How to Break Out of the Exhaustion-Unhealthy Habits Doom Cycle

Some people probably spent the pandemic using the extra time at home to get into CrossFit or learn how to cook healthy vegan meals. But most of us–especially those with packed schedules like business owners–barely managed to hold onto our sanity by our fingernails. After we finally wrestled the kids into bed, we either squeezed in some extra work or collapsed on the couch to drink wine and binge-watch Bridgerton.

After two years of that, unsurprisingly, plenty of people are thoroughly and completely exhausted. The solution to getting back to fitness isn’t a mystery: Move more and, in Michael Pollan’s immortal phrase, “eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”

Are you caught in the exhaustion-unhealthy habits doom cycle?

But while the essentials of building a healthy lifestyle that gives you the energy to build your business and enjoy your life are straightforward, implementing them when you’re exhausted isn’t. You know you need to exercise, but when you’re bone tired that’s the last thing you want to do. Then not exercising leaves you with even less energy. The same goes with meditation, meal planning, or any other healthy habit. You need to do it to be less tired but you’re too tired to get started.

How do you break out of this exhaustion-unhealthy lifestyle doom loop?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders has suggestions. “As a time management coach, many of the individuals who come to me are already fatigued — sometimes to the point of burnout. They want to change but don’t know how to get started. So we need to find a path to recovery that honors their current state but doesn’t leave them there,” she wrote recently on HBR.

Sound familiar. Thankfully, Grace Saunders insists escape from this vicious cycle is possible if you follow four simple steps.

1. Start with sleep.

This makes sense. It shouldn’t take much of your very limited willpower to convince yourself to rest (though it may demand wrestling with your anxiety or schedule), and feeling more rested will help you tackle all your other goals.

Grace Saunders has a quite specific suggestion for how to approach chipping away at your sleep deficit. “Start with aiming for an earlier bedtime based on how many hours of sleep you need to be rested. If that’s eight hours a night and you need to get up at 7 am, that means lights out at 11 pm,” she says. Set an alarm for 30 or 45 minutes before your appointed bedtime if you need to.

“Once you begin to get the hang of heading to bed earlier, then start to work on your pre-bedtime routine so that once you’re in bed, you can actually fall asleep,” she continues. Here at we’ve seen massive interest over the past year in anything to do with better sleep, so if you’re struggling with sleep know both you’re not alone and there is tons of great advice out there to help you sleep faster, better, and more restfully.

Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, who wrote a whole book about how to develop a healthier and more sustainable relationship with remote work, agree with Grace Saunders that even though it might feel there are a million other things you need to work on in your life , you shouldn’t feel guilty about starting with sleep.

“When you first start trying to put the guardrails on a flexible, post-pandemic schedule, you still might want to spend your newly protected time napping or ambiently watching sports. That’s totally normal and expected: you will essentially be in recovery, not just from years of overwork, but from the accumulated, consolidated stress of the pandemic. But just because you’ve lost sight of who you are, and what you like–outside of child care and Netflix–doesn’t mean those things have disappeared altogether,” they wrote recently in The Atlantic. “Be patient and gentle with yourself.”

So start with sleep and don’t feel lazy. Rest is not a waste of time. This section is the longest in the article for good reason — rest is the foundation and prerequisite for everything else in your life.

2. Next up: nutrition.

Once you start to get adequate rest, Grace Saunders believes it’s time to move on to thinking about how you fuel your body.

“Some of my coaching clients get so engrossed in their work or have so many back-to-back meetings that they don’t feel like they have time to eat — or they simply forget to! buy some very simple nutrition options like bars or protein shakes that you always keep at your desk.

Or maybe your issue was you were too drained at the end of the day to deal with the planning and chopping of healthy meal prep. More sleep should have helped with that, too. Whatever your particular nutrition shortcomings, this is the stage to set up practical systems to deal with them.

3. Get moving.

After you’re sleeping and eating like a normal human again, and not before, is the time to start thinking about exercise. Working out might feel like an energy suck when you’re staring bleary-eyed at your gym shoes, but Grace Saunders reminds readers, “Exercise ultimately gives you more energy throughout the day instead of depleting it.” It also has a host of scientifically validated mental health benefits including improved focus and mood.

So set a reasonable goal such as 25 minutes of getting your heart pumping in whatever way that suits your fitness level and personality three times a week and actually stick those times in your calendar. “If you find yourself struggling with motivation, find support through working out with friends, going to a class, or hiring a trainer. You can borrow the energy and motivation from others when you’re feeling exhausted,” Grace Saunders adds.

4. Go beyond the big three.

Sleep, nutrition, and exercise might be the three main pillars of fitness, but you shouldn’t stop there. To get and stay out of your rut, you need to go beyond the bare minimum. Grace Saunders, being a practical type, suggests you pick things to improve, such as better managing your email or calendar, and tackle them one by one in turn.

Peterson and Warzel focus on fun instead. Remember fun? You’re entitled to it as a human being, but enjoying your life and your hobbies helps you maintain your mental health and accomplish more, too.

“When the haze of burnout begins to clear, fight the urge to feel productive and channel that into beginning to explore your own pleasures,” they suggest. That might mean more skiing, or sailing, or horseback riding, or learning to play the guitar. But whatever it is you love to do, do that, too, because nothing will protect you better from falling back into the exhaustion-unhealthy habits doom cycle quite as much as joy.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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