Most people suffer from low energy on a regular basis. For most of my life, I did too. I hardly ever felt like I got enough sleep. I struggled to stay focused. I chugged caffeinated beverages like water- Dr. Pepper as a kid, energy drinks in grad school and for a couple years after, and green tea starting in my late 20’s.
I tried lists of random tips- go for a short walk, wear a sleep mask, cut back on caffeine. Some worked well, some kind of worked but were easier said than done, and some completely backfired.
I didn’t quite understand why I was so fatigued…and eventually I realized that was the problem. Because to fix a problem, you have to understand what’s causing your problem. You can’t just apply a list of random tips and hope for the best.
To figure out what will work for you, you need to track your energy levels, and start experimenting. So that’s what I did.
A couple months ago, I designed a spreadsheet for tracking my energy levels, along with my mood and libido. I also tracked my activities, sleep time, diet, supplement usage, as well as the characteristics of the environment around me. I made entries in this spreadsheet nearly every half hour for a month, and what I learned from that exercise has changed my life.
In this article, I’ll share a few of my most valuable findings with you. Then, I’ll show you how you can use this strategy to fix your own energy levels, and I’ll give you the exact tool that I used to track everything. And finally, I’ll give you a chance to win a free membership in one of my premium courses, along with coaching from yours truly.
A few surprising and not-so-surprising insights into low energy
Here are a few insights I’ve gleaned- mainly from my own energy journals, but also a few other people who helped me “alpha test” this journaling method.
When you start your own self-experimentation, bear these in mind. You’ll eventually figure out exactly what works for you, but these apply to pretty much everyone, and as such provide a good starting point.
You’re probably dehydrated I’ve said this several times before and I’ll probably keep saying it forever- most people don’t drink quite enough water. Studies have shown that most people are mildly dehydrated most of the time. Once I started tracking water intake as well as food, I found my energy and mood tended to dip if I went two hours without drinking at least a cup of water.
Sleep matters a lot, and your need for sleep varies. Probably the most obvious one, but people often forget that this means both getting enough sleep, and getting quality sleep. Two different things. The amount of sleep people need varies a lot- it’s usually 7-9 hours a night, but some people are outliers, and hard physical activity also increases the body’s need for sleep.
I need about 6-7 hours minimum if I haven’t exercised, and 7-8 if I have. More is better though, and part of the reason why I feel so much better on the keto diet may be because I sleep about an hour longer per night on it, sometimes getting up to 9 hours.
If you’re working out and already making an effort to sleep well, the thing you’re most likely to be overlooking is that exercise raises your need for sleep. So you may want to go to bed an hour earlier on gym days, especially after a hard leg workout.
Blood sugar crash. I feel like this one should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. If you eat a big, crap-filled meal, you’ll crash a couple hours later. This happens because your blood sugar spikes, then your pancreas releases a bunch of insulin to clear out that blood sugar, and then your blood sugar crashes because of all the insulin. The solution isn’t Five-Hour Energy; it’s to eat healthier meals and cut back on the sugar.
Ketogenic dieting provides steadier energy levels. I’ve experienced this myself in the last few weeks, but it’s pretty common knowledge- once you’re settled into ketosis, those blood sugar-related ups and downs go away. I can still get tired mid-day from lack of sleep, over-exertion, or caffeine crash, but getting rid of blood sugar swings got rid of more than half of my mid-day energy slumps.
But don’t enter ketosis on accident. This was a problem I had before I started ketogenic dieting, but I didn’t figure it out until a couple weeks into keto. See, while ketosis feels good after a day or so, it feels like shit when you first fall into ketosis. This is known as “keto flu,” because for a few hours it kind of feels like you have the flu.
Before keto, I had often been skipping breakfast, eating a no-carb lunch, and not having carbs until late afternoon or early evening. I couldn’t figure out why I kept crashing in the afternoons when I seemed to be doing everything right. It turns out I was running out of glycogen and accidentally taking brief dips into ketosis. So be wary of combining intermittent fasting with low-carb (but not keto) dieting- if you go 16+ hour without carbs, you might accidentally enter ketosis and suffer keto flu.
Caffeine can help you, but it can also mess you up three different ways. First, it can cause you to under-eat, particularly if you’re someone like me who finds it all too easy to skip meals. Second, too much caffeine will cause a crash some time later. How much later largely depends on genetics, as different people metabolize caffeine at different rates. Third, overdosing on caffeine will make you feel sick, and you’ll suffer from low energy even as your heart starts trying to burst out of your chest.
Caffeine can be helpful though, and you need different doses for different purposes. For me, 50 mg is more than enough to wake me up, 100 mg is ideal for productivity (which for me mostly means writing), 150-200 mg is the ideal dose for maximal gym performance, and over 250 or so is where it starts to be entirely counterproductive.
You could be working out too hard. Maybe. This is a fairly rare issue that I mainly see in guys who are new to weight training, and less often in people who are experienced but trying to up their volume and intensity levels. It doesn’t happen to me much anymore, but I used to get it a lot when I was trying to go to failure on every set.
You should be fatiguing yourself in your workouts, but not knocking yourself out cold. 2-3 hours after a workout, you should feel you have enough energy to workout again. If you’re eating high-carb meals post-workout though, it’s far more likely you need to cut back on the crap in that meal, not that you’re training too hard.
