6 Ways Exhausted People Self-Sabotage (and Solutions!)

Break the cycle of chronic exhaustion.

Posted Dec 27, 2018

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Recently I wrote a post on 13 signs of chronic exhaustion, which resonated with a lot of people. To overcome this problem, you need to understand the causes, so I thought I'd explain these more. One of the major causes is a nasty loop, whereby the ways that people cope when they're exhausted further worsen and entrench it. I'll unpack this vicious cycle below and provide some solutions at the end of the article.

6 Ways Exhausted People Self-Sabotage

1. You're prone to poor planning and disorganization.

Planning and decision-making require a great deal of mental effort. People who are exhausted don't have the energy to do these upfront in ways that will save stress later. For instance, you need to go to two stores that are in the same shopping complex, but you don't organize yourself to do both of these errands at once, therefore requiring two trips.

This issue doesn't just apply to work, errands, and unpleasant tasks. People who are exhausted fail to plan enjoyable things for themselves too (e.g., they don't have the energy to plan a vacation). They also often don't have the energy to plan and organize support for themselves (e.g., to hire and train a babysitter, cleaner, or an assistant).

The result of this pattern is a triple whammy of extra stress + fewer enjoyable experiences + less support to buffer that stress.

2. You have developed poor systems and routines.

This point is related to the last one, but subtly different. Good systems and routines allow you to plan once and then enjoy the benefits of that planning on an ongoing basis. They help prevent the cycle described in #1 above. For example, if you always take a vacation in the last two weeks of July each year, then several decisions are taken off your plate. You don't need to decide if you'll go on vacation, when you'll go, or arrange the time off work (since presumably you have that arranged on a recurring basis). This means you've eliminated three potential barriers to actually going on vacation.

If you have some set routines, you'll naturally plan other behaviors around those. For instance, if you grocery shop every Tuesday evening, then you'll know you need to buy enough food to get you through to the following Tuesday. You'll probably plan your meals more and run out of items less frequently than if you grocery shop haphazardly. 

A benefit of good systems is that they help prevent the stress incurred from forgetting. In my book The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I talk about having master lists for recurring events, like going on vacation. You might have a master packing list for travel, and another master list of everything you need to do before you leave the house (like change your HVAC settings, hold your mail, tell your neighbors you'll be away, etc.).

3. In weak moments, you do things that have a good chance of generating stress and requiring additional time.

Here's a personal example of this: My sheets currently have cheese grease stains on them, because I let my toddler eat a little bowl of cheese in the bed while I was sitting on it getting work done earlier today. I know well enough that letting her eat anywhere other than in her dining area is going to result in extra mess for me to clean up. And yet, sometimes I still give her food other places, against my better judgment.  

A particularly pertinent category here is things you do that sometimes don't result in extra work or time, but often do. For instance, I occasionally manage to go to the outlet mall without spending 30 minutes getting into or out of the parking building, but not typically.

4. You prioritize the wrong things.

When you're exhausted it's difficult to get a 30,000-foot view of your life. You're in survival mode—keeping going, but not necessarily thinking clearly. Activities that are the most valuable use of your time and energy when you're exhausted, and will help break the cycle of chronic tiredness, are typically those that you don't do everyday. They're unfamiliar and often involve tolerating uncertainty and a learning curve. They might not feel very productive when you're doing them, because you're learning while doing. 

When people are exhausted, they'll typically default to doing behaviors that give them a sense that they're keeping things ticking over and keeping the trains on the track, even if this is a bit of an illusion. For instance, you're replying to emails, but leaving important things undone.

5. You're waiting till you're not exhausted to do things that are enjoyable.

Fill in the blank: "When I'm less exhausted, I'll ________." 

When people are exhausted, they put off doing things that will help them break the cycle. You're waiting for some mythical right time. You might feel undeserving of doing pleasurable activities, because you know you're engaging in some of the self-sabotaging behaviors I've mentioned in points #1 to #4. However, this means you're not experiencing the many psychological benefits of doing pleasurable activities, which include stress relief and helping you get perspective on what's important to you.

6. You're waiting till you're not exhausted to systemically solve your issues.

Similarly, when you're exhausted and struggling to get any clear mental space, you likely put off solving systemic issues. For example, you know you have a routine that's very inefficient, but you don't have the mental energy to fix it. If you're stuck in the patterns I've been describing and continually generating extra stress and wasted time, your situation is likely to get worse rather than better, so you'll need a different approach (which we'll get to now).

Solutions for Reenergizing Yourself

  • Let yourself have some rest (and pleasure!), and see if this gives you the clear mental space you need to solve systemic inefficiencies and get other important things done.
  • This point is critical (and one I cover extensively in The Healthy Mind Toolkit) — If you're exhausted, focus on using the energy you have to create systems that will help save you stress (and time) on an ongoing basis. Prioritize creating systems that you can reuse, rather than doing one-off planning that will still be very effortful, but will only payoff once. For instance, don't create a packing list for one trip, create a reusable master packing list. Think of doing this as an investment. You're investing some energy now to reap future rewards. 
  • Try creating some self-imposed rules about stress-generating things you won't do and stress-saving alternatives you will do. For example, "I won't go to the outlet mall unless it's a Wednesday evening of a non-holiday week." Or, "When I can order something online and have it delivered instead of going to a store, I will." Or, "I won't give my child food unless she's sitting in her chair." You don't have to be perfect in sticking to your rules, but see if having them helps you make better choices than if you didn't have well-articulated, clear-cut guidelines for yourself.
  • When you're engaging in any of your routines (e.g., getting ready or cleaning routines), try doing them 25 percent more slowly than you usually would. As you go about your routines, look for any simple ways you could improve them. For instance, I have a robot vacuum cleaner, but to run it, I need move things off the floor. In the last few months, I've managed to cut the time this routine takes by more than half, making it much easier to do. I've achieved this in very simple ways, like using S-hooks to get dangling cords high enough off the ground that they're out of the path of the robot.
  • Look for "cheater" ways to create and improve your systems and routines. Your solutions don't have to be perfect; they just need to be easy and better than what you're currently doing.
  • Be more self-accepting and chip away at improving your habits over a period of months (or a lifetime!) rather than attempting to give yourself a habits makeover.
  • Work on systems and routines that will give you more pleasure and support more easily. Think of support broadly. My robot vacuum cleaner is a very supportive presence in my life! Also, work on routines that help eliminate stress-generation. For instance, refine your shopping routines so that you need to deal with getting stuck in traffic less, or refine your "getting out the door" routine so that you're less likely to forget important items.
  • There are many causes of chronic exhaustion that I haven't even touched on here, but the cycles I've mentioned are broadly applicable and things anyone can do something about.

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