It’s no secret feeling drained has become the status quo, one that leaves us overexerting ourselves just to get through the necessities of the day. This leads us to lean on any energy booster we can think of to help us make it through. However, we also should suss out the energy sappers lurking in our daily habits.
Think of your energy as water in a cup that has a hole in the bottom. There are two ways to ensure the cup always contains enough water: pour more water into it or make the hole smaller.
“Finding ways to boost your energy is analogous to filling the cup and focusing on ways to make tasks less draining to making the hole smaller,” Tyson Lippe, a psychiatrist at Heading Health in Austin, Texas, told HuffPost. “Both are equally important, yet we often underestimate what can drain our stamina.”
So continue doing what’s necessary to boost your energy (eating healthier, exercising, getting enough sleep, setting boundaries) — and make sure that process includes finding and quashing the sneaky energy saboteurs on your plate. To get you started, here are 12 easily overlooked things that can drain your energy (and how to turn things around):
Watching emotionally charged television shows
One of the ways binge-watching emotionally charged TV shows can lead to mental exhaustion is through trait identification, which refers to the process of temporarily imagining yourself experiencing the same feelings and events of a specific character.
“The experience allows individuals to perceive the world differently and acquire and gain access to various emotional capacities they were formerly unable to experience,” said Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers in California.
In excess, however, sustained high-intensity emotions can result in a state of heightened arousal and overstimulation. “It then takes additional mental effort to dampen these signals with emotional regulation strategies,” Lippe said.
This is the case for both positive and negative emotions, he added, as they activate similar pathways in the brain, ultimately leading to mental fatigue, difficulty focusing and poor energy levels.
The fix: Be mindful about the entertainment you consume. Take note of how it makes you feel and impacts you throughout the following hours and days. “You may find that some themes are particularly triggering and best avoided,” Lippe said.
Other strategies might include setting a weekly time limit for emotionally charged viewing, consuming neutrally toned shows to balance the scales or restricting intense TV shows to days off, in order to control the cumulative emotional load sustained on any given day.
Waiting too long between meals
The body scores energy from the foods we eat, and relies on a steady supply of it. “Each macronutrient – protein, carbs and fat – provides energy, but carbs are the body’s primary and preferred fuel source,” Caroline Lacey, registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Rerooted, told HuffPost.
Some parts of the body, such as the brain, can only use carbs (in the form of glucose) for energy. “The body can store some carbs in the liver for later use, which acts as an energy reserve for the body to use when blood sugar levels are low, such as between meals,” Lacey said. “But there’s a limit to the amount that can be stored, and eventually, the supply becomes depleted.”
This backup energy supply only lasts about three to six hours, so going too long without food sets off biological and psychological mechanisms that turn on our eating drive – usually, this can lead to strong cravings for processed carbs, which are foods with a high-glycemic load.
“As we eat more carbs, especially simple ones, our insulin levels climb,” Uma Naidoo, nutritional psychologist and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food,” told HuffPost. “Once our insulin levels peak after eating, our blood sugar can subsequently crash and lead to a distinct feeling of being physically drained.”
The fix: In general, the recommendation is to go no longer than five waking hours without eating, “but this is highly individualised and dependent on a variety of factors,” Lacey said. “Some people may need to eat more frequently and may benefit from going no longer than three to four hours without eating.”
The best way to counter your eating schedule being thrown off is to always have a shelf-stable snack on hand (in your purse, briefcase, gym bag, car, desk or locker) that doesn’t require refrigeration. Think: protein bars, snack-sized bags of trail mix, mixed nuts or squeezable peanut butter packets.
“You want something that will hold you over until you can eat your next meal, but not something so large and filling that you’re not hungry at mealtime,” Lacey said.
Working at a messy desk
Working in a cluttered environment may increase distractibility and inattentiveness. The result? Tasks take longer to complete, requiring you to use up more mental focus and energy over time.
The fix: Maintaining a structured and planned environment, where everything you need is in its place, can help reduce this particular energy drain.
