year over year? What do I need to do, in the hour before bedtime, to help me get the amount of sleep I want?

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Other decisions are satisficed, or one-and-done: I do not need you to tell me the benefit of steel-cut oats over quick oats, because I do not care. Quick oats are quick and cheap and I like them, and I’m not worried that I’m missing out on some better oatmeal somewhere.

You may prioritize oatmeal, or have a favorite brand of olive oil that isn’t Safeway Select, and I will reiterate once again that what we prioritize doesn’t matter. The act of making the priority—of choosing what to maximize, what to satisfice, and what to practice—does.

So let’s go back to our current political situation, because I’ve been hinting at it since the beginning. I, like many of you, am very concerned about what might happen in the near future and in the slightly-longer-term future. I could very easily spend every evening reading a hundred different articles hoping to find clues that suggest we’ll all be safe, that we don’t have to worry.

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And I did that, for a while, and I had too many irregular days. So I asked myself what needed to change, and I decided that I needed to figure out what actions I could take to help: I could call my representatives (which works), I could make charitable donations that fit within my budget, I could march, and I could continue to show up for the kids I tutor.

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That would be enough. I wouldn’t ask myself every day what I should be doing, because I’d already know—and if something else came up that I could do to help, like getting out the vote for an upcoming election, I’d hear about it on Twitter or Wall of Us or 5Calls.org and I could do it. Beyond that, it’s out of my control. (Once again: there is a difference between priority and control.)

So that’s how I keep my energy up during stressful situations. Physically, there’s sleep and some walking and a bunch of water, but it’s the mental decisions that I think really matter. I focus on what I want and what I can do, my choices and my boundaries, my priorities and my practice.

I’ll end this by noting that today could have been a stressful day. I slept poorly last night because I made the mistake of checking my email right before bed, and saw a work email that I thought about all night long; I got another work email that I needed to answer first thing this morning, which I try not to do; plus I have to work late tonight because a source I want to interview is only available in the evening.

And yet I did my yoga and I ate my oatmeal and I’m feeling fine. I don’t feel anxious about working late because it doesn’t happen often, and I know that if it starts happening every day, I’ll start looking for something I can change. I feel energized, ready, satisfied. I’ll have less free time tonight, but I also won’t check my email before bed, and tomorrow I’ll get to wake up, eat my favorite breakfast, and start my practice over again.

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