This article is part of SELF’s second annual Rest Week, an editorial package dedicated to doing less. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that taking care of yourself, physically and emotionally, is impossible without genuine downtime. With that in mind, we’ll be publishing articles up until the new year to help you make a habit of taking breaks, chilling out, and slowing down. (And we’re taking our own advice: The SELF staff will be OOO during this time!) We hope to inspire you to take it easy and get some rest, whatever that looks like for you.
Everything feels exhausting lately. Maybe it always has; lately is, of course, a subset of always. There’s just so much to do every day, and boundless opportunity, thanks to the constant stream of information at our fingertips, to consider the ways in which we’re falling short. Every day influencers arise at the crack of…whenever, to make “Get Ready With Me” videos for adults who wish that more entertainment geared at people our age had the tone of a Sesame Street segment about how to tie your shoes. We are constantly bombarded with images of people who are not only beautiful and successful, but who also seem to always be at their best. How are we regular slobs (no offense, reader) supposed to keep up?
Well, there are infinite devices and products that promise to help us feel less drained (or at least look less drained). A million mattress companies, all of which allegedly offer a superior night’s sleep, seem to have sprouted up overnight just to fill advertising space on podcasts. Supplements are an infinity-dollar industry, and their purveyors swear they can give you everything from lasting energy to relaxation at the end of the day—the way I imagine the sober members of Metallica party when they’re on the road these days. Plenty of foods promise jolts of energy too. Coffee, sure. We all know about coffee; that’s 101 stuff. Now mushrooms have come into fashion as an additive to your morning cup o’ something. They’re purportedly loaded with adaptogens, which I thought was the technical name of the compounds that turn regular turtles into the Teenage Mutant Ninja kind. If you really want to add some zip to your morning, you could shell out for a ginger shot (kind of like throwing back the opposite of tequila) or an acai bowl, which sounds exotic, but is mostly just there to answer the question, “What if oatmeal were made of gummy worms?”
The problem is, no matter what you do, you’re going to get sleepy. Every single day. There is no amount of rest that exempts you from that biological fact. Even people who manage to do everything “right” require several hours of unconsciousness in any given 24-hour span. No matter how much we’d like to, we simply can’t make it to bedtime fully awake and alert, shut down our operating system entirely at 11 p.m., and roll that extra energy into the next day when we reboot—and there is no amount of ginseng or pilates or Brooklinen that can get around that fact.
Think about the most energetic, well-rested person you know, someone who seems to possess the physical and emotional tautness of a tightly coiled yoga mat. That person gets tired too. Literally every day. Even in the unlikely event that someone leaps out of their bed in the morning to make sure the sun rises on schedule and stays up closing-time late, they still go to bed every night. (There are medical exceptions of course—insomnia and anxiety, for example—but a consistent lack of sleepiness isn’t viewed as a good thing by most professionals.) Ultimately, no human battery is built to run for more than a day at a time without a recharge.
We also have plenty of valid reasons to feel like shit: The world is full of unspeakable horrors, horrors that people get mad at you for speaking about. The ravages of age are unavoidable (if you’re lucky), and the harshest effects of wage labor are avoidable, but corporate greed has increasingly been allowed to flourish with fewer and fewer regulations, and our country’s social safety net is currently woven too loosely to do much good for many of us. This is all exhausting even if you’re baseline “healthy,” and it gets even harder if you start off with or develop medical conditions that limit or drain your energy reserves. I have so much respect for people who navigate each day with their body’s gas tanks (metaphorical) starting off close to empty, especially since they often also have to devote physical and mental resources to seeking out, acquiring, and paying for medical care. This, like many other sources of feeling physically depleted, just kind of happens sometimes. And there’s only so much you can do about it. (But, if possible, you should do it! That process probably doesn’t involve an acai bowl, which, again, is like a tub of mashed up Pop Tarts you eat with a spoon!)
On the other hand, most of us also have reasons for being tired that, if we’re being honest, don’t really feel worth it. Too often we end the day not only depleted, but defeated. Maybe the demoralizing sensation comes from feeling like you have to keep an eye on work emails in your supposed “free time.” Perhaps you agreed to the kind of social obligation you never enjoy but you always feel compelled to attend anyway. Maybe it’s the result of squandering your precious free time scrolling through social media accounts you don’t even enjoy looking at while watching TV shows you can’t remember the details of.
Obviously, the goal isn’t to be vibrating with energy when it’s time to close our eyes (why would we even want that?). So how should we feel? Realistically, I think the best we can hope for at the end of the day is to be “good tired.”
“Good tired” is not a medical term, but we can probably all identify it. It’s the feeling of having spent your energy on something worthwhile, whether that’s cooking dinner for your family, working at a job you don’t hate, or playing a few hours of pickleball. (I assume everyone who mentions pickleball, a game I’d never heard of until 2022, is being paid by some unseen benefactor to do so, and so I used that as my example for an athletic activity in hopes of receiving a fat check from the pickleball lobby, a.k.a. Big Little Tennis.) Hell, good tired could even mean feeling like roadkill in the morning because you were out late celebrating a friend’s birthday or a coworker’s promotion or the peaceful transition from Thursday into Friday. When people say shit like “I need a vacation from my vacation,” it is natural to want to throw them in a well, but also like…yeah. We are all constantly being pummeled into submission by capitalism, but objectively good things, like learning how to play an instrument, gardening, and even laying on the beach, are going to take it out of you too.
On many days, ending up good tired will be the best we can do, so why not aim for that? Instead of pouring all our time and money into the Peppiness Industrial Complex, it might be helpful to think about what’s wearing us out and how to center the valuable parts while cutting out as much of the pure slog as we can. That’s not always possible, sure, but it’s a worthy aspiration. Ending the day good tired means we’ve had the privilege of spending our time and energy in ways that felt satisfying and in line with our values. We weren’t scraped raw by relentless toil, or squashed flat under the weight of trivial commitments, or siphoned dry by an inability to hydrate and have a nutritious meal, or sabotaged by our own fear of setting boundaries, or any of the other factors that leave us not only feeling wrung out but also resentful of the path that that got us there.
Maybe you’re not in a position to quit your boring job or leave your boring family (kidding!), but you’ve probably got a little room to improve things around the margins. Instead of scrolling endlessly through social media, watch the first episode of that TV show you’ve been meaning to start. Or, if you love scrolling, turn off the cable news and scroll your damn heart out with full attention. Write 15 minutes of a novel or play 15 minutes of a video game you really enjoy or knit 15 minutes of a scarf. Instead of spending your few spare moments on some life hack, use that time to live your life. No matter what you do, you’re going to be tired enough to pass out at the end of the day, so you may as well aim to make it the good tired.
I’m not saying to never do the other stuff that will supposedly give you energy if that genuinely improves your day. By all means, learn what the heck a sleep number is. Start your day turning carrots and kale and banana into liquid carrots and kale and banana, and drink them through a straw. Throw your phone into the sea at 5 p.m. and do an hour of light cardio before dinner. Inject your son’s blood directly into your eyeballs so they never lose their youthful twinkle (okay, maybe not that one). You deserve your best chance at feeling as healthy and energetic as possible. But if you’ve done those things and you still feel a little sleepy, you’re not broken. You’re just alive. And life is tiring.
We can’t be at our best all the time. That’s what best means! It’s (simply) better than all the rest. There’s no way to outrun exhaustion forever. Running, in itself, is exhausting. The best we can hope to do on many days is embrace the tiredness on our own terms.