“I advise individuals to spend 10-15 minutes each day tidying up their work area while listening to calming music,” Magavi said. “This can create a positive pattern of behaviour.”
Planning too far in advance
Planning is helpful up to a point. “By scheduling in advance, you ensure you’re allocating time to a task without forgetting or double-booking yourself,” Lippe said. “But if done in excess, it can leave you with too little flexibility and force you to live in the future instead of the present.”
Being constantly exposed to a full calendar of obligations can cause an uptick in anticipatory anxiety and adversely affect working memory and processing speed.
“This can impede your ability to remain mindful and efficiently complete tasks in the moment,” Magavi said, resulting in poor motivation and mental exhaustion.
The fix: Consider planning out the mandatory (work deadlines, meetings and appointments, family-related activities), then leave the remaining pockets of time as commitment-free as possible.
“Consistently leaving time open for hobbies, relaxation and nothing at all provides a sense of freedom and control for yourself,” Lippe said.
Setting limits with how far in advance certain things are planned out can be helpful too, allowing for more spontaneity and flexibility.
Having too many tabs open
Not only are you overwhelming your laptop’s battery by having 25 tabs open, you’re putting your brain into overdrive too.
“Bouncing from tab to tab gives your ego the misconception you’re getting an incredible amount of work done,” said Rana Mafee, chief neurologist at Case Integrative Health in Chicago. “In reality, you’re not fully processing anything you’re trying to efficiently consume.” Cue mental fatigue.
The fix: Instead of gradually sucking up your mental energy by leaving an ungodly number of tabs open, try asking yourself every hour or so: What do I actually need in front of me right now? What purpose is this tab serving me?
“Any tab that doesn’t relate to what you’re working on in the moment can either be bookmarked for when it does or exited to save your brain,” Mafee said.
Taking calls right away
“Phone calls can be exhausting,” Mafee said. “Your nervous system has to not only process a task change at the flip of a switch, but try to process the conversation you’re having without facial cues and body language, forcing your brain to work overtime.”
To top it off, once the call is finished, it can take you over 20 minutes to fully regain your focus.
The fix: Before hitting that green “accept” button, take a few seconds to check in with yourself and ask: Is this really a good place to stop? Do I legit have the capacity for this particular conversation right now?
“A simple habit to implement might be to ask colleagues and loved ones to shoot you a text first to see if you have the capacity for a random call,” Mafee said. “That way you can stop feeling like you have to create availability in an already busy moment.”
For those calls you don’t have the bandwidth for in the moment, blocking a set amount of time each day to tackle unexpected phone calls can alleviate the pressure and keep you on task.
Leaving off in the wrong spot
Thanks to things like time constraints and incessant interruptions, it’s not uncommon to find yourself setting aside half-completed tasks in order to deal with something urgent that’s come up or has to take priority.
A small piece of your attention is left with the unfinished task, known as attention residue.
“When you experience attention residue, your brain is working overtime by thinking about the task you’re now on, as well as ruminating about the previous task you had to leave unfinished,” Mafee said.
The more often this happens, the harder your brain has to work to stay focused, chipping away at your energy reserves in the process.
The fix: No day will ever be totally free of interruptions, but there are a few easy tricks that can help. “The easiest one is to modify the notification settings on your computer and phone and then manually check for messages when it’s truly best for you to do so,” Mafee said.
Another is to overestimate the time it will take you to finish something – if interruptions do happen during the task, you’ll stand a better chance of getting to finish it anyway before having to move on to the next one.
And if you do have to stop work on a task prematurely, you can decrease the amount of attention residue by writing down the specifics of what’s left to finish. “This can help decrease rumination and allow you to clear your mind,” Magavi said.
“Poor posture can deplete your energy levels by putting more pressure on your body’s muscles, joints and ligaments,” said Naueen Safdar, medical director at EHE Health. “Your body has to use more energy to compensate, leading to fatigue.”
