I had really bad problems with low energy and tiredness for about 2 years. This post is about what I’ve learned. This is not a general guide to solving any and all energy problems since I mostly only have one data point. I still hope reading about my personal problems and solutions will help people solve theirs.
- I had basically two periods of very low energy: college and last summer.
- In college, I felt tired literally all day, especially as soon as I tried to study. I was also depressed.
- In the summer, I was very happy but I had days at a time where I wouldn’t do anything productive. All tasks seemed unbearably hard to me, sometimes even writing a simple email. I also became introverted.
- I thought I was being lazy and just needed to “get over it”. Starting to notice I had a ‘real’ problem was a big step forward.
- I learned that I actually had multiple hard-to-disentangle problems:
- I’m sensitive to disruptions in my sleep leading to feeling tired.
- Certain types of work that are both hard and demotivating also make me feel physically tired.
- My biggest realization was that I was burned out much of last summer. This was because I didn’t give myself rest, even though I didn’t see it that way at the time. This led to the unproductive days (not laziness).
- In college, I lived a weird lifestyle regarding sleep, social life, and other things. Some part of this was probably bad. Having common sense would’ve helped.
- I can now notice symptoms of overloading myself before it leads to burnout. Learning to distinguish this from “being lazy” phenomenologically was crucial.
- My problems had nothing to do with physical health or stress.
- When experimenting to solve my problems, it was useful for me to track when I had unproductive days. This way I could be sure how much the experiments impacted me.
What my problems were like (so you know whether they’re similar to yours)
A typical low-energy day while I was in college in first year:
I wake up at 12 pm. I slept 9 hours but I’m tired. It doesn’t go away even after an hour. I open my math book. But literally as soon as I read the first sentences, I feel so tired that I physically want to lie down and close my eyes. It feels very hard to keep reading. Often I just stare at the wood of the table right next to my book. Not doing anything, just avoiding thinking. Even staring at the wall for 10 minutes sounds great right now. I never really stop feeling tired until it’s night again.
A typical low-energy day while I was working on EA community building projects in the summer:
I have to do a task I usually love doing, maybe reading applications for an event I’m running. But as soon as I look at the wall of Airtable fields and text, the task feels way too large. I will have to think deeply about these answers people wrote in the application form and make difficult decisions, drawing on information from over 20 fields. That depth of thinking and amount of working memory sounds way too hard right now. I try, but 3 minutes later I give up. I decide to read something instead. I feel the strong desire to sit in a comfy bean bag and get a blanket. Even sitting upright in an office chair feels hard. I start reading. The text requires slight cognitive effort on the part of the reader to understand. It sounds too hard. I stare at a sentence, willing myself to think. I give up after 3 sentences.
It’s lunchtime. I used to love lunchtime at the office because I get to chat with all these super cool people and because I’m quite extraverted. But now the idea of a group conversation sounds way too much. I don’t even want to chat to a single person. I would have to be ‘switched on’, think of things to say, smile, and I just don’t have the energy. So I grab lunch quickly, hoping no one will talk to me, and take it back to my office. I chose an office where the glass walls are obstructed by lots of greenery because I can’t stand the idea of someone being able to see me at any point. I couldn’t fully switch off then. I need to feel completely alone for that.
When I’m home, I hope I don’t run into anyone in the corridor so I don’t have to interact. I think I could at least do something simple that’s productive, like sending this one email. So I try to do that but end up staring at my email program for 3 minutes instead. I wonder if I could at least do dishes. But getting up and walking to the kitchen sounds too hard right now.
I used to really deeply care about the mission of my projects but now I have no energy left for that. I just want nothing to go up in flames.
What I learned about what was going on
Turns out there were multiple, hard-to-disentangle problems producing this whole mess. Please keep in mind while reading the following that everyone is different. Your problems and symptoms are almost certainly somewhat different from mine. I still hope that reading about my experience and solutions can help you with your own!
Let’s start with what was NOT my problem.
I am NOT lazy
It’s crazy how long I believed that I was simply very lazy/unmotivated. When I would lie in bed all day in first year, trying and failing to study four or five times throughout the day, I remember thinking: “Another person would just pull through. Yes, studying is hard. Get over it.”
A really devious contributor to the laziness theory was that I literally couldn’t remember what life had been like before these episodes. I couldn’t remember how awake I was usually and how easy it was to study, even difficult math. I didn’t know my baseline, so I failed to recognize when my levels of tiredness and energy dramatically shifted. It didn’t happen suddenly. It came creeping up on me, taking more and more of my energy, until I couldn’t do the simplest task and didn’t know if it had always been that way. This resulted in a failure to treat it as a crisis, and treating it more like my own fault and laziness. It also resulted in the bleak thought that it might always be like this and this is just my life now.
