We all have those days. We wake up late and having done that, realize that all our plans are shot. That run at 9 AM? Not going to happen, because it’s now 2 PM. And not only that, we instinctively know that everything that’s supposed to happen after 2 PM is now shot as well, To distract ourselves, we fire up YouTube. We manage to become engrossed and our troubles are temporarily forgotten. Then 10 PM rolls around and we haven’t had dinner. Holy shi*t. HOLY SH*T!! WHY DOES THIS ALWAYS HAPPEN TO ME? Now we’re freaking out from a combination of guilt and probably not having eaten anything all day, and because we’re freaking out and hating ourselves, we’re way too agitated to go to bed. Finally, after roundly freaking out for two hours, we go to McD’s for a quick dinner, surf the web some more, then finally get to sleep at 4 AM. Maybe tomorrow will be better, but considering how today ended, probably not gonna happen. The cycle continues.
Despite this, I posit that we really can salvage what’s left of our day, in spite of how badly it has gone thus far, and that the problem should be tackled both philosophically and pragmatically. In this post, I’m going to tackle the philosophical aspects of salvaging bad days. A lot of these ideas are taken from books I’ve read; I’ll cite them at the end if you want to find out more.
Mindsets for Salvaging Bad Days
You Are Not Your Emotions
Imagine you can read someone’s emotional states. Let’s call him Bob. And your only job is to identify his emotions as they emerge.
”Bob is agitated.”
”Bob is afraid.”
”Bob is pensive.”
”Bob is joyful.”
Rmemeber, you’re just a mind reader. You’re not to act on this knowledge; just name the phenomena as though you’re a scientist. And the cool thing is, you can be Bob, observing Bob! Humans are one of the only animals (maybe the only; don’t quote me) capable of something called metacognition, or thinking about thinking. It’s miraculous the way you calm down after you merely observe yourself. Meditation teacher Jeff Warren has a convenient acronym about exactly how to carry this out:
Recognize your emotions as they happen. “Bob feels angry.”
Accept your feelings. Don’t try to push them away or intensify them. Let them happen to you.
Investigate your feelings. What’s it like? Do you feel it in your body? If so, where and how?
Non-identification: Recognize that your feelings are not you and refrain from judging yourself for feeling- or not feeling something.
In short, RAIN.
One of the dangers of identifying and judging ourselves for our emotions is we enter a vicious cycle. Remember a time when you can’t sleep. Or you’re in pain. “It’s 3 AM. Tomorrow’s going to be awful. I knew it. I tried to sleep so early too! What’s wrong with me? ARGH! Great. Now I’m so stressed, I’m definitely not going to fall asleep in the next hour. Why do I always do this?” This is you using your metacognition for evil. You use your awareness of your emotions to insult yourself and rile yourself up even more. Ok. Maybe not evil. But at least it’s no good. Here’s why not judge your emotions:
“Trying to control the emotional self willingly by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or pushing back the water of the Kamo river upstream. Certainly we end up aggravating our agony and feeling unbearable pain because of our failure in manipulating the emotions.”
– Shoma Morita, M.D. (Found in “The Art of Taking Action” by Gregg Krech)
In other words, you have zero control over your emotions. They’re not your fault. It makes no sense to judge yourself. They’re a force of nature. They happen to you. So how about this? When things go wrong, RAIN. Then RAIN some more, until you’re in this trance-like state of calm. Then you can wake up and get productive again.
Embrace Discomfort. Accept Pain.
The idea that half your day is gone, and that you’re probably somewhat at fault is painful. I know. But don’t let that get to you. Don’t try to escape pain or negative emotions. Don’t go on YouTube. Don’t give up. Feel the pain and do it anyway. This is not just for when times are hard, like today. This is for everyday. But especially for today, here’s a tip. You’re in pain. Let yourself be in pain. Do nothing. Do not pick up your phone or your computer. And don’t ask why bad things happen to good people. That’s none of your business for now. Maybe when you’re feeling scholarly. Simply sit and feel the pain. It goes away faster than you think, if you don’t judge it. Then when the pain has passed, read your schedule and pick up where appropriate.
