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Not feeling like it vs not having enough energy

Hey everyone! Today I want to talk about the difference between feeling like doing something and not having the energy to do it. A lot of people get these two mixed up and it can lead to 2 pretty separate, but related problems: burn-out and procrastination. The way I like to think of it is people who procrastinate always listen when they don’t feel like doing something, so they end up not doing the things that they need to get done, while people who get burnt out don’t listen when they never have the energy to do something. These people have gotten so good at not listening when they don’t feel like it, that they also don’t listen when they actually just don’t have the energy for it, which leads to burnout. In both cases, people aren’t able to distinguish which one of them they’re feeling and act accordingly. So what’s the difference?
When you don’t feel like doing something it means that you have something to do that will be good for you in the long term but in the short term isn’t very stimulating and requires mental or physical energy. One thing that makes this worse is if you’ve been doing something that is very stimulating that doesn’t require hard work. In that case, the transition will be much more difficult since the change of mental state is much more drastic, leading to resistance and you not feeling like doing it
When you don’t have enough energy for something it means that you’ve done either physical or mental work that has drained your energy and you need time to recuperate it since we’re mere mortals and don’t have an unlimited supply. Doing more work would make the situation worse and wouldn’t bring your energy back, since it’s using the same energy source. Continuing to work when you don’t have any energy is what usually leads people to burn out. Some people are forced into this situation by their jobs but many lead themselves to it by not being able to differentiate these two states.
The difference is that you can not feel like studying (or doing something productive) with a full tank of energy, but when you have no energy you also probably don’t feel like it. So “not feeling like it” is a very bad way of gauging which action you should take. It’s also bad to always study even when you don’t feel like it because sometimes you don’t have energy and continuing to study isn’t sustainable. So we need a better way to assess our mental state that takes into account both of these aspects and allows us to make better decisions about how we spend our time.
So how do you tell the difference? First of all, you need to be more in touch with your emotions. Many people think that they know how they feel, but when you pay little to no attention to it, all you have is a vague idea. Try to keep a journal (or use an app) to track your mood throughout the day. Track how much you feel like studying and practice differentiating that from how much energy you have. As time goes on you’ll have a better intuitive sense of it and you won’t need to rely on the journal as much. This will also help give you insights into ways you can improve your mood and energy by learning from things you’ve done in the past. So now that we are better able to identify our energy and mood, what do we do about it?
If you just don’t feel like doing something but have the energy for it then you need to make getting started as easy as possible. You really need to entice yourself to get started, to get the ball rolling, then continuing is easier. If you still don’t feel like studying that’s fine, you don’t want to trick yourself so that in the future you won’t trust the system. It should be so easy (as easy as not doing it if possible) to the point where you’ll think “I really don’t feel like studying but I can’t possibly tell myself that I can’t do xyz.” Once the ball is rolling you can move from this easier action to studying. If this jump is still too much then you can add an extra step in between. Make the first thing you do very easy then move to something slightly more difficult but that still isn’t full-on studying, until you’re at the point where you feel ready. Basically, we are using certain actions to create the “I feel like it” for studying so that when you eventually do start there isn’t a drastic change from high stimulation low effort to high effort low stimulation.
Here’s an example of what I used to do:
  • Watching YouTube
  • Watching YouTube while doing dishes/tidying room
  • Only doing dishes and tidying room
  • Studying
  • Once you’re doing something more productive it’s much more likely that you’ll feel like studying
This has the extra benefit of leading to a cleaner environment, which is more conducive to feeling productive.
One extra thing to note. You should be very specific about what you’re going to do when you eventually start. Being vague makes it much more daunting and increases the distance you have to cover in order to feel ready to start studying. If you think that you’ve made a plan and that you’re specific enough, you probably need to be more specific than that. For example, “study biology” is way too broad. “Start topic 2” is what most people would write but that’s still probably too broad. I would write down “start reading chapter 2 of the textbook”. There are many ways you can start topic 2, and leaving that up to your future self to decide will make it less likely that you’ll actually do it. One extra step you can take to help your future self is to open up the textbook to the page you need so that it’s ready to go.
It might seem like you’re treating yourself like a delicate little flower but sometimes that’s what you need to do to start something that you really don’t want to do. If it works then it doesn’t matter how it sounds. All the other things you’ve been trying haven’t worked if you’re still having issues with procrastination, so give it a try and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, that’s fine you can keep trying new things, reflecting, and learning from previous experience. You’ll get there eventually!
I would go into what to do when you study even if you don’t have energy but this newsletter is already pretty long and I don’t think as many people have issues with that. So give it a go and let me know how it’s worked for you. See you next week.

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Hi Everyone, I'm Shalev a 3rd year medical student studying in Italy. This is my email newsletter, every Friday I'll send out an email with a new idea I had, something I learned, or something I found interesting. I'd love to hear back from you if you have any thoughts about something I wrote.

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