This post is not about the usual technology topics I cover on my Thinking Forward blog. It’s about the human side for a change.
The mental battery
Having spent the last five days in bed, with fever and other symptoms making it impossible to be productive in any of my usual activities, I had time to reflect on a topic that’s inside me: my personal mental battery.
Physical illness is of course an obvious drain on anyone’s battery, taking away your body’s energy to perform the way you normally could. We can quickly draw the line between the cause and the effect there, hoping that once the illness is cured the energy capacity is also restored.
Another way the battery can get drained is merely living your everyday life. Just like when you’re using your smartphone during the day for casual activities like browsing social media or more intensive activities like playing games or watching movies, at the end of the day it’s a good idea to plug it into a charger. Let your device battery gain some more juice while you charge your own biological battery via sleeping.
I’ve found the battery metaphor to be helpful in analyzing my own energy levels. More precisely, the lack of energy and what causes and effects it may have.
How tired are you?
It’s natural to feel tired, of course. Who doesn’t feel exhausted and completely drained at times? Things are different if the feeling is all too frequent – or too deep.
In my self analysis I’ve identified these two distinct types of tiredness:
- Normal tired: still able to perform things that give back energy. Battery low but stable.
- Dead tired: unable to participate in activities that would energize me. Battery dead.
In recent days, due to the illness, I’ve been spending my days in the “dead tired” zone. Once my body overcomes the infection and the CPR levels return to normal, things will surely be different.
However, the thought that worries me at this point is that I’m probably still going to be tired. Just in my normal way.
Using the mental battery metaphor, I can identify the following generic energy levels with their fictional battery percentage readings that we would see in our field of vision – if humans had the same kind of battery system as our phones do.
I’ve drawn two zones into the scale, A and B. These represent the ranges in which the mental battery levels would fluctuate during a typical day of a person. For someone “normal” in zone A, they would operate in the balanced level, occasionally reach a highly energized level, then get normally tired when giving out more mental energy than receiving it. Still, they would always have some reserve energy left in their battery to handle situations that life throws at them.
Zone B is a different kind of a person. Their mental energy levels can be stretched to seem just as balanced as the former person, when required. However, they don’t have the same reserves and each of these stretches to appear like someone in Zone A takes a toll on the mental battery. They often gravitate towards “tired by default” to spare the energy left in the battery. And the worst part is: when the battery runs out, it’s really at 0%.
When living in Zone B, there’s a risk that the tiredness becomes you.
How I became tired
Obviously I wouldn’t be writing about this topic if it didn’t concern me personally. Yes, I’ve become someone who in the above mental energy model lives in Zone B. To answer the question how it happened, I can’t help but to use one of my favorite quotes: “first gradually, then suddenly”.
The strange times we’ve been living due to COVID-19 are of course one ingredient. Still, on a practical level it didn’t change my life as much as some bigger personal events, like becoming a father or becoming a company founder. While the world is different now, most of the changes I’ve experienced have been for the better. I should consider myself lucky – and I often do.
Therein may lie one of the issues that have contributed to my increasing tiredness level – or at least raised the barrier for talking about it. Seeing such big parts of people’s everyday lives get disrupted or even ruined by the global pandemic has made it harder to grant myself the right to complain about my own lil’ challenges. “Things could be worse” mentality can become a blocker for acknowledging your own needs, rather than a tool for identifying reasons to feel grateful.
I don’t believe there is a root cause to be found for tiredness, to be honest. Life is an infinite puzzle where the pieces are always moving, so trying to get them all perfectly aligned isn’t a relevant goal. We need to gather the energy to keep playing the game, however.
What’s different now
I’ve clearly noticed how I tend to be living on the edge almost every day. Meaning the edge where the mental battery can run out of power and make even small challenges feel insurmountable. It is this uncertainty of one’s own energy reserves that in turn will eat up your confidence. Welcome to the vicious circle.
Another key observation is that this tiredness I’ve been feeling is different from depression. I’ve experienced the latter in the past on a few occasions and while there are similarities in how they impact your life, I’d put them in different buckets. If only for the reason that I haven’t encountered these current experiences before.
I’ve talked about the mental energy levels but of course this tiredness has a physical dimension. In fact, that is the most interesting part compared to my earlier challenges with mental health. The tiredness keeps manifesting itself in new and surprising physical symptoms.
During the past year I’ve had quite a number of tests done in healthcare services, in response to sudden pain or other symptoms. All the key components in my body, from heart to brain, have been analyzed in trying to find an explanation. The good news is: everything seems to be in order. Also, none of these specific symptoms have turned into permanent medical conditions that would have affected my everyday life.
How the body reacts to the “dead tired” level of your mental battery is not always obvious. Yet of course there is a very tangible side to the tiredness. Our brain will try to get the message across in the ways it can.
So, what’s next?
Just like there was no clear path into this situation, there isn’t likely going to be a straight route out of tiredness that one could just follow. I’m certain that things will eventually get better and the high energy levels that I’ve been able to achieve with this ol’ mental battery of mine will once again be put into use.
I wasn’t planning on starting an extensive blog post series on the topic, but I admit there are a couple of other pictures that I drew on PowerPoint while creating the Zone A/B graphics (hey, that’s what consultants do when they see a problem!😁 ). I may revisit the topic from the perspective on what consumes/gives energy in the context of community work, as an example, since that is a theme I’ve seen many others also raise up in recent times.
That last part is actually an interesting aspect to point out here in the end: writing this blog post while still on quite a low battery level didn’t reduce the amount mental energy I have available – rather I gained much more from it.
Update 2022-08-14: For more thoughts on the role that blogging plays in gaining/draining energy, see my new post: Is blogging worth it?
Update 2022-09-14: I did what I promised, meaning revisiting my pictures about managing your enegy levels. Read the post Your mental battery and the power of living.