Do you ever have days or weeks where you just don’t feel like doing anything? You know there are activities or tasks you should be doing, but you just cannot find the energy to take any action towards them. And the more you keep from taking action, the more you feel stuck and trapped in a negative emotion. Household chores or routine tasks start to feel overwhelming and you start to stubbornly resist doing anything. If this sounds familiar to you, you may have experienced the Lethargy Cycle.
A couple of weeks ago I had a very busy week including travel for work. On Saturday morning, I woke up and decided that I was not going to do anything that day. I had no energy and was tired and wanted a day of rest. I committed to this all day– laying in bed scrolling through my phone, sitting on the couch watching some TV, a little bit of reading. My hope was that at the end of this I would feel energized and refreshed. Instead, I felt worse. My body felt tired and I felt bored, unmotivated, and filled with negative thoughts.
On Sunday, I thought I would feel refreshed enough to jump back into my normal routine, but instead, I woke up in the same mood of heaviness. My normal routine of Sundays – going to the grocery, gym, meal prep, etc. all felt overwhelming. I felt completely cut off from the person who was used to doing those things on a regular basis with ease. This feeling then made me start to feel panicked – what was wrong with me? Why don’t I feel like doing anything? Where was the spark that usually got me going? Would it ever come back?
These fears then made me continue to feel worse and I continued to stay in that paralyzed mode where action felt impossible.
Reflecting back now, my response seems extreme. Of course, a single off day does not mean that I will never be able to feel energized again, but in the moment those thoughts felt real and scary to me. One thing that has helped me break out of these moments when I don’t feel like doing anything is learning about the Lethargy Cycle.
Why you don’t feel like doing anything
I’ve seen the Lethargy Cycle referenced by a couple of different people, but the clearest description came from Dr. Burns book on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, “Feeling Good”:
“The Lethargy Cycle. Your self-defeating negative thoughts make you feel miserable. Your painful emotions, in turn, convince you that your distorted, pessimistic thoughts are actually valid. Similarly, self-defeating thoughts and actions reinforce each other in a circular manner. The unpleasant consequences of do-nothingism make your problems even worse”.
In my example above, this cycle looks something like this:
Self-Defeating Thought: I don’t feel like doing anything today–>
Self-Defeating Action: Lay in bed, scroll on social media–>
Self-Defeating Thought: There’s nothing interesting on social media–>
Self-Defeating Emotion: Feeling bored–>
Self-Defeating Thought: This is so lame, I should be doing something more interesting–>
Self-Defeating Action: Continue laying in bed–>
Self-Defeating thought: I can’t even think of anything more interesting today, what is wrong with me? Why don’t I feel like doing anything?–>
Self-Defeating Emotion: Overwhelmed
And on and on.
Ultimately as this continues, I sink deeper and deeper into a state of lethargy where motivation starts to feel impossible to find and I really don’t feel like doing anything at all. The results of this start to prove the initial thoughts that I was having – there’s nothing interesting, I can’t think anything to do, I’m so lame, etc.
I used to think that this was just an occasional mood that was out of my control. Or that these moments represented burnout, which was an inevitable consequence of working too hard without rest. But realizing that this was a pattern that happened to other people as well, has helped me to not beat myself up when I don’t feel like doing anything and instead attempt to break out of the lethargy cycle.
How to break out of the Lethargy Cycle
The most important step is recognizing that it is happening. This doesn’t have to mean a deep analysis of the cycle like I outlined above. This can be reflecting on this simple question when you don’t feel like doing anything:
What action am I currently taking and is it making me feel better or worse?
I typically think that whatever action I’m doing is motivated by my feelings. So reversing this to evaluate what feelings my action is causing can help me to look at the situation more objectively. If I can see that the current action is not helping me to feel better, then I can start to make some changes to the actions I am taking.
These changes do not have to be extreme. Dr. Burns says that virtually “any meaningful activity has a chance of brightening your mood”, which I have found to be true in my life. Doing truly just about anything active interrupts the cycle, even if just momentarily, which can help you start to get unstuck. Here are some of the biggest obstacles to action and strategies to address them:
- Lack of Motivation
- Strategies to try:
- Set an alarm– just take 20 minutes to do something and you can always return to bed afterward.
- Change of environment– sometimes just moving from the bed to the couch can shake things up enough to help you start changing your thoughts.
- Movement – something like going to the gym is usually too big of a hurdle to overcome at this first moment of taking action. Keep this very simple instead, go on a very short walk or just doing a couple of stretches.
- Strategies to try:
- Not knowing what to do
- Strategies to try
- Setting up systems– this can be hard to address in the moment, but you can prepare for these moments by setting up systems that essentially tell you what to do, so you don’t get stuck in decision-making mode. This helps me in particular at the office. If I’ve already scheduled action items I’m going to do on a particular day, I can just take action and do them. This usually will help me to get out of this cycle.
- Create a list- I have a list of activities that make me in a better mood (yoga, playing piano, singing, watching certain videos, etc.) that I can reference when I don’t feel like doing anything. When you are stuck in the lethargy cycle, these activities can be hard to think of in the moment, so having a list to reference can be helpful. If you don’t have this in advance, look through old journals and photos and note any activities you’ve done in the past that you have enjoyed. Or ask a couple of friends for some suggestions. This article has some additional ideas for some small actions to take.
- Trial and error– Not everything is going to work for you all the time and that is okay. Approach this with curiosity and ask yourself “what sounds interesting to me right now”? Then give it a try and see if it is helping your mood. If not, that is totally okay and you can drop it and move onto something else. You can’t fail at this, and experimentation is part of the process.
- Strategies to try
- Strategies to try:
- Baby steps– Break down any activities or projects you want to work on into very small steps. So if it is the weekend and I want to work on meal prep for the week, I will start just by looking at my schedule for the upcoming week. If I’m on a roll from there, I can then start researching some recipes, making a list, etc.
- Anti-procrastination sheet– I describe this exercise in full in this article. The key component is predicting how difficult and how pleasurable an activity will be before starting. Then afterward, you review again how difficult and pleasurable the activity was in reality. I often find that I overpredict the level of difficulty and underpredict the level of pleasure I will get from completing this. Seeing that many tasks are easier in reality than they are in my head helps me to feel less overwhelmed when taking on the next project.
- Strategies to try:
The Lethargy Cycle can feel extremely painful. It helps me to know that I am not alone in experiencing it and it is a normal thing that happens sometimes in life. If you don’t feel like doing anything and are experiencing the lethargy cycle, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself. The most important thing is to take some meaningful action, no matter how small.