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Has Your Fire Burned Low?

Has Your Fire Burned Low?

Sometimes it feels as if life is against you. Nothing works as it should. The people around you seem distant, preoccupied, and indifferent to you and your interests. There are constant hassles and upsets. Whatever enthusiasm you once had has burned to gray, barely-flickering embers. You have little energy and feel like giving up.

Many people feel this way. You can’t rightly call it depression or burnout. It’s not that dramatic. It’s more like feeling gray and dull all the time. There’s no spark. No sense of excitement or joy in life.

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I suspect that the commonest response is to try to ignore the feeling and hope that it will pass; to tell yourself you’ve maybe picked up a virus somewhere. To imagine that you just need a few less stressful days or a brief vacation and you’ll be fine.

Yet feelings like the ones I’ve described should not be ignored. They may not be spectacular, but they’re your mind telling you that you’re life is out of balance. If you’ve lost the excitement and pleasure in how you live, nothing will be better until you get them back. If you’re starving yourself of what you need to be happy and healthy—or living on a monotonous diet of hard work and stress—it’s only a matter of time before something more serious goes wrong: a bad illness, a breakdown, or the collapse of a cherished relationship.

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Every flame needs fuel, and your flame of creativity and joy is no exception. Thanks to the Puritan Work Ethic, many people are obsessed with working and studiously avoid allowing themselves sufficient time for pleasure. They’re too busy toiling and striving to lighten up and enjoy their world. Fun isn’t bad for you. Doing something for no other reason that because it feels good won’t undermine your moral fiber. Imagine trying to live by eating nothing but broccoli at every meal. However good it may be, a diet of nothing else would kill you. Every human being needs variety in their life as much as in their diet. Have a little fun. Go wild, once in a while. Goof off. Try something new. You won’t be struck down by a thunderbolt from heaven for that.

Here are some simple and practical ways to breath fresh life into your inner fires:

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  • Take time out to refocus. Think about what used to bring you energy and pleasure. What happened to it? How can you bring it back? Many people lose focus on what truly matters to them, because they’re wrapped up in what seems more pressing—like working to get ahead. Your career may be important to you, but it’s going to harm you spiritually, mentally, and emotionally—and maybe even physically—if you allow it to take over your life entirely. Let yourself go a little. You need more than a great career. You need enough of what truly makes your life worth living, however frivolous and financially impractical that turns out to be.
  • Learn to relax and let go. We all like to feel in control of events; to have stability and predictability in our lives. Give it up. It’s an illusion. Worse, it’s a dangerous one, because it encourages you to exhaust yourself trying to make things happen exactly as you want. You cannot do it, however hard you try. You are not in control. Accept it with a smile.
  • Reconnect with others. People who feel miserable and frustrated often isolate themselves. They think that they don’t want company, or that other people won’t want to be with them. Being alone with your problems is a poor idea. I’m not encouraging you to rush out and start unloading your wretchedness on others. That will isolate you, and extremely quickly. Just make sure you spend enough time in company, devoting your attention to someone other than yourself.
  • Try helping others who may feel like you. Teaching is the best way to learn; helping others is very often the best way to help yourself. Let your personal issues take a back seat for a while while focus on helping others. You’ll likely find when you return to your own problems that they’ve melted away.
  • Find a way to renew a sense of purpose. Actions—however successful—that feel meaningless will never be satisfying. It’s most likely that your sense of continual boredom and emptiness comes from suspecting that nothing you do has much real value in the long-term. The answer is to work through these questions:
    • Why did I go into the work I’m doing today?
    • What did I expect to find? Did I find it?
    • Are my expectations for my working life still realistic? What do I need to change?
    • What needs do I want to meet through my work and career? What is the next most obvious step to move towards them?
    • What can I do to make my life better? Why aren’t I doing it?

Above all, take action. Thinking about your problems makes them seem greater and more pressing. It also does nothing to change the situation. Only action can do that. Until you act, everything will remain as it is. Almost any action is better than none at all, for every action produces some result that you can use to learn what to do next. There are no failures, save the failure to do anything at all.

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If you build a fire, then merely sit and watch it, it will burn out. You need to feed it with fresh sticks and rake away the ash. Life’s like that too.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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