It helped a bit to notice empirical differences in my behavior during episodes, as opposed to focusing on my subjective feelings. My subjective feelings were easily mistaken for laziness in any particular moment. But my empirical behavior (such as failing to work 4 days in a row) clearly showed something more was going on. And even if I still thought I was likely being lazy, clearly I need a new approach to solve the issue. Just telling myself “Get over it” did not work. Starting to take a problem-solving approach and treating myself as an experimental subject was a big step forward.
What was going on in the summer when I was working on EA community building projects
1. Minor: Sleep
I figured out that I’m quite sensitive to disruptions to my sleep. Even getting as little as 2 fewer hours of sleep can make me feel quite tired for most of the next day. I can also get a headache from small disruptions although this is not super relevant right now. I can also feel tired from sleeping in. (Coffee has a kind of mediocre effect on me.) Of course, this gets much worse with larger disruptions. I now have a very rigid sleep schedule of 9 hours of sleep every night (the same 9 hours!), without exceptions.
This was not actually the reason for my unproductive days that summer. However, possibly the more important reason to implement the sleep schedule was to rule out sleep stuff as a possible cause for my problems. It’s extremely hard to correlate low energy to the correct causes and ruling out sleep is one of the most effective things you can do.
I now know that sleep deprivation actually feels different to me than low energy. But it took me a long time to recognize there is a difference in those phenomenological states, and I couldn’t have told back in the summer. So eliminating sleep as a factor was a really smart move.
2. Major: Burnout
And here’s the main thing that was going on: I was ridiculously burned out. And I didn’t know it.
It’s kind of obvious when you hear my working philosophy from back then: Basically, aim to do something productive in every waking moment, save maybe for the last two hours before sleep. “Productive” did include a lot of things that aren’t usually termed “work”, e.g., exercise, writing in my journal, finding food, etc. Also, I find maintaining physical and mental health and many types of socializing productive. But it was crucial that everything I did contributed to my goals and there was no “time off”; no free time. I did this for months without weekend or days off.
However, I never considered myself particularly hardworking. This was in part because I still had this idea ingrained in my head that I am lazy. I also wasn’t sure I was actually working more than other people, since I was doing lots of non-work (but still productive) things throughout the day. I also socialized a lot. Finally, I thought, because I often have these completely unproductive days where I’m too lazy or whatever to do work, I’m not working all that much. One problem with this reasoning is certainly that I was always using other people as the yardstick for what is “too much” work when my limit may be different from theirs.
So, to me, the connection between my symptoms and my overwork was completely unclear. I even read a bit about burnout and the connection didn’t become clearer. It doesn’t help that burnout can be very different for different people and situations.
Funny anecdote, I told a friend of mine who I knew worked particularly hard at the time that “people often don’t know they are going to burn out right until they do, so please be careful”.
I figured out burnout was actually what I was dealing with when I decided to test the theory. I started working standard 40-hour work weeks. This was no fewer than 6 months after this flavor of symptoms set on by the way. For the longest time, I felt I simply couldn’t work less or everything would go up in flames around me. This was a big mistake. Also, at this point 6 months later, my work philosophy had ingrained itself so deeply into my brain that it felt ludicrous to only work 40 hours. I really, really didn’t want to do it. But luckily the need to fix my problems won out.
Also luckily, this experiment actually worked. I went from feeling badly fatigued roughly 2 days a week to only 2 days in a month. Looking back, this could really not have worked—40 hours a week is far from little. Especially if you’re going in with the baggage of 6 months’ overwork. It would have been more sensible to start from 20 hours or, god forbid, a holiday. But I really wouldn’t have been able to get myself to do that at this point in my life.
I confirmed that the workload was the problem by doing another experiment one month after starting the 40-hour experiment. In the new experiment, I simply worked a lot and watched my symptoms return. I stopped after three fully fatigued days towards the end of the third week.
I also learned that my introversion was not permanent—thank god—but a symptom of my burnout when I started feeling extraverted again after fully recovering. This was ~2 months after I started my 40-hour experiment. To explain how big a deal this was: I’m quite extraverted—talking to interesting people and having lunch with people daily, and socializing in groups almost daily is a big source of meaning in my life. When I felt introverted, I didn’t feel like talking, even to my friends, most of the time, and group interaction felt like work. When I did talk to someone, I wasn’t my usual high-energy, fun self—I basically interacted as though I hadn’t slept in 24 hours and was dead tired. This was actually quite disorienting for some time.
After figuring out I had burnout, I started noticing how working a lot actually brought on smaller versions of those symptoms. I generally didn’t get full days of low energy anymore, and it didn’t get as bad as to not be able to read a book. It took a long time until I could tell when I was experiencing symptoms, as opposed to just “being lazy” and procrastinating. Telling these apart was the key to preventing most of my energy problems and protecting myself from burnout.
