Depression is a difficult illness. Not only does it sink your mood and self-esteem, but it also saps your energy and motivation. It makes getting things done — everything from working to cooking to paying the bills to making decisions — incredibly challenging.
“I’m still depressed more than I’m well,” writes Julie A. Fast, in Get It Done When You’re Depressed: 50 Strategies for Keeping Your Life On Track, a valuable book written with neuropsychologist John D. Preston, PsyD.
She’s learned to work through her depression: “Depression may take over my mind, but it doesn’t have to take over my actions.”
When getting things done, Fast and Preston emphasize the importance of not waiting for motivation. Don’t wait until you feel like doing something because that feeling will probably never come.
In fact, they say that waiting for your motivation to return is the biggest mistake you can make when you’re depressed and need to perform.
According to Fast, “After years of waiting for the elusive good feeling that comes with wanting to do something, I finally accepted the fact that I’ve never wanted to do certain things when I’m depressed and I never will. So I try to do them anyway.”
Here are three helpful strategies from Get It Done When You’re Depressed.
Make Your Own Decisions
Depression sabotages one’s ability to make decisions. Even the decisions that typically take no time turn into “Herculean tasks” when you’re depressed, write Fast and Preston. Even when you finally do make a decision, depression can trigger feelings of guilt.
Since our daily lives are all about making decisions — what to cook, what to eat, what to wear, what project to tackle, what events to attend, and so on — this can become paralyzing.
To help with decision-making Fast reminds herself that: “Depression won’t make a decision today, but I will,” and “Depression tells me I made the wrong decision, but I didn’t. I made a choice, and it’s my own.”
When she does make a decision, she says, “Good for you, Julie!”
She also promises herself that she’ll pick something no matter what, and she won’t analyze her decisions. “Yes, there may be something better, but I’ve made my decision and I stick to it.”
The exercise: What’s also helpful is to have predetermined decisions for common situations. Fast and Preston suggest making a list of decisions that you have a hard time making on a regular basis. Then list the “set-in-stone decision” you can use whenever you’re depressed and that situation arises.
For instance, unless you’re too tired, you’ll always attend a party you want to attend. If you’re trying to figure out where to go for lunch, you’ll let others decide (and you won’t change their decision).
They also note that if you have to make decisions that affect others, go with what you’d choose when you’re well. And put off big life decisions until you’re not depressed.
Set Up Structure
Structure is key when you’re depressed. According to the authors, “When your life feels out of control and without structure, it’s natural to feel like you’ll never get your depression under control.”
Have a plan for all your days – like a child does. Kids have a structure for getting up, eating, going to school, playing and sleeping. This helps with promoting calm (instead of floundering and frustration with no structure).
Having structure helps you get out of bed, participate in enjoyable activities, and gives you something to look forward to. It also takes away the worry of figuring out what to do with your day.
Not having structure fuels depression. “…[Y]ou have more time to think about what’s wrong with your life instead of getting out there and living it.”
The exercise: Fast and Preston suggest asking yourself these questions and writing down your responses:
- What did your school day look like in sixth grade?
- Compare this to today.
- How can you create a similar structure?
- If your days are already very structured, is that helpful? If it’s not helpful, what do you need to change?
Get Help with Limits
“The depressed brain is a confused brain,” write Fast and Preston. This makes it tough to set and make your deadlines, and get to work on time. That’s why the authors suggest looking for outside support.
For instance, for one woman relying on just her alarm to get to work on time wasn’t helping. So she started carpooling with other people. She asked them to call her when they get up. She bought a really loud, old-fashioned alarm, and she asked her boss to hold her accountable when she has a deadline. “I don’t want to let down any of these people. This is not pressure for me but support.”
The exercise: Fast and Preston suggest finding a personal taskmaster. “Think about the people in your life. Who likes calendars, deadlines, watches, and handheld devices that tell them where they are every minute of the day? That person might be a very good taskmaster for you!”
List the tasks you need to accomplish, and show your list to that person. Take out a calendar, and go over it with them.
Ask them to call you on certain dates to check in. Schedule a time every week to review your progress. Fast and Preston also note that this “works especially well when you work with a therapist or group.”
Other ideas they suggest: When you feel like you can’t clean your home, ask someone to come over and help you focus, and then enjoy a coffee break after you’re done; ask a friend to take you to work and pick you up at a certain time; join a club where people do things in groups — anything from reading to running to writing to golfing — so they decide when you come and go.
Getting things done when you’re depressed is not easy. The key is not to wait for the energy, inspiration or motivation to start.
“Depression doesn’t want you to do anything and never will. It’s an inert illness, not an active illness.”
Instead, have structure and support in place, and start where you are. Take the first step. Today.