Health and Wellness

How to stay motivated during a cold, winter Covid lockdown

Peak performance expert Steven Kotler emphasized the importance of putting an "active recovery protocol" in place at the end of the day, which is particularly key in winter when people tend to feel more burned out.
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Most people already struggle to stay motivated in January and further tough coronavirus lockdowns in many countries have made for an even harder start to 2021. 

But experts say there are ways to help. 

In the case of the U.K., Nick Taylor, CEO of workplace mental health platform Unmind, pointed out that "it's not just the third lockdown but it's the third lockdown after a Christmas which was really disrupted." 

"It's a third lockdown when people haven't been able to maybe take the holidays that they were planning, haven't been able to see friends and family, so it all compounds," he told CNBC over a video call. 

At this point in the pandemic, peak performance expert Steven Kotler said it's not that people have "a motivation problem, they've got a burnout problem," having spent almost the entire past year "doing everything we can to survive." 

Nevertheless, these experts say there are ways to tackle a lack of motivation and feelings of burnout in the winter months. 

Safety and security

According to Kotler, the first step is to address any foundational "safety and security" concerns that the pandemic may have thrown at you, i.e. having enough money to pay the bills. 

This is important, he said, because it's hard to generate internal motivation if we are dealing with basic safety and security worries. 

"So if you're not there yet, you're going to be better served with things that calm down your nervous system, like mindfulness, or gratitude or regular exercise, while you're trying to life-solve safety and security stuff," he told CNBC by phone. 

Examples of mindfulness could be focusing on your breathing, your thoughts or the environment around you.

Similarly, Taylor said practicing gratitude is about "trying to find the time to notice things that you enjoy, that improve your well-being." 

Break down your goals

Adrian Moorhouse, an Olympic gold-medal swimmer who is now managing director of U.K. management consultancy Lane4, said one of the biggest issues in staying motivated is not breaking goals down enough.

Setting a New Year's resolution like "getting fit," for example, is quite a big, "nebulous" task, he said. The key, therefore, is to really investigate why you want to achieve that goal, as this can test the motivations behind it, he added.

In the case of exercising during shorter, winter days, Moorhouse recommended aiming to work out at lunchtime, as well as trying to set up group exercise sessions online to make sure you stick to that plan.

John Furneaux, CEO of project management tool Hive, suggested even breaking down tasks into mini-tasks, or "sub-actions" that can be tackled in 20 to 30 minute increments.

He uses the "Pomodoro technique," developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, which entails setting a timer for 25 minutes and taking a short break between each task.

"From there, you can gamify your entire day," said Furneaux, suggesting that you pick a reward every time you complete a task and preferably one that entails getting away from the computer screen. 

'Active recovery protocol'

Kotler, author of "The Art of Impossible," also emphasized the importance of putting an "active recovery protocol" in place at the end of the day, which is particularly key in winter when people tend to feel more burned out.

This is an activity that is restorative and calms the nervous system down, like stretching, breathwork, light yoga, or even a 20 minute walk outside.

In contrast, "passive recovery" are things like watching TV and drinking alcohol, which Kotler said pretend to be relaxing but are not from a neurobiological perspective.

Getting seven to eight hours sleep a night is another important part of this daily recovery, he added.

'Primary flow activity' 

Kotler said that dedicating some time each week to a "primary flow activity" can actually help motivation and performance, even if again it's only for 20 minutes. 

This is an activity in which somebody becomes fully immersed, or is in a "flow state," and it feels like time passes quickly. The activity could be hobbies like gardening, painting or exercise, which are often "the first thing we chuck out the door" in terms of our priorities as adults. 

And while it may seem counterintuitive in a time of crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic, Kotler actually recommended "doubling down" on that primary flow activity. 

A flow state prompts the release of nitric oxide, which pushes out stress hormones and calms down the nervous system, he said. 

Kotler also referred to research that found the effects of practicing a "primary flow activity" can last a couple of days afterward, pointing out that those "feel-good neurochemicals are going to bleed" into other areas of life, like work.

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