I call the smaller versions of the symptoms fatigue. Fatigue feels like the end of a long, hard day of work often feels: I feel less motivated to do even the tasks I usually like doing. I stop being able to do the most difficult work and instead do more menial and ‘flowy’ tasks. My perception of how hard tasks on my to-do list sound goes way up. Another way of looking at it is that I have low willpower: any task that usually requires some willpower now seems very hard to make myself do. If I do get myself to do hard tasks, I feel like I’m performing below standard. I also feel like I’m wasting a lot of time and might do things like staring out the window. A term for this that feels very intuitive to me is feeling “low-resourced”. But I don’t know if this is a useful mental shorthand for other people.
I’ve figured out that my work limit is probably around 61-64 hours per week when mixing the hardest cognitive work with easier work in a ~2:3 ratio. This gets me to the brink of feeling fatigued. The hardest cognitive work is, e.g., thinking about really hard and confusing philosophy. The devil is in the details about how I count these hours: I aim for my free time to actually be free, i.e., I can actually do whatever I like. This means I include all productive tasks and life admin in my work hours. I do things like buying products I need, flossing, and thinking about my life during work hours. As a community builder and someone with mental health needs, socializing is sometimes productive, so sometimes included. Also, a 1-hour lunch break is included. Notable exclusions are exercise, showering, and commuting. Hobbies and socializing for pleasure are also excluded.
I want to note that it doesn’t seem like stress causes my fatigue. I’ve experimented with working a lot when I was under no stress, and it still resulted in fatigue. However, I can’t rule it out as an exacerbating factor.
The relationship between fatigue and my energy for social things seems actually kind of complex and I haven’t really figured it out. Generally work energy and social energy seem to trade off against each other. I’ve experienced feeling fatigued after an intensely social weekend (a retreat). And when I’m fatigued from work I generally don’t want to interact with people, especially not groups. However, once in a while, I’ve experienced feeling almost-fatigue after a long work day but then being super high-energy hanging out with people after.
My speculative guess is that something like the following is going on: On the one hand, there are my “energy reserves” and on the other hand there is “free energy”. My energy reserves are all the energy I have available. To do anything, some of this is converted into free energy, which determines how energetic I subjectively feel. So my subjective energy level is related to, but different from, my energy reserves. If my energy reserves are low, my body tends to free little energy and I tend to feel low-energy. However, if I’ve been kind of under-social for a week, my body might selectively free a lot of energy to socialize. So I could have low energy reserves but feel high social energy.
What was going on in college?
To recap how college was different from my problems in the summer which I just described: My main problem in college was basically that I always felt tired to the point where I thought that maybe it will just always be this way. I often found it hard to do basic tasks like doing dishes. I also found it extremely hard to get myself to study for my Computer Science degree and it made me feel incredibly tired. I was also kind of depressed often, whereas in the summer I was actually very happy. So, what was going on?
1. Sleep again
I had the most insane sleep schedule for some of this time, where I actually tried to go to sleep an hour or so later than the last day every day, until I made a full circle around the clock. Needless to say, it did not work and made me feel very disoriented and like shit. Even when I wasn’t trying such a foolish maneuver, I had quite a turbulent sleep schedule and often woke up in the afternoon. Combine that with my sensitivity to sleep disruptions and you get a very tired human indeed.
2. Bad lifestyle choices
For context, I moved to a new city (in a new country) and started studying in September 2020, during COVID. Also, I lack common sense.
Basically, I didn’t leave my flat or even my room much. I did everything in my room: study, eat, chill, sleep. Often I even did this on my bed. This was not just during lockdown. The main occasion when I left the flat was to buy groceries. I didn’t socialize much, except with one of my flatmates. This was mainly because I was picky. I didn’t really have people I liked around me. I did go to socials from student societies once or twice a week when those were allowed. But usually, I was alone, even though I’m a quite extraverted person. My life overall felt quite empty.
I also wanted to do something productive at all times and always felt guilty for not studying more and procrastinating less. This was very hard because I felt so tired all the time. I didn’t have working hours, so I felt guilty all day. Looking back, it’s also likely I had fatigue then but it’s hard to remember now. Back then, I simply thought I was lazy and tired.
It’s hard to say now which of all these things mattered most. My guess is that being lonely was the worst. Secondly, not having fixed working hours and clear free time was demotivating and probably fatiguing. Never changing scenery reinforced all of these associations with my room and kept me in a perpetual demotivated-tired-sad loop.
At the time, I also experimented a bit with getting more light, making my room feel nicer, or moving more, which didn’t help.