I like to read. I read voraciously, especially on subjects such as philosophy and self help. A common theme I come across can be summarized thus: Life is suffering. There’s no escape from suffering. Embrace discomfort and face suffering with courage. This is not just a Zen Buddhist mantra; this idea is found in books with titles ranging from “The Science of Self Discipline” to “Deep Work” to “Meditations” (by Marcus Aurelius).
Discipline is never easy. At best, it’s like wearing wet socks over a long period of time. You know it’s unpleasant and you don’t prefer it, but you’re so used to it that you don’t necessarily mind so long as it doesn’t get much worse.
– Peter Hollins, “The Science of Self Discipline”
Yes, discipline is worth having. Pain is worth overcoming. Just don’t expect it to be cakewalk.
We’re Always Going To Have Bad Days
I think this serves as a compelling argument for why we should accept pain: It’s always coming. Now, I’m sure I’ve read a lot of philosophy to this effect, that life is suffering and so forth, but the following way of phrasing things is (probably) uniquely mine. It occurred to me after I had one particular bad day and was complaining on some ADHD chatroom: Bad days are always going to happen. Looking back at my own life, I realized that bad days happen quite regularly, almost like clockwork. I can be sure that once a week, I’m going to have a bad day; it used to be once every three days, but I got it down to once a week. That realization made me laugh out loud. I found it quite absurd how upset I’ve gotten every time it happened. Think about it. Film my life. Put it on fast forward. Add a laugh track and watch the same pattern repeat over and over and over ad nauseam. Something unexpected happens. I have a bad day. I get upset. I rage. I rant. I shake my fist at the heavens, sometimes literally. I don’t get any sleep. The next day is bad. Then the next. Then I get better for a few days. Ad infinitem. Come on. Laugh with me. It’s so predictable! It’s funny! It’s tragic! It’s a tragicomedy!
No matter how perfect our system, how disciplined we get, there’s no way we can prevent them from happening from time to time. Reducing their frequency? Doable. Eliminating them? Hah. As ADHDers we’re not the only one with bad days. Everyone has them. Bad days are a force of nature; they happen to everyone, and they’re going to happen again, mark my words. To everyone. Maybe it happens more often to us, but the principle remains the same. Are we going to have a breakdown over something that is definitely going to happen? If I’m the oracle at Delphi and I tell you that once a week, some random stranger will punch you in the face, how upset are you going to get, really, when it happens? Ok. You might be upset for the first couple of times. But since you know it’s going to happen, the more sensible thing is probably to grit your teeth and think: “Great. Here’s the weekly punch. Crap. This hurts. Well, that’s over. Moving on.”
So when we have bad days, it’s not necessary to think: I’m having a bad day. I failed. Okay. Maybe you did. But who doesn’t fail from time to time? Or maybe you didn’t even fail. Maybe you ate something bad, and subsequently you feel queasy, which makes everyone’s ADHD worse. Maybe having a bad day is a statistical certainty and given enough time, it will happen. It’s our weekly punch in the face. It’s not evidence that no effort you make is working, or that you’re not becoming more productive overall due to your efforts. There’s no reason to take this personally. Does this set back your plans some? Sure. Do earthquakes set back your plans as well? Definitely. So treat it like an earthquake. Not your fault, but you’re still responsible for salvaging what you have left and making the best for it.
Here are the books explicitly quoted this post:
”The Art of Taking Action” by Gregg Krech
”The Science of Self Discipline” by Peter Hollins- this is one of my clear favorites. If you read nothing else, read this!
”Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” by Dan Harris (and Jeff Warren)
As for all the books that inspired the ideas in this post, well, there are too many.
In Part 2 we’ll discuss tricks to short circuit the downward spiral caused by our bad days.