You know the feeling.
You're stressed, worried, and overwhelmed. It doesn't make sense, because just a short while ago, everything was going well.
Well, perhaps not everything.
It's been a gradual slide of sorts, but now you're feeling down. It's hard to focus. Work is difficult. Your energy is low, and you just can't bring the same dedication to your family and friends.
You'd like to stop feeling low, but it's impossible to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.
Instead, you just succumb to the discouragement. It'll fade eventually. It always does.
But what you may not realize is that there's a simple way to improve your mood.
It boils down to this:
You need to know what brings you down in the first place. Once you understand that, you can improve your mood before it conquers your life.
In this article, you'll learn how to pinpoint what brings you down—and how to develop solutions so you can feel on top of the world.
My lifelong, relentless depressive mood
For most of my life, I've struggled with times when I don't feel my best.
To me, it was just normal. Nothing noteworthy or even worth considering as anything.
But every once in a while, I'd hit a slump where I felt awful. I'd usually reel for a week or two, then gradually pick myself back up and get back to life as normal.
I never understood the mechanisms behind it, or why I recovered when I did.
I did find some clues along the way. Once I started feeling better, I knew that exercise would help.
If my diet was comprised just of packaged, unhealthy food I felt miserable.
But I wasn't sure how to use that knowledge for my own good until I read a book that changed my life.
Hospitals, infections, and why checklists work
Hospitals have a major problem.
One of the biggest risk factors during any surgery isn't the surgery itself, but infections and complications that arise after the surgery.
But there's a secret behind the massive fatalities and extended hospital stays: a huge proportion of that risk is 100% preventable. The infection that kills your loved one could have been prevented—if the doctor had followed basic medical procedures.
It was a problem world-renown surgeon Atul Gawande was well aware of.
The complexity of the medical field has led to tremendous innovation, but also added layers of detail. In the face of such complexity, it's easy to forget a simple procedure—that ends up costing the patient her life.
Gawande stumbled upon a simple solution: a checklist. As he writes in his book The Checklist Manifesto, these simple devices have the power to save lives.
Working with the World Health Organzation (WHO), Gawande created a simple surgery safety checklist.
There was nothing groundbreaking about the document—everyone in an operating theatre knows to check for patient allergies and ensure sterile equipment.
But having it in writing made an ambigious list of terms into something concrete that the team reviewed before anesthesia, before incision, and after the procedure.
The results were nothing short of breathtaking. The WHO analysis of the checklist summarized:
The studies were undertaken in hospitals in each of the six WHO regions. Analysis shows that the rate of major complications following surgery fell from 11% in the baseline period to 7% after introduction of the checklist, a reduction of one third. Inpatient deaths following major operations fell by more than 40% (from 1.5% to 0.8%).
Reading Gawande's book gave me new perspective on the inner workings of our psychology. Sometimes we uncover the precise solution to a problem, but fail to correctly implement it despite—or even because—of our knowledge.
I didn't think to personally apply Gawande's findings for over a year.
But when I did, the results spoke for themselves.
The checklist I created, and the acronym that helped me
After getting frustrated with my constantly-fluctuating mood, I decided to figure out what factors controlled it.
In a spurt of inspiration, I listed the five pieces that I felt most impacted me: working out, eating right, staying organized, getting things done, and getting time to sleep and recharge.
It was a great start for a checklist, but I went a step further.
Since I wouldn't have the WHO doctor's luxury of a checklist tacked to the wall at all times, I decided to make the list easy to remember.
I broke it down into a simple five-part acronym: Productivity, rest, organization, nutrition, and exercise.
I called it PRONE, and I still use it to measure the controlling factors in my day-to-day mood.
The life-changing results of PRONE
I'm reluctant to write this article because I'm not perfect.
So instead of elaborating on the wonderous changes PRONE has brought about in my life, I'll explain the most recent instance I needed it.
As I write this, I'm fewer than 48 hours removed from a near melt-down. Things didn't go as planned. Work projects ran into overtime, then over-overtime. I didn't get enough sleep. My mood declined, and it started to affect my friends and family. I went through the worst period in my life in certain relationships. I literally stopped talking to someone.
