People with mental illness struggle with the same time management troubles, distraction dilemmas and isolation issues as others without mental illness.
With no time clock to punch and no boss monitoring your comings and goings, starting the day can be difficult, according to Deborah Serani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Living with Depression: Why Biology and Biography Matter along the Path to Hope and Healing. Or, just the opposite, you might work through your days and even on weekends, she said.
Working from home is tricky because it “requires a person to shift…from personal to professional mode,” Serani said. And that means a lot of self-discipline, which is regularly tested with piles of laundry and dirty dishes, she said.
Other sights and sounds also can pilfer productivity, she said. For Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, those distractions are her two lab-chow mutts, who ferociously bark at passersby, and a barrage of phone calls.
In addition to struggling with the same concerns, individuals managing a mental illness also grapple with unique challenges. Below, Borchard and Serani, who both live with mental illness, provide productivity pointers and share what works for them.
1. Create structure. Structure helps to create boundaries around work, home and play, which boosts productivity. Serani has been a self-employed psychologist and work-at-homer for almost 20 years, so she’s developed a good rhythm that keeps her productive. “I awaken the same time every day, and give myself two hours to get as much chore work and personal work done as I can.” Any tasks that are left get done after work.
2. Set realistic goals. Be sensible about what you can accomplish in a workday and at home, Serani said. “Living with a mental illness requires us to strive for well being each and every day,” she said. So it’s key to avoid overextending or overcommitting yourself to either home or work projects.
3. Map out your day. Productivity also requires a specific plan. For instance, Borchard writes down a task she needs to accomplish and approximately how much time it’ll take. Again, keep these goals reasonable. “I would give myself two to three hours to write a blog post. Some took longer, and others were easier,” said Borchard, who also writes the widely popular blog Beyond Blue.
4. Identify what you need to work well. “The best advice I have is for readers to learn what they need to be at their best — and then try to create that structure as your own blueprint for work,” Serani said. For instance, she doesn’t mix work and play, even on her computer. “My work computer doesn’t have my personal email address or any of the fun sites, games or social networks bookmarked.” She also keeps her phone away from the office and has a mini-fridge near her workspace so she doesn’t break her concentration when needing a drink or snack.
With the help of her doctor, Serani also adjusted the time of day she takes her medication. Taking it in the morning made her tired during the workday, so she started taking it at night instead.
Borchard found that headphones and Pandora, a personalized Internet radio service, help to block out her barking dogs and other distractions. She also turns the ringer off on her office phone.
“When you live with mental illness you need to create an environment that enables you to reach your potential. Look at what is working well, pat yourself on the back and keep that momentum going,” Serani said. If something isn’t working — like Serani’s previous medication schedule — brainstorm ways you can make changes.
5. Work ahead. On the days you’re feeling well, accomplish projects ahead of schedule, so you can take time off when you need it, Borchard said. “I always tried to have a few blog posts ready to publish in case I couldn’t write for a couple of days,” she said.
6. Keep stress at bay. “Research tells us that stress overload not only intensifies symptoms of mental illness, but can trigger relapses in individuals who are symptom-free,” Serani said. Not surprisingly, this also affects your ability to work.
Keeping stress at bay means taking extra good care of yourself, Serani said. She pays particular attention to stress-inducing events, tries to minimize their impact and schedules time to decompress. “I generally take breaks out of the house — like a short walk, eating lunch on the patio or just resting in a pool of sunshine on the sofa in my office.” She also schedules dates with friends and family.
7. Make time for healthy practices. “I make sure that I eat well, sleep well and exercise often to help keep my mind, body and soul in synch,” Serani said. Borchard wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to swim and goes to bed at 9 p.m. Healthy habits aren’t just critical for well-being; they also help to prevent relapse.
8. Accept that you’ll have a bad day — or week. “Research shows that those who have the daily struggle of living with mental illness are prone to more self-criticism than non-mentally ill age peers,” Serani said.
Without even knowing it, you might be playing disparaging tapes in your head, which only make you feel worse. “’I can’t believe I can’t get out of bed and start my work day!’ is not only self-critical, it places undue shame and guilt into the mix,” she said.
Instead, according to Serani, you might say, “Some days are harder than others. And today I’m going to need some extra time to get out of bed — and get my mind into work mode.”
“It’s important to build a soft cushion of acceptance in the margins of your work life when you have a chronic illness, where you can regroup without guilt or shame if you’re having a particularly tough day, or as you’re bouncing back to a more grounded state,” she said. For Serani, that means not comparing her professional or personal life to anyone else’s, knowing what she needs when she’s having a rough day and staying positive about her illness.
Again, chronic mental illness is taxing. And while it’s frustrating when you can’t be as productive as you’d like, try to take it easy on yourself.
“When I was in the midst of my most severe depression, I couldn’t write at all. For almost a year,” Borchard said. “I try to remember that when I have a bad day where my brain feels like silly putty and I am not able to string two words together. I try to remember that courage isn’t doing a heroic thing, but getting up day after day and trying again.”