Out of the Doldrums

11 August 2014 · 30 comments

On Saturday, Cody came over to hang out. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were kids again for an afternoon. (Forty-year-old kids but still kids.)

We spent several hours traipsing through nearby neighborhoods. We wandered through parks. We walked through Eastmoreland and imagined what it must be like to live in one of the mansions. We searched the hundred-year-old sidewalks, looking for clues about when they were poured and what the streets used to be named. For lunch, we stopped at Otto’s Sausage Kitchen. As we walked home on the Springwater Trail, we picked blackberries for dessert.

As I say, it was like we were kids again.

“How’s your back?” Cody asked during our stroll.

In April, Kim and I took surfing lessons in San Diego. While trying to “pop up” on my board, I felt my back give out. It hasn’t been the same ever since. And that’s just one of a long line of injuries that has plagued me this year.

“My back is better,” I said. “I’ve been seeing a chiropractor. I was skeptical at first, but there’s no doubt that my mobility has improved. I’ve even been able to do a bit of exercise this week.”

My fitness routine has been in the doldrums for most of the year — even before the back injury. Because of my injuries — and because of my workload — I haven’t exercised nearly as much as I need to (or want to). As a result, I’m fifteen pounds heavier than I was last year at this time. And that’s not fifteen pounds of muscle.

“How’s everything else going?” Cody asked. “I noticed you haven’t been posting on your blog lately.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem too,” I said. “I’m not just in the physical doldrums. I’ve been in the mental doldrums too. I haven’t written anything in weeks. It sucks. To be honest, I haven’t done much of anything for the past two months. I have a long to-do list, but I’ve ignored it all summer. I keep adding things to it, but nothing ever gets crossed off.”

“I get like that sometimes,” Cody said. “I’ll have a few days that are intensely productive and then it’s like I’m drained. I sit around and do nothing for a day or two — except maybe look at Facebook.”

“My pattern is a little different,” I said. “I’m productive for weeks or months at a time. But then something shuts off. Some switch inside my head is triggered and all I can do is watch TV, read trashy novels, or play videogames. After a few weeks in the doldrums, something toggles the switch in the other direction and suddenly I’m productive again.”

“Do you know what flips the switch on or off?” Cody asked.

“No,” I said. “I wish I did. My entire family seems to be like this. My brother has lost a lot of weight this year, for instance, but it’s because he’s completely devoted to his fitness program. He flipped a switch in his head and now he’s eating well and exercising. My cousin is like this too. It’s just a part of being a Roth, I guess.”

Note: I wonder if this “all or nothing” behavior style — something that both my ex-wife and current girlfriend have noted — is related to the relationship between moderators and abstainers.

“Fortunately, I’ve started pulling out of this current funk,” I said. “When Kim and I got home on Tuesday” — we took a long weekend motorcycle ride to the Oregon Coast — “we spent several hours cleaning the condo. The next day, I challenged myself to see how much I could get done on my to-do list. That was so satisfying that I did the same on Thursday. And Friday. I feel like I’ve turned things around. On Monday, I plan to sit down at my desk and start writing again.”

Cody nodded. “It’s like inertia,” he said.

“Exactly,” I said. “When I’m in the doldrums, it’s just so easy to keep loafing, to keep doing nothing. But once I start moving, it’s as if that momentum has a life of its own. The trick is to force myself to get moving. That’s one reason that I like to exercise first thing in the morning. If I get out of bed and go to the gym, or if I get out of bed and go for a walk, then I know I’ve done that one important thing before the day has even begun. That knowledge helps propel me to do the next thing, and the thing after that. It’s like a snowball.”

“Exactly,” Cody said. “Plus, if you’re productive early, then if you reach midday and find you’ve run out of steam, you still have all of that stuff you got done in the morning. That’s satisfying.”

Cody and I continued to talk about life, the universe, and everything. We walked home, got on our motorcycles, and rode to the Portland Timbers match.

Sunday morning, I got up at five in order to participate in the Portland Bridge Pedal. By ten, I’d ridden my bike for fifty miles through the city streets. I was exhausted, but I felt good. I knew I’d exercised for the day. And this morning? This morning, I got up and started to write again.

It feels like I’ve pulled myself out of the doldrums, and that makes me happy. Being productive feels a lot better than loafing around all day.

At the start of the Portland Bridge Pedal
On the top of the Fremont Bridge, at the start of the bike ride.

1 chacha1 August 11, 2014 at 17:15

Sorry to hear about the injuries. I wondered what was keeping you quiet. ;-)

2 Jennifer August 11, 2014 at 18:55

The timing of this post couldn’t be more perfect. Something about the delay in posting and the content of some of your recent posts made me wonder if you were in a bit of a funk or had lost your desire to write. I think I’m much the same way in that I am either extremely productive or a complete slug and it’s all determined by how I start my day. We all need a little downtime to rest and renew, but there becomes a point where it’s just nothingness and, to be honest, I often find that a productive day actually reduces some of my stress and I feel re-energized. I don’t know if it’s the actual activity or the time with focus on other things.