But now, things are back on track. Because of PRONE.
Read that list again, and what do you notice?
I didn't get enough sleep.
That was the problem. It wasn't that my relationships started falling apart, or I suddenly became a bitter and enraged individual.
Not at all.
I just didn't get enough sleep.
And as soon as I realized it, I decided to catch up on my sleeping.
I took a five-hour nap. I went to bed early three nights in a row. I slept in twice.
And now, life is much better. It's back to normal. And I can breathe again.
All because of a simple 5-part checklist that I think to myself almost every single day.
PRONE has truly changed my life, but it isn't for everyone. At least, not in its current version. If you want to use it, you need to customize it in a way that works for you. Here's how.
How to create your own
If you're ready to create your own, it's a simple process with just five steps.
To devise a truly effective checklist, you need to base it on data that you already have.
If you've been keeping track of factors that effect you for a while, you can pretty simply create a list off the top of your head like I did.
But if this is a new process for you, I'd recommend starting with tracking some basic metrics.
What you want to track is up to you, though I'll give some areas to look for in a minute.
The simplest solution is using a smartphone app. There are lots of these that work great for the different goals you might have set.
Once you have some data, it's time to carefully review what's important. Not everything counts. There are a few criterion you're looking for.
- Cause over cure. Lots of things might make you feel better, but only a few things will make you feel bad if you don't do them. The goal is prevention—not treatment. I love listening to jazz, but if I go months without it, I'm fine.
- Deliberate choices. If it's something you do every day anyways, don't include it. Seeing other people is important to me, but with roommates, scheduled accountabilty calls, and my fiancée, I'm in communication with people at least every day. Even though this is a factor, it isn't something I need to remember in my present situation.
- Things that are healthy. Everything on your list should be a positive factor in the long and short term. If your checklist is SWAT—speed, weed, alcohol, and tobacco—you're doing it wrong.
- Things you can control. If you have a piece like "don't get stressed," you're not going to succeed. Make sure everything is in your control.
Make sure each item is concrete. Understand exactly what factor affects you, and have a specific quantity and timeframe.
For example, I can go weeks without organization, but only a day without enough sleep.
I know that I need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. I know what an organized computer looks like. You need to know these things to truly understand how to improve them.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the keyes to my success was making each of my points memorable.
You have two options for that:
- Acronyms. PRONE is an example of an acronym. Switch around the phrasing and order until you find one that works.
- Mnemonics. In music class, you might have learned "every good boy does fine" to remember the names of the note lines (EGBDF). If you can't find a snappy acronym, use this instead.
4. Have a complete solution and a bite-sized fix
At the end of the day, having a life-changing checklist might not be a complete overhaul of your life. You can include solutions that are more difficult, but you need to have a few that are super-simple and only take a short bit of time.
Solutions only work if you take action on them, so make them as easy as possible.
Fitness is a great example.
You might get a huge thrill from running a 5K or lifting weights for an hour. That can be a great benefit for you. As the American College of Sports Medicine states, a "physically active lifestyle" improves well-being in a huge variety of ways.
This is great, but a lifestyle change is hardly a quick fix. In the middle of an intense series of days with dozens of other projects, you might not have time.
But if we dig into the research a bit more, we find that just a small measure can improve things. Research in The Journal of Behavioral Medicine showed that even a 10-minute walk can improve mood.
In the first ten minutes, you get a huge boost in mood and energy. Things continue to improve after those first 10 minutes, but the gains become more and more marginal.
But it turns out that the effectiveness of a quick fix isn't applicable to just fitness. For every item on your list, create a complete solution and a quick fix.
Here are mine:
- Productivity—putting in a full work day/getting one task done
- Rest—getting 7-9 hours of sleep/taking a 30-minute nap
- Organization—sorting all my to-dos and notes/clearing out my spam emails
- Nutrition—eating plant-based homemade food/eating one serving of vegetables
- Exercise—riding my bike to the gym to lift weights/taking a 10-minute walk
This allows me to realign myself to my PRONE priorities within the hour.
Of course, if things are massively off (as they were a few days ago), these won't solve the problem. I can't fix a week of sleep deprivation with a nap. But it's a start.
