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Once I had a Zen teacher who liked to say “Contraction always follows expansion.” Her idea of an expansive experience was sitting on a meditation cushion many hours a day, getting up only to do some chores or eat a vegetarian meal. Which is to say, a silent retreat—not everyone’s cup of expansiveness.

But otherwise she was right, and the principle is universal. Boom times are followed by “corrections.” Tulip bubbles are followed by tulip implosions and a layer of soap residue. Love at first sight is followed by those events that, taken together, we know as “The Honeymoon Is Over.”

This is the structure of life: it gets better, just like they tell ya. And then it gets worse. And then it gets better and then it gets worse. Ups and downs and round and round and above all, impermanence: That’s reality.

Now, we know this. But because we evolved to survive today, rather than live long and prosper, we find ways to overlook what we know. We’re not great planners, not really. A lot of us don’t even write wills or save for retirement. In an older part of the brain, we think this clover we’re in right now is going to last forever.

And so we get caught flat-footed at every downturn. Which just makes the contractions that much worse.

What’s to Be Done?

Here’s what I’ve noticed: nothing prolongs a downtime more than forgoing my self-care. Self-neglect will always take me further down, down beyond bootstrap reach, where I need bigger and bigger strokes of luck to lift me up again.

Naturally, back when my self-care was newish and wobbly, it would be the first thing to go when I was feeling low, or busy, or discombobulated by circumstances. But there was a very specific piece of advice my Zen teacher gave me that I’d had good results with. She said, “Never end a retreat without having the next retreat booked. Otherwise it could be years.” I took this excellent advice (and mostly applied it to vacations).

Eventually I realized I could apply it to life altogether. I could get out ahead of this expansion-contraction cycle by anticipating and planning for downtimes. It sounds counterproductive: Isn’t that just going to make us feel bummed out all the time?

I haven’t found that it does. Instead, planning for the lows cheers me up and makes me feel confident, well provisioned, and very much on my own side. Like a grownup, you could say.

Here are some strategies with big payoffs:

  • Doing things when my energy is up that will take care of me after the energy has dipped. Example: I never want to spend my whole day off doing chores and running errands, but a couple of hours on Sunday evening can get a whole week’s worth of lunches prepped. I cook a pot of rice, a pot of quinoa, and a batch of chimichurri, bake some root veggies—all I need now is protein left over from the previous night’s dinner and some washed greens. It’s good for my health, my wallet, and my mood—and all of those things feed each other in a cycle of virtue, amplifying the high times and cushioning the lows.
  • Reviewing a self-care checklist every 90 days and scheduling appointments—whether I “want” to or not. Example: On a great day I think I don’t need to see the dermatologist; how could I possibly get skin cancer? On a very low day I may be too depressed to care about that weird blotch there. Derm, dentist, gyno, mammography, hair, nails, internist, the lot: If it’s not already scheduled, I make the appointment.
  • Lowering my standards—the one thing I want to take even lower when I’m down. Example: I’ve got an A game for self-care that can take a couple hours, including workouts. My D game, for rock bottom days = five items: shaving, stretching, matching skivvies, mascara, and lipstick, The End. I’ve known a lot of people with rigid, exacting and very ambitious daily self-care lists. But no one can do it all every day.
  • Picking my battles. Example: I used to think I could control my mood, but now I know my control is limited. Sometimes, no matter how I eat, sleep and move my body, I’m going to have less energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes I will go all the way to actual depression. So I don’t waste my resources bucking the tide; it can’t be fought. I use what fighting energy I have to make things a little better, not to make them meet an impossible ideal. I don’t take on new projects, I don’t tackle the biggest problems, and most important, I don’t try to whip myself into shape. Mama said there’d be days like this, and to cut myself a break as needed. PS I might have some chocolate or a margarita.
What about you? What are your self-care strategies for riding the rhythms of life? Please let us know in the comments, or in the Lounge—we’ll do some communal self-care.
More reading on the topic of getting out ahead of the meal plan:

An RD Spills Her Top Tricks For Eating Healthy (Even When You Have Zero Time)

A New Way to Dinner


Image: Wheel of Fortune as Allegory on Society, Anonymous, 1550 – 1560, Rijksmuseum.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • Realistic and excellent advice. I’m 70 so I get to say that. : )

    • Yes you do! You even get to give advice 🙂

  • This hits me where I live. Thank you!

  • Yes, one sometimes has to pay for the “ups” with some “downs”. A key is to savor the bits of self-care time during the day such as time to sit outside to have coffee or a glass of wine, or even time to get a repair or cleaning chore done that has been waiting for a long time.

  • Yes! Pushing ahead to plan for the next rainy day is so important…when I am up to it I try to do more, just in case! Today I managed to can 14 pints of pickles. (Dill and bread & butter) I find cooking ahead provides my household with healthy, inexpensive food when we are just not up to pulling off a complete homemade meal. I can pull out something from the freezer or the pantry shelf and boost myself with healthy, homemade goodness on that cold dark day in my future.

    • Right! Whether that cold dark day be winter – or an inner slowdown.

  • I am enjoying this series very much…each post gives me something to think about and incorporate into my life through small changes. Anything each of us can do to improve our own daily battles and find more joy in life is worth the effort.

    I always feel better having a home cooked meal. I am doing more freezer cooking and planning ahead because it feels so good to be able to pull a nutritious meal out of the freezer, especially on days when my energy level is low.

    • Mmmm, freezer cooking! I think I need to know more about this – do you have any resources to recommend, Jean?

