How to get through difficult times?

16 Hacks I Use To get through difficult times

I was recently invited to give a presentation to college students and young professionals about how to be resilient during times of crisis. Following their positive reactions, I decided to put these tips down in writing, I hope you find them helpful too.

There’s a phrase that’s often attributed to Winston Churchill:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
Winston Churchill

Most people focus on the second idea: “failure is not fatal”. But right now, I’m more interested in the first part: “success is not final”. Change is the only certainty. We never know when an earthquake, pandemic, dictatorship, accident, bad luck, or bad news will hit. So what can we do to make these difficult times a little more manageable?

I’m not an expert, but I do consider myself a happy person. I’ve remained (more or less) centered during the various family, financial, and professional crises’ that I’ve lived through. These are the tips and mental models I’ve used to help me get by.

Change the paradigm

Internalize the idea that failure is not an identity, it’s just a temporary situation. Failing at something doesn’t mean that you are a failure or a loser, it just means you went through a failure. Also, it’s important to realize that everyone either experiences failure or doesn’t live up to expectations (theirs or other people’s) at some point in their lives. Society celebrates the extremes –the richest, the most beautiful, etc.– and it’s easy to believe that everyone else is doing great. But it’s likely that even the people who appear to be super successful are miserable behind the scenes. Don’t aspire to live a filtered version of life.

The understanding that no life or person is perfect is comforting, and gives us a good dose of reality and perspective. 

There are people who give you energy when you talk to them and people that suck your energy away. In these times of difficulty, surround yourself with people who give you energy. The friends who see the glass half full and all of its possibilities will help you get through any tough time in a creative way.

Get Perspective

Investing time and energy into things you cannot control—politicians, the weather, how others decide to act, etc.—will just make you angry and frustrated. Instead, focus on what you can control, for example: how you react, how you treat others, or the activities you participate in.

Unplug. Go offline. Protect yourself from the constant stream of negativity, comparison, clickbait, and fake news on TV and the internet. We aren’t designed for that overwhelming amount of crap. I try to fully disconnect, during meals, meditation, exercise, and one hour before bed. I’ve found that the less time I spend in front of screens (especially social media), the happier, more creative, and more productive I become. I also make better decisions and end up investing my time in things that matter to me.

When you are online, try to consume wisdom and knowledge, not information. Most of us grew up in societies that celebrate being informed, by informed they mean reading the newspaper and watching the news. The problem is, in their attempts to catch our attention by any means necessary, most media outlets have just become noise.

Recently, I’ve made a greater effort to be aware of when I’m mindlessly scrolling on social media. That’s the signal to ditch my phone and pick up a book. For me, decreasing my news and social media consumption and reading books instead allows me to think more clearly and is way more productive in the long term. Picking the brains of super smart people and benefiting from their life experience in just a few hours? Yes, please!

Know yourself. You might surprise yourself with how cool you are. One of the things that has helped me the most with this is positive psychology. I’m a fool for pop-psych books with one-word names, orange covers, and Ivy League authors that all use the same formula and quote the same research. But in all honesty, positive psychology has helped me to build habits and change the way in which I react in difficult situations. Plus, dipping my toe into pop psychology eventually helped me to jump into self-awareness, Buddhism, and deeper stuff… which are even better. 

Another trick I’ve developed to get perspective is to think of my parents. Lately, I’ve been talking with amazing people from countries that haven’t necessarily come out on top during the last 500 years—think colonized rather than colonizers. During the course of these conversations, it’s become clear that one thing we all have in common are parents who lived through some serious shit: dictatorships, poverty, war, hyperinflations and devaluations, interventionism, apartheid, etc. When I think of this, I am reminded of my privilege and am energized to keep helping others and changing the system to leave a better world for future generations.

Clear your mind

Don’t make decisions when you’re feeling down (or hungry). I guess this one doesn’t need much explanation. Eat a snack and sleep on important decisions. 

Exercise. Get active. Humans didn’t evolve to sit on a couch and order in. For our bodies and brains (and emotions!) to flow, we need to move. If we don’t get our physical energy right, our intellectual, creative, and spiritual energies also become a blob.

Create an alter ego. Sometimes, and particularly in times of crisis, we have to do things that we don’t want to do or that we think we’re not good at. Maybe Pepe Villatoro is struggling to have that tough conversation with his team, but what about Batman Villatoro? (Sorry, I haven’t named my alter ego yet, but imagine a mix of Maya Angelou and Ironman). I understand this point might sound sort of superficial when things are awful, but sometimes it can be powerful to approach problems as challenges or games.

Think long term

When I’m feeling angry or down because things aren’t going well, I ask myself: What will I think about this 10 years from now? The answer is typically one of two things: Either it’ll make for a good laugh or a good story. This helps me avoid getting too caught up in negative thoughts and start thinking in a more stoic way, aligned with my principles.

Act as if your decisions will appear in the newspapers tomorrow. This perspective will help you think twice and take a deep breath to avoid acting on thoughts that don’t really reflect who you are. 

Focus on your purpose and values, and design your life. I know this sounds fluffy, but it’s the most important thing I’ve done in my efforts to live a more fulfilling life. It’s easy to just go with the flow and do what society and its marketing machines tell you to do—consume and accumulate.

But what if that capitalistic nonsense isn’t what you truly value? What do we actually want your life to look like? Until you start answering these questions, you’ll keep running around like a headless chicken, living the life that someone else designed for you.

In summary, if you’re feeling down or going through a difficult time, an idea from this list might help you:

  • Failure is not an identity
  • Perfection is rhetorical 
  • Surround yourself with people who give you energy
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Unplug
  • Consume wisdom and knowledge, not information
  • Leave your phone, read books
  • Know yourself
  • Think of your parents
  • Don’t make decisions when you’re down (or hungry)
  • Exercise
  • Create an alter ego
  • What will you think about this 10 years from now?
  • Act as if your decisions will appear in the newspapers tomorrow
  • Focus on your purpose and values
  • Design your life
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