Got the blahs? Three fast ways to get motivated and back into action

Updated to Productivity on December 18, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

The other day a friend shared this joke…

Man goes to doctor.

Says he’s depressed.

Says life seems harsh and cruel.

Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain.

Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.”

Man bursts into tears and says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.”

I have days like that. What about you?

It seems like I know what I need to do, but my sack of sorrow and confusion weighs me down. Ouch.

It’s human nature to fixate on what’s wrong. Like the missing base board in your living room or sticky note reminding you to call your bank – they’re hard to ignore.

We can’t be dancing-on-roses all the time and we do need to do hard work some of the time. Apparently that’s life.

The question is how to navigate between the blahs and dancing-on-roses?

Here are three strategies I always have on my dance card.


Whatever I fixate on occupies my attention – to the point of distraction.

If I worry about my health, getting older or mortgage payments, that’s all I can think about.

The jury is out, but it’s estimated we have about 60,000 thoughts a day. Too bad that 48,000 are the same as yesterday:

“I should really exercise more”

“I wish they could see it my way”

“These pants make me look fat”

“I deserve a new car (like my neighbours)”

“These pants make me look fat”

“I should really exercise more”

“These pants make me look fat”

Your mental machinations get you nowhere, except back where you started.

Your mental machinations get you nowhere, except back where you started. The trick is to change the game.

Learned optimismIn his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman (often referred to as the ‘father’ of positive psychology) described the state of helplessness as being permanent (not going away), pervasive (everywhere), and personal (your fault). In other words…you’re screwed.

Until you change the game.

Changing the game means recognizing you’re in a rut (“Yup, I’m stuck”) and determining a new activity. Go for a walk, journal (see grateful journal, below), call up a friend, take a book to a local cafe, plan a vacation…but do something.

Your worries might not completely vaporize, but the view is clearer.

What are you doing to change the game?


I think fuel economy gauges in cars are brilliant feedback devices. Too bad we don’t have one that measures control.

When you’re run off your feet, working on 12 projects (and not making headway on any), pulled in different directions with no time for yourself – you’re out of control.

A client once told me that by the time Thursday rolls around every week she is feeling out of control. She confided that on those days she needs to block time to declutter, empty, plan, and take a few steps forward on any one of her stalled projects so she can breathe again.

That’s control.

When I’m on the road for a speaking engagement I follow a routine. I plan when I go to bed, my morning workouts, preparation time, and office work (read about my routine). As regimented as it seems, my routines allow me to stay on top of my work, be ready for my client and feel in control. That’s worth planning for.

What do you need to do (maybe every week) to feel more in control?


In long-distance running you inevitably have to fight the urge to quit. After a couple of hours pounding away on the pavement or trails everything hurts, and all you want is to end the suffering.

The trick is to be grateful.

West-Coast Trail on Vancouver Island

West-Coast Trail on Vancouver Island

A few years back a friend and I ran the grueling West-Coast Trail on Vancouver Island from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, a distance of 46 miles (75kms). Actually it’s more like an endurance course including running the length of fallen logs, climbing 70 (two and three story) ladders, crossing 130 wooden bridges and four cable cars. Recommended days to hike the trail: five.

It was a long day.

I’d predicted that by mid-morning my adrenalin and the stunning scenery would be replaced by mental and physical melt down. So, I decided to practice being grateful.

Grateful for being there, for friendship, for the jaw dropping scenery, for our health, for my wife’s support – even for people we met who cheered us on.

“Hey, where’s your pack?”

“Uh, we’re running it”


It’s was good medicine – once I yanked my woe-is-me thoughts out of the misery gutter I felt lighter and happier. I could feel energy coming back into my legs as if I’d pulled up to the local gas pump.

There was a lot to be grateful for.

Tell me in the comments what you do to kick out the blahs – I want to know!

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