Don’t sit or stand for too long. Sitting all day will make you tired and out of shape, and your body will start to have trouble distinguishing when it’s time to be alert vs when it’s time to relax. On the other hand, standing for too long tires you out. It’s best to alternate between the two, so that you’re sitting and standing each for about 6-10 hours a day.
You’ll be more alert and think faster when standing vs sitting. Think about how you can use that. When I was in sales, I would stand while making calls, and sit while reading and writing emails, or doing research.
Your body listens to light cues. You’ll have more energy the brighter the lights are. Your brain is particularly responsive to sky-blue light, which we’ve evolved to use as a wakefulness cue.
In my case, the room I usually work in has a built-in ceiling light, plus a lamp with three brighter light bulbs. I consistently had more energy, and was able to focus better, when I turned on the lamp bulbs in addition to the room light. When I would work out of coffee shops and other public spaces, I similarly noticed higher energy in bright places and lower energy in dimly-lit places.
Conversely, I slept better the more I darkened my environment for the last two hours before bed. Turning down the lights, wearing orange-tinted goggles, darkening my computer screen, reading instead of using the computer before bed, and wearing a sleep mask all helped.
Breakfast and your morning routine can make or break your whole day. If something goes wrong in the morning- such as eating an unhealthy breakfast, over-consuming caffeine, or being poorly rested in the first place- you’ll suffer from an energy slump later on. You’re likely to overreact to that energy slump, usually by over-consuming caffeine again, eating junk food for the sugar rush, or taking a nap that goes too long and throws off your circadian rhythm.
This overreaction helps you for a while before you crash again. Thus, mistakes made in the morning can cause you to go into a cycle of yo-yoing throughout the day. In the worst case, the last of thee yo-yo cycles might impair your sleep that night, causing problems the next day, and the cycle can take 2-3 days to break out of.
Perfect your morning routine and breakfast, and a lot of other things fall into place. It’s the single most important thing you can do. A high-protein, low-carb breakfast is a good starting point for most people, but find what works for you.
Some things are just conditioned response. Sometimes you get hungry because your body needs food. Sometimes it’s emotional eating. But sometimes it’s because you always eat at noon, it’s 11:30 now, and your body has been conditioned to get ready to eat right about now. Sometimes you get tired after work not because you’ve worn yourself out, but because you’re used to relaxing after work.
In these cases, the cause is something that didn’t even happen that day, but rather over several days beforehand, and there’s no physiological reason for it. You can just fight through the slump-forcing yourself to work out, for instance- and your energy will come back up. You can also de-condition your body by, for instance, switching up lunch times, or waiting until an hour after work to unwind.
I always wake up around the same time, no matter when I went to sleep. This really messes me up if I stayed up late. I suspect it’s anticipation of my morning caffeine, so I’m currently experimenting with changing the amount and timing of caffeine in the morning.
How to self-track and fix low energy
Now it’s time to go beyond lists of “10 ways to get more energy” and really figure out what works for you. It’s time to get strategic.
You’ll need to record your energy level, mood and libido on a scale from zero to five every hour, along with what you ate and drank, and a brief note on what you’re doing during that time. Full instructions are included in the journal.
While a month of tracking would be ideal, following this exercise for just one week will usually be enough to provide major insights into the causes of your energy slumps. You’ll see patterns- like how certain meals make you feel better than others. You’ll see your libido vary based on how much sleep you get, or that you’re consistently more cheerful and alert in some environments than in others.
And once you know exactly what’s causing your problems, fixing them is easy.
Also, you can win a prize.
Introducing the Upgrade Your Energy Challenge
When you come across ideas like this, it’s all too easy to decide to try it out someday. But as the old adage goes, fortune favors the bold. So I’m offering an additional incentive for people who take fast action.
Download the journal template and keep hourly logs for at least a week. A month would be better, but for this contest I’ll allow a week as the minimum.
Once you’re done logging, use what you’ve discovered to upgrade your energy level. Write up what you found out from this exercise, how you used it, and what result you got from it.
For a good guideline about what that write-up should look like, look at the first section of this article- the only difference being, your write-up should be about what worked for you, rather than phrased as advice to others. In terms of length, I want detail, but not unnecessary wordiness. It could be a page or several pages, just write what you need to get the point across.
Submit your completed journal plus the write-up no later than April 1st, 2017. That’s the end date. I’ll pick three winners. All three will receive free enrollment in Bursting with Energy*, my premium course that helps people to have more energy. The grand prize winner will also receive a free Skype consultation and a month of email coaching, including custom-designed diet and workouts if so desired.
The best entries will also be featured in my newsletter, and maybe also on my blog, after the contest is over, so that everyone else can learn from the best.
*That link is there for my long-time readers, not anyone who just found this site. Bursting with Energy is a great course, but don’t buy it until you’ve used some of my free material and gotten results from it. Build the habit of taking action before you try to throw money at your problems.
It’s time to get strategic about getting more energy
Most people have no clue why their energy level isn’t higher, because they’ve never tracked and tested in any systematic way.
If you suffer from low energy, there’s no reason it has to be such a mystery- all it takes is a couple weeks of self-experimentation. And once you have the self-knowledge from doing that, you can reap the benefits for life.
Download the spreadsheet, start tracking, and learn what works for you.
And remember, it can also be used to track libido and mood, or anything else that can be clearly measured. I plan to write more about libido and mood in the future.
If you want to receive more articles like this, you can sign up for my mailing list using the form on the right sidebar. And if you know someone who could benefit from having more energy, please share this article with them.