Lying in bed, left cheek on pillow, I’m perfectly positioned to see the tree outside my window. Each morning I admire its leaves dancing in the wind, their varying colours indicative of changing seasons. It’s a pleasant start to my day, a moment of stillness and appreciation before I’m vertical.
Yet, sometimes, morning admiration dissolves into apathy. The tree’s leaves blur into a multicoloured canvas for my wandering mind. Attentiveness gives way to a distant gaze as I become occupied by the land of thoughts; I’m reliving social interactions, ordering mental to-do lists, fantasizing about perfect futures. I’m daydreaming before the day’s begun.
Before I know it, an hour’s passed and I’m still in bed. Then comes the guilt.
It’s possible to learn how to wake up motivated
At this stage of my life this happens rarely. Mostly I spring out of bed before my alarm, ready to brew coffee, eat my porridge and carpe diem the hell out of my day. But when this does happen, it’s a reminder of how difficult it was to get out of bed when in the midst of depression and anxiety.
Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations with loved ones who experience this frequently. It motivated me to write this article and explore reasons why. I’ve included a wealth of techniques anyone can apply to help learn how to wake up, and get up. This guide is written for loved ones. It’s written for you.
Note: If you regularly struggle to get out of bed when you have obligations, this could be a sign of clinical depression. Consider talking to a doctor if you’re missing work or regularly cancelling plans.
Bedroom rumination and the spiral of anxiety
“Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings,
Of the bluebird as she sings,
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring,
But six rings and I rise,
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes,
The shaving razor’s cold and it sting.” — The Monkees — Daydream Believer
Not all thoughts are equal. Our minds can be a source of wisdom. Our minds can also be a source of meaningless junk, in the form of intrusive, repetitive thoughts with no substance. Fears, inner-criticism, indulgence in past and future. Eastern spiritual traditions refer to our default thinking processes as the “monkey-mind” for good reason.
On the mornings when the leaves blur, I fall down the rabbit hole of thinking. Me and my thinking become one, but not in the bliss or creative insight or problem solving. Often, I’m visualising premonitions of the day’s events or facing an inner-battle; excuses to stay in bed — “just five more minutes…” — fight incessant inner-dialogue, where I chastise myself for laziness.
Ever lie in bed, paralysed by thoughts bemoaning how much time you’ve wasted… lying in bed? In psychological terms, this is rumination, “a negative, repetitive style of thinking about present and past symptoms, loss, and failure.” It’s heavily linked to an increased possibility of depression and anxiety.
Depressed people may sleep excessively to cope with rumination, when the only escape route seems to be the world of dreams.
I think because I’m unhappy, and I’m unhappy because I think
“Rather than leaving you feeling more spacious and more connected with being, as meditation does, daydreaming embroils you more actively in the drama or your life.” — Stephan Bodian — Meditation for Dummies
Rumination is also associated with avoidance. We fall into the trap of believing if only we think enough, all of our problems will go away! This is a poor coping mechanism. In fact, chronic rumination increases indecision and inactivity. A 2003 study found that, when faced with a task “fraught with uncertainty and performance pressure,” nonruminators delved into problem solving. However, ruminators focused on the distress, which “amplified it and enhanced its subsequent effects on their thinking.”
Applying this study to pillow procrastination (term trademarked), I speculate those prone to rumination are particularly triggered by the uncertainty of the blank slate of a full day ahead. The nature of an anxiety disorder is the notion of “I can’t cope.” I remember many mornings spent fearfully rehearsing every perceived threat the day would present — often accompanied by visualisations of a worst case scenario.
If you find yourself ruminating, remind yourself it’s a coping mechanism with little benefit. You won’t find the answers you’re looking for. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is to become entangled in this cycle. Set the intention to break the cycle the night before. Write a post-it note as a reminder: “action is the answer” or “you can’t think your way out of a paper bag, so get up” are two options.
Could improved, realistic goals be a solution?
Jonathan Rottenberg, psychologist and author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, provides an interesting theory on why depressed people struggle to get out of bed. Rottenberg pays close attention to the functionality of mood, arguing low mood is the result of poor progress or the response to an important goal being threatened.
Low mood may be the result of poor progress towards goals.
“Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals,” he writes. “They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly.” The reason this is so debilitating is because humans override mood function to continue pursuing unattainable goals. Without this override, Sisyphus would’ve stopped pushing that bloody rock after it became obvious it wasn’t a good idea.
I’m on board with Rottenberg’s forward-thinking. I’ve experienced paralysis caused by unrealistically high expectations of what should be achievable in a day. And paralysis based on the fear of not living up to self-imposed expectations. Both of these are signs of perfectionism — in the context of goals and behaviour. We don’t stay in bed because we don’t care. Quite the opposite.
