zen habits : breathe

The Downward & Upward Spiral of Health & Productivity

By Leo Babauta

The bad news about health and productivity habits is that if you start to slip up, things can slowly spiral downward.

If you are tired, you can’t focus on your important work, you don’t make time for exercise or cooking healthy food, so you grab some fast food, you veg out in front of the TV. This doesn’t lead to better energy the next day, but it does lead you to feel worse and worse about yourself.

When you feel worse about yourself, you want to comfort yourself with more unhealthy food. You don’t feel motivated to exercise or be productive.

Things spiral downward, until you feel hopeless and out of control.

The good news about these habits is that they can also spiral upward.

If you take a positive step, like going for a walk, you feel pretty good about it. That gives you the inspiration to eat a healthy meal. Now you’re cranking out emails and important tasks. You’re motivated to take care of yourself and turn your life around, so you start paying attention to sleep. You start flossing. You try some meditation. You feel great!

Things start to spiral upward, and you feel like you’re capable of change.

I’ve experienced both kinds of spirals myself, and have seen both kinds in so many people. The upward spiral makes you feel amazing, and changes your entire life. I recommend that one.

Turn Your Spiral Upward

Here’s the key: ask yourself which spiral you’re on right now.

Are you on the upward spiral? Keep going! Make one small change at a time, continue to help yourself feel better and better, work on your habit and mindfulness skills, and you’ll only get better at this over time.

Are you on the downward spiral? Ah, well, it’s good to recognize that. And it’s important to remember that you can turn it around. I turned my spiral upward, and many others have too. You can do this.

How do you turn your spiral upward? Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Take just one small step. Go for a short walk and clear your head. Start taking short walks every day, and make time for them. See how you feel, and if it makes you feel better, celebrate!
  2. Keep taking tiny steps. You don’t need to change your entire life. You just want to start moving in the right direction. One little step at a time. It can just be the same kind of step (just keep drinking water for a couple weeks, just keep doing 2-minute meditations in the morning for a couple weeks). But the important thing is to keep doing them.
  3. Clear up space and energy. This won’t work if you overload yourself, so try to move in a direction that gives you more time and energy. For example, if you slowly cut out time-wasters and instead go for a walk when you’re feeling anxious, you’ll have more time in the day to get things done or exercise or cook. If you start going to sleep earlier and cutting out devices before you sleep, you will feel more rested the next day. This helps you feel better for more small steps.
  4. Focus on learning and skill improvement. As you take these steps, you’re not just making progress towards a health or productivity goal … you’re developing habit skills. You’re learning about how your mind and body work. You’re learning about mindfulness and motivation and how your environment can be changed to help you function better. Keep learning, keep getting better, no matter what your progress is.
  5. Keep on the path, even if you stumble. Things will not go perfectly. You’ll hit some bumps, and many people are tempted to give up, to let go of their upward spiral. This can lead to another downward spiral. Instead, learn the skill of getting back on the path, taking another small step, and correcting course.

So a downward spiral can be turned around, if you can find the tiniest motivation to take the smallest step. Your motivation might be simply that you don’t want to keep going down this downward spiral — you can visualize where your life will end up if you don’t move in a different direction, and you don’t want that for yourself.

It can be turned around, with one small step, but you have to want it. And you have to take that step.


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