What to look for
While I found the PRONE attributes to be most important to me, yours may be competely different.
There are a number of factors that have a direct impact on our happiness. I've included those factors below. Note that not all of them may be important to you, and you might have others that aren't even on this list.
But the key is to look for things that become missing when you feel low.
Numerous studies have shown the effects of sleep.
But my favorite is probably the research conducted by Roger Ratcliff and Hans Van Dongen, which showed that sleep deprivation reduces our cognitive abilities.
Researchers kept participants in the lab for six days and seven nights, and divided participants into groups—I call them the "lucky" and "unlucky" groups.
Both groups took a cognitive abilities test, got 10 hours in bed the first two nights, and took the test again.
But this is where things got tricky. The unlucky group started 62 hours of continuous wakefulness, meaning they didn't sleep for three days (and got testing during that time as well). Then for the last two nights, they got another 10 hours of sleep.
The results were staggering, the sleep-deprived group scored horrible on the cognitive test.
But it's worth noting that just two nights of sleep—half of what they should have gotten to make up for the sleep debt—ended up being enough for their complete recovery.
But it isn't just cognitive function (though that's plenty reason for me). Research published in the journal Sleep showed that partial sleep deprivation is a more likely indicator of mood than other factors.
And another recent study on sleep and mood showed that the two were directly related in the interns analyzed.
When examining your mood, look for patterns of sleep deprivation.
Rest and meditation
Beyond sleep, simple downtime and relaxation (including meditation) can impact you as well.
Research published in Nursing Research (the results were intended to help nurses manage the stress of the job, but are applicable to anyone), showed that just 10 minutes of meditation can improve mood significantly.
A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that even just a short period of resting improves mood in patients with major depressive disorder.
I also know from experience that if you're an introvert, you'll benefit a lot from a period of rest away from the world. If you find yourself in a slump after sacrificing your quiet reading time too many days in a row, make note.
The link between poor mood and poor nutrition is well documented. According to research published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, this may include how you eat, such as "poor appetite, skipping meals, and a dominant desire for sweet foods."
There are a few factors at play here, and it's worth spending a minute to examine each one.
- Calories. The food we eat comes in the form of macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The amount of calories you eat, and which of these categories they belong to—makes a big difference in how you feel. Research conducted at Georgia State University showed that mood is directly related to the proportion of macronutrients test subjects consumed. Specifically, high protein intake was correlated positively with depression, and high carbohydrate intake was shown to reduce depression and increase energy.
- Vitamins and minerals. Within the foods we eat are tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals which are necessary for our well-being. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that those with mood disorders are likely to be deprived of nutrients. Further research in a study on the relationship between nutrition and agression showed that, while results varied by participants, proper vitamin and mineral supplementation reduced anti-social behavior.
- "Healthy" eating. I've put healthy in quotations because that definition is different for everyone. The point is that when you eat in ways you consider healthy (not anyone else—just you) you feel better. There's certainly some physical reasons for this, but it's also largely psychological. According to a Gallup poll, healthy eating is correlated with a lower chance of depression.
It's not a big surprise to most people, but physical exertion will improve how you feel. Research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that exercise helps lift mood.
The reasons for this are varied, and I don't have the expertise to explain all of them. Most people just label all the factors as "endorphins," but there's really a lot more going on here.
Fitness researcher Benyamin Elias wrote a detailed guide on why fitness makes us happy. If this is a topic you'd like to read more about, you should check out his piece. He provides more detail than I have room to explain here.
There's a reason productivity is on my list of factors correlated with my mood.
When I'm engaged in something important and challenging, I feel good. While fitness is both important and challenging, it's not the same. I don't have aspirations to be an athlete, and there's something about my passion and work that bring a sense of purpose to my life.
It isn't just me, either. Research has shown that work has a beneficial effect on mental health. For one reason or another, the simple act of being employed makes us feel good.
Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence for this can be found in a recent Gallup poll. It found that employment is the strongest indicator of depression in the US.
The strongest indicator.
That's truly stunning.
When I first read this, I had an easy response you might be considering as well. "Well, of course employment is correlated," I thought. "If you're unemployed, you'll feel bad."