SMART goals and accountability
One way to explore if overcommitment is a problem is to assess your goal setting standards. Do you follow the SMART technique (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant)? Would your to-do list make Elon Musk tremble with performance anxiety? This applies to short and long term goals. To wake with purpose, try writing your daily goals the evening before. Check if they follow the SMART guideline.
If you’re struggling with goal setting, consider hiring a coach. A skilled coach can provide the skills, resources and guidance to uncover meaningful, attainable goals. Better still, outside support can have a galvanising effect — a study by The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) revealed accountability can increase goal success by 95 percent.
Find a higher purpose to get your head off the pillow
“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Goal setting won’t see you leap out of bed each morning unless imbued with a deeper sense of purpose. Lacking direction or a connection to “something bigger,” is a key hindrance to having motivation to wake up and get up. Identifying a lack of purpose doesn’t have to be a lightning bolt of divine intervention — it may be as simple as accepting your employment or lifestyle isn’t fulfilling.
Find your North Star; find that thing, personal to you, that gives you meaning and purpose. This discovery is a process, but if you make the effort to reflect on your values, and times when you felt truly aligned, you will begin to understand what drives you. With clarity comes direction as you are pulled towards your guiding Star.
As a personal example, my North Star is serving others to help improve their mental health and make sense of suffering. It’s a sensation unlike any other, as if driven by an energy outside of my control. Discovering this purpose has added deeper meaning to my life and made sense of years of my own suffering. In addition, spiritual practice has increased my connection with the world and with others, and cultivated the mental clarity to understand what I truly value.
Banish the smartphone — and social media — from the bedroom
“Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show
If you can’t get out of bed and want to learn how to wake up with motivation, banishing your phone at bedtime needs to be a priority. A study by Reportlinker found 46 percent of Americans check their phones as soon as they wake up; rising to 66 percent in the millennial age bracket. The most common usage was to check emails or social media.
I’ve previously explored the addictive quality of smartphones, plus the negative impact social media has on mental health. It’s long been suggested social media can lead to depression and loneliness, without quantifiable evidence. Well, as of this month, a study from Penn State has linked Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to reduced wellbeing.
Furthermore, multiple studies have found a positive correlation between mobile phone use and procrastination. If not staring into the abyss and ruminating like a trooper, your day may be delayed by browsing Twitter, scrolling Instagram, reading news or playing candycrush.
Decisions, decisions, decisions…
Ditching the phone, writing to-do lists the night before, and other solution suggested have a similar aim — to simplify the decision making process. There’s a reason for this. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister discovered a correlation between decisions and decreased willpower and self-control. Constant decision making tires us out.
Morning decisions can be overwhelming. We decide what to wear, what to do on an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, what to eat for breakfast, whether to go to the gym. If our phones are at our bedside, we may tap in to another form of decisions: what time do I meet my friend? How should I respond to this WhatsApp message?
A consistent morning routine is a great way to reduce decisions. I go a step further and follow a morning ritual. What’s the difference? You could argue semantics, I’d argue devotion. Rather than a routine I blindly follow because I believe it’s good for me (boorrriiinnnggg) I devote myself to cultivating joy in the sacred moments after waking.
It begins with the dedication to be mindful and take time for myself. I stretch, move, focus on the breath, get blood and oxygen flowing. I meditate, sometimes. I assemble my morning oats, with the same ingredients, in the same order. I carefully set up my Italian Stovetop Espresso maker. I listen to the noise of boiling water, close my eyes and enjoy the scent. I wake up and smell the coffee… with a few added steps.
If tiredness is the culprit, assess your lifestyle
It’s unlikely the reason you can’t get up exists in a vacuum or is caused by one single factor. But if you feel physically drained, applying any of the above actions will be more difficult. If tiredness is the problem, you may have to cast the net wider and address your lifestyle.
Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting enough downtime? Are you cutting back on caffeine and reducing alcohol consumption? Are you drinking enough water? Are you eating well? The better the quality of fuel we provide the body and the better rest, the more resources our hearts and minds have to work with, metaphorically and literally speaking.
Piecing it all together
I’m hopeful this article gives you something to work with. I can vouch for the above actions, and I believe they can have a positive influence and increase purpose. But I’d like to end with a reminder for self-compassion in the process. These steps are a designed to move you towards where you’d like to be.
It’s important to celebrate each step in the right direction; if you struggle to get up five days a week and reduce that to three or four, celebrate! If you start writing a SMART to-do list the evening before, celebrate!
And, importantly, if you read this article and nothing changes, remember rumination, and guilt, won’t fix the issue. Only action will.
Carpe diem. But first, wake up.
Have you tried any of these actions? Or do you have tips of your own? Let me know by commenting below.