  • This piece is so so helpful, Max. I don’t pay attention to these cycles of energy and mood—you’d think by now that I’d have noticed that I rotate regularly between up and down. I’m going to be more attentive to this. Even awareness is an upgrade from the way I typically handle moods. And the idea of making appointments as self-care is so on point. Thank you, as ever, for shining light on these core issues. A real gift.

    • I’ve been thinking about this so much. Starting to suspect that awareness of emotions is 99% of winning at life. Thank you for that!

  • Matching skivvies?

    I just love you.

  • I shared your list of five D Game items with my knitting group, and asked for their lists. One soignee lady in her 80s started: “Put in my teeth, then my hearing aids – but that is sometimes an either/or.” None of us even had matching underwear. Two of the group did admit to lipstick as a daily essential.

  • I just turned 58 and i still work fulltime people are always asking me when i,m going to retire.i have days that i hurt badly my joints aren, moving the way they use to and the ups and downs daily really make me push myself through my day its hard but i figure i have more years to keep pushing forward.

  • hi Max, thanks as always for your wisdom, really appreciate your column here. lately I’ve been trying to do a check-in on the way to work, to kind of give my feelings a voice and to appreciate them..seems to be making a difference.
    here’s some advice from a general: the one to do every day is make your bed. i liked that.

  • Thank you for this insightful advice and your observations. I am coming to grips with a chronic pain condition that doctors haven’t been able to resolve (even went so far as to have high-dose radiation to kill a nerve in my body to try to kill the pain, but alas, no success). I don’t know how to get back up to any highs when most of my days seem to be painful, painful lows. The pain is unpredictable, but at the same time seemingly stubbornly persistent. I hesitate to take a breath when I wake up b/c breathing is where the pain lives. How can I plan for lows when I seem to be stuck in lows and realistically might have to plan for these lows for a long, long time if not the rest of my life? Honestly, I just wish I could see a few highs in my future.

    • Hi Judy, I’m so sorry to hear about your chronic pain. I suffered back pain for many years, and then surgery miraculously gave me a reprieve. If you are a spiritual person, I recommend the book Paths Through Pain, by Ann Callender. This book helps you realize you are not alone and casts suffering in a somewhat purposeful light.

      • I’m unable to find that book title or that author in my library catalogs–and I’m a librarian with access to a bunch of them. Is there a chance the title isn’t quite right? Or her name might be off? Thanks.

    • I am also in the category of chronic pain, it is a constant in every day. It is easy to let things slide. Medicine helps but there are always side effects, like yours. I empathize and wish well for you – fortitude.
      Books do help a lot, they are on my D-days always, YA novels are easier and quicker to get to a soothing lift. Goodreads is wonderful.
      Like Max said, chocolate too.

      • I’m sorry you suffer from chronic pain as well, Annette. It’s no fun, is it? I sat in my office for over an hour, sobbing from a new level of pain. It’s so discouraging.

        Anyway–I’m curious about the YA novels you read. What have some of your favorites been?

        I’m current tearing through a “grown-up book” my mom’s book club selected, The Tumbling Turner Sisters. It’s quite engaging–chapters written in different sisters’ voices as the sisters and their mother leave their quiet father home while they travel the vaudeville circuit doing a tumbling act. Takes place right around prohibition and suffrage–not to mention the KKK and Birth of a Nation. It’s not a downer story, but it has reminders of the realities of the time. It usually takes me months to finish a book, but I’m already more than halfway through this one and I think I’ve only had it for a few weeks.

        • Judy, I have a grandchild (fast) approaching teenagehood, her mom gives me suggestions. One is “Small Acts of Amazing Courage” by G. Whelan which is simple but interesting, also “Wild Robot” by Peter Brown for the even younger age.
          For YA, an author I really like is Jaqueline Woodson, her “Brown Girl Dreaming” is excellent for any age. Also, one novel I like to bring back memories is “Cinder” by M. Meyer, a takeoff, almost science fiction similarity, to Cinderella. So cute and an fast read. It makes the imagination go.
          Books are such a way to meet others too, I “encourage” myself to join reading groups, online like Goodreads or at my local library.
          Good luck.

    • Ach, Judy, I send you hugs and crossed fingers. And I wonder if there’s a clue in your letter? (I like to look for clues in my life. Sometimes I’ll go on a purposeful clue hunt. Sounds silly but try it for fun!)

      Anyway here’s the clue I see: if the lows are kind of constant and the highs are not on the horizon, how about deliberately adding them? Any little high could be a bright spot in a landscape of undifferentiated lows.

      As always, my thoughts run to chocolate and chick flicks – and YA fiction – but what appeals to you?

      • Thanks, Max. I will try to look for places to have highs. Honestly, just having a portion of my day that’s pain-free is my current version of a high. Now I will look for ways to add to that high by doing something with my pain-free moments, no matter how brief they might be.

        I’m a former editor for children’s books, and currently a college library director–curious about what YA fiction you’ve been reading. I like to see if we have it in my library or if I should be adding it to the collection. What’s caught your eye recently?

    • Hi Judy,
      I haven’t got any experience to help with what you’re going through, but I feel your emotional pain and I hope your doctors can find something that can help with the physical pain at some point too. Hugs to you x

      • Thank you, Wendy. I’m feeling worn down by it all today. The specter of long-term pain is making me mopey and grim. My meds make me forgetful and distracted; the pain makes me distracted. I need to find a way to believe it might get better someday, in some way, but I don’t have the vision to know what that might look like right now. Thank you for your support. 🙂

  • Great advice! I read this earlier in the week and deployed it yesterday. I’d had a lousy day and, normally, I would have given up altogether on any idea of self-care in the evening. But I told myself, no. I am going to do one little thing (which was to take a nice long shower) and I did feel better.

    I love this series!

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