But that's actually not a valid interpretation of the poll. Sure, those people were included. But the poll included those not in the workforce—individuals who are not employed and not seeking work, like retirees, students, and those with home responsibilities.
You feel better when you're doing something worthwhile with your working hours.
Personal goals, hobbies, and accomplishment
Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that "the combination of high commitment to and high attainability of motive-congruent goals predicted an increase in students' emotional well-being over [one] semester."
In other words, personal goals that line up with your values improve your well-being.
For example, I knew a musician who got an elbow inury and couldn't play. Now, this didn't really affect his means of employment all that much. But his practice time—three or more hours a day of pure enjoyment with his instrument—was gone.
Within a few days, he had spiralled into discouragement. But as soon as the injury healed and he was able to play again, his spirits lifted.
Sometimes, our personal goals and hobbies are more than just something we do on the weekends. More and more research supports the conclusion that goals and well-being are correlated.
People around you
Acclaimed social psychologist Roy Baumeister published research showing that social interaction is a primary motivator for humans.
Science shows that we get joy from others. It's not a difference between introverts or extroverts—it's really hardwired into us. Everyone needs some social interaction during the day.
For years, I thought that communicating with people digitally was an equal substitute, but I was wrong.
Evidence published by Communication Research demonstrated that
The model introduced and tested in the current study suggests that lonely and depressed individuals may develop a preference for online social interaction, which, in turn, leads to negative outcomes associated with their Internet use.
While there's nothing wrong with communicating online, it's no substiture for real human interaction. Sometimes, turning to it as a replacement might even make things worse.
How to use the checklist
Creating your own checklist is worthless if you don't konw how to use it. Here's exactly how you can implement it and get the most benefits.
Review it daily
To get the maximum benefit from your checklist, review each of the points each day. You can do this whenever you like (even doing it multiple times per day isn't a bad idea), but I've found the most effective time to be midday.
This gives you the opportunity to resolve any of the issues you have and make the changes you need to.
If you use the checklist too early—during your morning routine, for example—you won't recognize areas you're lacking.
But if you do it too late, you likely won't have enough time to make up for any problems.
Lunchtime gives you a great window into your day, and provides enough time to take a nap or get something done if need be.
Do bite-sized fixes when needed
As soon as you recognize a problem, take action. If you just think about the fact that you're missing out on a key aspect, you'll only make things worse.
Research published by the American Psychological Association has shown that rumination is a key factor in depression. In other words, focusing on the negative aspects of one's wellbeing is likely to bring on further harm.
Using your checklist but not acting on it will actually make things worse.
A great solution is to schedule a block of flex time in the early afternoon. This can be used for whatever checklist activities you need to focus on during the day.
Make it your top priority
It's easy to get carried away and procrastinate on the checklist activities that are importnat to you, but resist the temptation.
The longer you go, the higher the risk of you collapsing entirely. If something is faltering, fix it—even at the expense of your other goals.
So if you're running on three days without proper sleep, cancel dinner with a friend and head to bed early.
Your future self will thank you.
Track and keep improving
The more you follow the checklist, the more improvements you'll start to make. As you keep revising and adjusting, you'll start to recognize more patterns and build an even more robust method.
To do so, keep tracking the same metrics. After tracking my sleep for months, I began to realize that the moment of collapse was after a four-hour deficit.
Once I missed four hours of sleep in the course of a few days, my body decided to take matters into its own hands, and I collapsed that night or slept in the next morning.
Now, when my sleep deficit dips below four hours, I usually take special note and head to bed early to fix things.
As you keep going, you'll start to notice your own patterns. That's where the true magic happens.
The solution to feeling low
Feeling low doesn't have to be a permanent diagnosis.
With a few smart strategies, you can start conquering your mood. You can make tiny adjustments that keep you happy and healthy.
This system has made it easier than ever for me to stay on track. Even when I mess up, I can stabilize myself relatively quickly.
You can hold yourself accountable with the things you'r already doing, and use the information you already know about yourself to grow into a better person.
If you're looking for a quick, easy solution to feel better—you can stop.
Because the answer is right in front of you.