3. Work-induced tiredness
Since that time, I’ve learned that certain kinds of work reliably make me tired. Opening my math book and immediately feeling tired was quite instructive. Indeed, studying some boring math that I have no interest in, except to get a degree, reliably makes me tired. I don’t get this for boring easier tasks though, such as writing an essay that I have no interest in. My guess is that the underlying formula here is: Lack of motivation + hard task = tiredness.
I haven’t found a real solution for this but classic anti-procrastination tools can help increase motivation. E.g., tracking my progress and coworking with others help. Also, not doing tiring work all day, but interspersing it with motivated work.
My main strategy these days is to simply not do hard work I have zero motivation for anymore.
More things that were NOT going on
I spent ages worrying over potential health-related causes of my symptoms. I took a very expensive and comprehensive blood test, thought about exercise, gut health, and many other possibilities. None of these turned out to be a problem. My guess is that many people who should really look at their extreme work or lifestyle habits over-index on health causes, because they are so wonderfully concrete.
More general tips for figuring out energy problems
1. If you think your problem may be burnout
If you think your problem may be burnout, take a vacation now. The reaction of many people with burnout will now be “I can’t! Everything will go up in flames!”. Take a minute to question whether this is true. If you have a good relationship to your manager, couldn’t you ask them “I think I may be burning out, is it possible to cover for me for 1-2 weeks?” If you have supportive colleagues, wouldn’t they be happy to free you up to take a vacation you need for your health?
I truly think this is the rational thing to do. If you wait for 6 months to fix your problem, as I did, and you’re fatigued ~2 days a week, that adds up to over 7 weeks lost. So take that short vacation instead.
2. Try common sense
90% of my problems could have been solved by having a bit more common sense. Of course never leaving my room and never giving myself free time is going to result in problems. If you make weird lifestyle choices, similar to me, those are the most likely cause of your energy problems.
3. Track a simple metric
To determine how different interventions changed my energy levels, I started tracking “bad days”. I define a bad day as one where I can't do productive work, even on fun projects. I can only do things like reading easy stuff, and even that is hard. I also usually feel like sitting/lying down comfortably when I have a bad day.
I used the app “Habits” for tracking these days and set a reminder every day at 6 pm to check or not check the box. I think it was useful that this was one simple metric that was easy to actually maintain tracking and easy to evaluate. It may be useful to track more nuanced things additionally, but I like having one core fail-safe meaningful metric.
With this metric, it was possible for me to be certain how much my fatigue reduced when I switched to the 40-hour workweek and when doing other experiments.
4. Prioritize it!
If your problem is only half as bad as mine, it makes sense to prioritize it heavily. It’s easy to neglect if you’re a busy person. But I beg you to actually take time out of your day to think about the problem and schedule to do it again. It won’t solve itself.
A nice way to allocate appropriate attention to your problems is to write a note every evening on how your productivity went that day and what you can learn from it. This way, you catch all the most important data points from your daily experience and keep them ‘activated’/at the forefront of your mind. (This doesn’t replace longer sessions debugging your problems though.)
5. Learn the phenomenological differences between different low-energy states
Intertwined problems of tiredness/fatigue/exhaustion/etc. are really hard to untangle. It helped me personally to learn to pay really close attention to how exactly states of exhaustion feel in the moment. For me, procrastination feels more like aversion against a specific task, or like wanting to do a specific hedonic thing. It feels less like all tasks sound unusually hard and I’m performing below standard. The latter is fatigue, not procrastination. Once you can tell different states apart, you can tackle them much better.
I find it really hard to remember what phenomenological states were like while I’m not having them. That’s why I’ve found it super helpful to write notes on how exactly I feel while I’m in these states. I wrote much of this post consulting these notes.
6. It takes a lot of discipline
This is less of a tip and more of a warning: Solving my energy problems and doing experiments on myself took a lot of discipline. I now go to bed at 12 am every single day—something absolutely unthinkable to past-me since I like parties and such. And this is just one example of many interventions I tried to solve my problem, often without really knowing if the intervention is pointless. I only got myself to pull through since I’ve had these energy problems for so goddamn long and they compromise my productivity so goddamn much. Doing the same to solve your energy problems might be really hard.
I hope this post helped some people!
I’m considering writing an appendix if this seems useful. As you’ve read, untangling different causes of exhaustion has been crucial for me. I’m wondering whether it would help anyone if I explained my symptoms, especially phenomenologically, in more depth in an appendix. This might help readers compare whether they probably have the same problems and learn what to look out for phenomenologically. Please leave a comment if you’d like to read something like this!
I am grateful to Bruce Tsai and Gustavo Lacerda for helpful feedback on earlier versions of this post.