It’s good to see you post again. Have a great week!

3 Donna Freedman August 11, 2014 at 22:18

Sometimes I stay so busy making a living as a writer that I neglect my personal website. It always feels bad. The more I don’t-write the more afraid I become that I have nothing left to say.
Then I get ahead of work deadlines and have a little fun on my playground for words, and realize that I can’t quit doing it. Sometimes I wish I could throttle back for a few weeks, but I’ve built a decent little readership and would like to keep it.
Balance exists. I just don’t know where it lives.

4 Kathryn August 12, 2014 at 03:55

sounds like depression to me

5 Jennifer August 12, 2014 at 06:05

Agreed.

6 jdroth August 12, 2014 at 06:55

Yes, I’m well aware that all of this is indicative of possible depression, which is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Still, the cure is the same: Simply get moving! Do something! The motion feeds more motion and helps to overcome the depressive state.

I wrote eight articles yesterday. Felt pretty damn good. :)

7 Chris August 12, 2014 at 08:34

Hi J.D. – I get in funks as well and over the years there’s never anything in particular I can pinpoint that causes it or when it lifts, what alleviated it. As you mentioned you do, I just keep moving – doing yoga, eating well, going to bed and waking up at the same time, working down my to-do list – and eventually I propel myself out.

You must have been pent up to be able to crank out eight articles, wow!

8 William Cowie August 12, 2014 at 05:46

Welcome back! Welcome, also, to probably the #1 problem in retirement: no external pressure to perform. :) It’s one of the biggest reasons retirees go back to work (of some sort) after a short period of “retirement.”

9 Eric Borreson August 12, 2014 at 06:25

I understand what you mean by the doldrums. My day job can be stressful at times and I don’t have the energy to do anything when I get home. My to-do list can get to several pages long. Once I wrote “drink my morning coffee” on the list just so I could cross something off.

10 Jules August 12, 2014 at 07:39

Your coffee comment made me laugh out loud.

11 Jeff A. August 12, 2014 at 07:42

From time to time I add something to my To Do list that I’ve already actually done that day, just so I can see something crossed off.

12 PawPrint August 12, 2014 at 15:16

I love the coffee comment, too. I sometimes write something on a list after I’ve done it just so I can cross it off.

13 Olga King August 12, 2014 at 07:07

I am petrified to stop “moving” for a fear of not being able (or taking too long) to get off to a rusty start, again. Welcome back, I love reading your posts.

14 Olga King August 12, 2014 at 07:09

p.s. and that was meant for exercise routine, eating healthy and not slacking off, working a bunch of jobs with no vacation…whatever. overwhelming tasks I can put upon myself. I think it is exactly also because I am afraid to dive into depression and think too much about things I can NOT control, so I keep moving on without stops.

15 Dakota August 12, 2014 at 07:39

Sorry to hear you’ve been feeling down. Even when life is awesome, I still get down and mopey. Whenever I get in a slump, I’ve found the best thing to do is call or sit down with a friend who I know needs some help. Getting outside myself lets me see that life is great and I’m lucky to have what I do. Even if it felt like noooot much prior to that phone call.

Glad to hear you got a good bike ride in and are feeling fired up now!

16 Felicity Fields August 12, 2014 at 09:38

I’m not sure this cycle is unique to the Roths. I do this too – I’ll be cruising along fine for a few months, and then one weekend I’ll go “off the rails” and just not want to do anything. Sometimes, I can plan these (Skyrim over Christmas vacation), but sometimes they just happen.

I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one who has these kinds of swings. Maybe they’re more normal than I’d previously thought . . .

17 Coach Jen August 12, 2014 at 11:35

Now I’m really happy I told you, you could have Cody for the day!
Perspective is everything. If I can find meaning to what I’m doing, I’ll stay productive.
I find that having a to-do list can cause me anxiety and I must focus on prioritizing. In this way, my mind is satisfied with what I got done(first things first), versus what I didn’t..

18 Edward August 12, 2014 at 13:12

You know those days/weeks when you don’t feel like doing anything? It’s called “normal”. The cult of positive thinking, #100HappyDays, and high energy has been slowly brainwashing us into some demented social construct where unless you’re energetic, joyous, and productive every single day (like they propose to be on Facebook) then something is very wrong. Well, I’m rebelling.
Nothing wrong with having an occasional funk or a moan. It’s probably decent for you. We used to call it “wigging out” in the 80s. A friend would buy a carton of cigarettes, go into his apartment, and you wouldn’t see or hear from them for a week. He’d be doing things like eating ravioli cold from the can, watching TV, sleeping, and nothing else. A week or two later he’d emerge pale from his cave, shave off a beard, and be in good spirits. It was all somehow a cathartic ritual.
Swings are normal. Constant happy lunacy isn’t. We have to get back to that idea.