The fix: If maintaining good posture isn’t your forte, using various posture-correcting products – an ergonomic office chair or cushion, a posture-correcting brace or RockTape – can help you get into the habit by offering your body gentle reminders, Safdar said.
Adding posture-correcting exercise moves to your workouts that straighten your shoulders and strengthen your core are also paramount to the de-slouching process.
Taking shallow breaths
Even though breathing is thought of as an unconscious activity, we tend to breathe incorrectly when we have a lot on our mind.
“Shallow breathing reduces the amount of oxygen the body takes in and the amount that can be transported in the blood to our organs and cells for optimal function,” Naidoo said. (It can also trigger pathways in the brain that exacerbate anxiety and trigger fatigue, Magavi said.)
The fix: Any time you notice yourself feeling particularly tense or stressed, use that as your cue to take several deep breaths to combat shallow breathing.
Deliberately penciling in diaphragmatic breathing º say, during work breaks or at the beginning and end of the day – can keep your penchant for shallow breathing in check while balancing out your nervous system and increasing your odds of better energy.
Diaphragmatic breathing can be performed by placing one hand on the upper chest and the other right below the rib cage.
“Take deep breaths through your nose so your abdomen moves toward your hand and your chest remains still,” Magavi said. “Then exhale through pursed lips as you tighten your stomach muscles and allow them to fall inward.”
Letting little tasks pile up
Texting someone back. Changing a lightbulb. Booking your pet’s wellness visit. The cumulative mental load of unintentionally stockpiling tiny tasks like these can be distracting and mentally draining.
“Even manageable duties start to feel overwhelming and suffocating due to their sheer number,” Lippe said. “The constant and unsolicited ‘I should do task X’ thoughts also creates a sense of shame and buildup of anticipatory anxiety.”
The fix: Ideally, any task that takes less than five minutes should be done right away, as it’s the most energy-efficient option — but when this isn’t practical, don’t rely on memory.
“Immediately write it down on a to-do list,” Lippe said. “This strategy provides peace of mind and reassurance that it will be dealt with eventually.”
Allocating 30 to 60 minutes each week to tick off the accumulated small tasks helps compartmentalise the stress — and fatigue — associated with a never-ending to-do list.
“It transforms a negative feedback loop of shame into a positive one of accomplishment and productivity, converting a draining experience into an energising one,” Lippe said.
Not dimming the lights at night
Exposure to bright lights at night signals it’s still daytime to the brain. “This inhibits the brain’s release of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone,” Lippe said. “This can disturb the sleep-wake cycle and lead to insomnia, poor sleep quality and fatigue.”
The fix: As the sun sets, use the opportunity to do your circadian rhythm a solid and dim your lights or turn them off — or consider investing in smart bulbs that automatically dim your home at specified times.
“Research shows exposure to red light, rather than blue light, has less of a negative impact on our sleep-wake cycle,” Lippe said. “It’s worth configuring your devices to automatically shift into night mode, which uses warmer colours to emulate the benefits of red light.”
Not tweaking advice to suit your personality or lifestyle
Using another person’s advice can help provide a framework to build on, but if you don’t personalise recommendations, you run the risk of falling short of your goals.
“This wastes time as well as energy, and can cause energy-sapping emotions such as frustration, disappointment and resentment,” Lippe said.
The fix: When you’re given or are researching advice, it’s important to critically appraise it. “Consider how applicable it is to your specific context and what may differ,” Lippe said.
For example, the advice that it’s not good for your health to work in bed doesn’t take into account that for people with a chronic illness, chronic pain or severe anxiety, working in bed is often a necessity – and forcing yourself to take this advice as is can drain your energy even faster than customising (or discarding) it to suit your situation.
“If you want similar results as somebody else, always remember that how you get there can be different,” Lippe said. “Prior to taking any guidance, define your starting point and where you want to be.”
Once you decide to move forward, experiment with how you apply the advice and adjust course as you go along.
“Regularly evaluating the outcome mid-process is important,” Lippe said, as is recording your results. “It’s easier to adjust based on a written account, rather than relying on memory alone.”