19 bethh August 12, 2014 at 14:44

I read an article in the Utne Reader back in the mid-1990s that has been hugely helpful as I go through life. The subject was time, and how we perceive it, and how sometimes we are totally in the zone (to use that rather hackneyed phrase) and super duper awesomely productive; other times we struggle to complete the most basic things in a generous amount of time.

The point of the article was to learn to recognize these rhythms and try to accept/adapt to them, rather than fight them. Maybe your get-shit-done energy goes along a sine curve, and you are now being productive because you’re on the glorious downhill swoop where it all comes together. It may be a little discouraging to think that there is nothing you can do to force yourself into this state, but on the flip side it means that you will naturally get through the harder times, too, if you can ride them out.

I’d cite the article if I could – I dragged that issue around for something like 10 moves over 15 years, but I seem to have finally parted with it.

20 Brian August 14, 2014 at 13:04
21 Jennifer August 14, 2014 at 18:08

Great article. Thanks for sharing.

22 bethh August 15, 2014 at 16:54

That IS interesting, though it’s not the one I’m looking for. It looks like the whole March-April 1997 issue was about people and time, so maybe that’s the right issue if not the article I’m remembering. I would have sworn it was pre-fall 1996, but hey, that was a LONG time ago.

23 Michelle August 14, 2014 at 19:24

I know how you feel, and also agree that it is probably part of the normal rhythm of life. Sometimes it’s all go, go, go, and then for awhile, days, weeks, it’s like time is stretching out but you don’t much care. I have had this recently too, maybe it’s midsummer, or midlife………..who knows. Glad you are writing and feeling better. As I read once, remember we are all ‘human beings’ not human doings……our society is not comfortable with the idea of ‘doing nothing productive’…..

24 Steve August 15, 2014 at 09:21

I remember at WDS 2013 you were telling your story about how your started Get Rich Slowly and how you worked your tail off to grow that site to the immense size it is today. You said you devoted so much of your energy and time to it.

It sounded like a lot of your “all or nothing” mentality went into building GRS and now that you’ve moved on from it, you need a new GRS to fill that space for your time and energy. But perhaps a more balanced approach this time around because all consuming projects can lead to neglect in other areas.

Finding balance… something we are all trying to find!

25 Mitch Roth August 17, 2014 at 19:51

Hi JD,

As a fellow Roth, I’m in the same boat as you — I’m an Abstainer. All or nothing.

I came upon your blog here after searching for you because I’m reading an excellent book in which GRS was referenced. The book is called Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. The reference is in Chapter 15 regarding time banks. I just thought I’d run that by you in case you weren’t aware of it. The book is available for free on his website, and I highly recommend it — it’s totally shifted the paradigm in how money can be used for good in society to reverse the ills caused by us over the years. Seems like something you might be interested in, so another reason I thought of bringing it to your attention.

Cheers,
Mitch

PS I learned about GRS via AONC. Also, we met over the weekend tour in Norway last year. Great trip.

26 AnnW August 22, 2014 at 20:39

I have the same type of makeup. When I stop doing stuff, I can’t get moving again. A lot of inertia. I try to fool myself into activity. That’s why I use a personal trainer. I have an appointment and I have to keep it three times a week or I feel like a failure. After I am done at the gym at 12 noon, I feel like I have accomplished something and I am out of the house. It is also part of depression, which is a constant. I have also started selling stuff on eBay just to get rid of stuff, but also to force myself into activity. Vitamin D3 and Magnesium are also supposed to help.

27 Brighton West August 24, 2014 at 11:53

Wow – what a perfect time for me to find your blog!

I’m here in PDX too (sitting at Cartopia waiting on my lunch) and was looking at my “list of things I need to look up online) and your name was next on my list.

I go thru the same phases. I’m trying to use Workflowy to list off 3 things I need to get done each day – and if I get those 3 things done, I usually get a lot more done too.

Thanks! Brighton

28 jen September 26, 2014 at 13:03

Have you ever read about reversal theory? I studied it in some psych class college and didn’t think it applied to me, but the flip switching you talk about. . .well, it sounds like what you describe.

Sorry for the long link, hopefully it will work. I googled my professor’s name, it’s a link to an intro chapter on it.

http://books.google.com/books?id=fwnSM_SWi6wC&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3&dq=kurt+frey+psychology+theory&source=bl&ots=60OHAy6NqK&sig=EpXJbHSgxhKFOHTZ8RmDNt-4aLQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=SsUlVPf6AYr2yQSXp4GwCQ&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=kurt%20frey%20psychology%20theory&f=false

29 Greg C October 1, 2014 at 07:11

Oh, man. I have this same “All or Nothing” mentality. Honestly, it’s wrecked all my relationships and some of my businesses/jobs. Usually in business I manage to just “pull things” off and make something great happen in the nick of time but otherwise fall into prolonged ruts.

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