Hang the depression, full speed ahead: Strategies
What this is about
There's nothing like a good old-fashioned depressive episode to derail any semblance of productivity. Shoot, even getting out of bed is a long intensive battle when the Black Dog is howling outside your door. If you're prone to clinical depression, it can be a struggle just to get productive.
This is an issue I know a little something about. I deal with depression; it's been an issue as long as I can remember. I've had full-blown breakdowns with all the bells and whistles, never fun. Even when things are humming along and I'm feeling pretty optimistic, it's about a 50-50 chance I can make it through a day without all this brain crap going on in the background. And if I start to pay attention to this brain crap or actually believe it, watch out.
For me, it's a fact of life. My thorn in the flesh, if you will. There are a lot of things I'd rather have than depression, but oh well. It's my issue, and even though the old school get-over-it credo does absolutely nothing to help -- and can actually get downright insulting -- there are a few coping mechanisms you can use to get stuff done during low periods.
With many of these coping mechanisms, there are no real secrets involved. If you've dealt with a therapist who has at least half a brain, you've been taught a few coping tricks. You might have tried a few, and found one or two that work well for you. All of which is fine; someone coping with clinical depression or bipolar disorder needs a good supply of these coping mechanisms, and the more you have in your toolbox the better your chances are.
"If I'm writing something while depressed, I am absolutely sure it is going to suck. Really really bad. But here's a funny thing: Often when I look at the work later, I can't tell much difference ... it will take me longer to get motivated and focused enough to write the thing, but other than that I really can't tell."
A brief explanation of depression
Yeah, everyone has those days when they're not firing on all cylinders. Everyone has those sad days. Clinical depression, however, is a different animal entirely. Your energy is gone. It doesn't matter how rested you are, you still feel like you've been run over by a herd of diarrhetic buffalo. You want to do stuff. You want to be productive. There's a corner of your mind, however, that is not on the same page as you. That corner is busy telling you why it's not gonna happen. You're no good. You're a bum. You can only do a half-fast job, everyone will notice, and the only one who doesn't know you're a fraud is you. The body often believes that corner of the mind, it goes into a total uprising, your energy level suffers, you feel like @$$, the mind lets you know you are slacking off, and uses that information to carve you a whole new one. Left unchecked, that circle becomes a spiral, and watch out below.
It's not quite the same as a chronically low self-esteem. While one may feed the other, they're really kind of different. Low self-esteem is mental, while depression is physiological. If your self-esteem is fine when you're not depressed, that narrows it down. But while self-esteem issues may respond to therapy or affirmations, these won't touch the physiological aspects that are in pure clinical depression or bipolar disorder.
Depression is insidious stuff. Basically it pits your brain and body against you, and one of you usually ends up losing.
Julie A. Fast and Dr. John D. Preston collaborated for and already I'm wearing out my copy. I've highlighted and annotated it, and have found a few strategies that get me some good results. While it's not as good as therapy -- which the authors admit -- it presents some good coping skills for the person who struggles with depression or bipolar disorder. "Get It Done When You're Depressed,"
Fast herself has battle-tested these strategies. She's dealt with bipolar disorder her whole adult life, and to this day says she can't handle an eight-hour workday. But she's built some chops in mental health advocacy and coaching, and has several books out.
My work doesn't suck when I think it should
Fast says she has some days where the thought of getting up to do some writing takes all her energy. But in her battles she made an interesting discovery: She swears there's no real drop-off in her work quality when she's depressed than when she's not.
This very thought made me wonder, and I went through some of my old Hubs and other writings to see if this is indeed true with me. And guess what? It's true. That is my big takeaway from this book, already making it worth the price of admission.
If I'm writing something while depressed, I am absolutely sure it is going to suck. Really really bad. But here's a funny thing: Often when I look at the work later, I can't tell much difference. There may be a darker edge to my writing when depressed, maybe a little more cynical tinge, and it will take me longer to get motivated and focused enough to write the thing, but other than that I really can't tell.
And if I can't tell, it stands to reason that the reader can't tell either.
It's not just writing, either. When I'm playing music, my mood makes little difference in the final product. It turns out my rhythm is just as good, I can improvise just as freely, and my work is just as lucid when my head is sick as when it is well. I record nearly everything I play in public and in rehearsals, and I can't tell much difference.
Could it be that a ditch-digger or burger flipper or CEO with clinical depression or bipolar disorder can say that same thing after careful thought and analysis? That wouldn't surprise me either.
OK. So if that crucial element is established, how does one make the snap from wanting to hide to actually getting productive?
I like Ms. Fast's approach to this. She outlines 50 strategies someone can attempt as a way of essentially fooling the mind and body into functioning even when the chemical imbalance is short-circuiting everything. All of your favorites are there -- giving yourself a pep talk, being your own drill instructor, structuring your day, and breaking large projects into smaller steps. Each chapter takes one strategy and dissects it.
The book's structure is formulaic in a way. Fast writes an intro paragraph, delves into it in more detail including bullet points showing how depression plays a role. She adds one person's coping story, then her own. An exercise, a Q and A with Dr. Preston, and a conclusion round out the chapters. These chapters are predictable that way, standardized. Maybe lacking in imagination, but practical and relatively easy to understand and apply.
The first few chapters seem to lean toward a "fake it until you make it" mentality -- getting productive when your mind is fighting you and your body is all worn out from depression. "I keep going anyway and wait for the wonderful feeling of motivation to finally show up," she advises. "If it never does, at least I have accomplished something."
While "fake it until you make it" has its flaws, it works as long as you can fool yourself in the process. That's why it may take more than just a couple of coping mechanisms to make it work.
Prductive when you don't feel like it
Here are some of Fast's strategies:
Wait until you finish your work to judge it: Since your mind tries to tell you your work sucks when you're depressed, this is not a time to listen to it. Don't be so quick to eviscerate a project of yours. When I write, I have to remind myself that all first drafts are terrible. That's why we edit. By all means judge your work, but later -- after it's done. Fast deals with this regularly, and she reminds herself this is just a part of the writing/creative process, and the voice of depression is always kibitzing over her work. "It's a sign that you're on track because you always feel this way in the middle of a project," she writes.
Break projects into steps: This sounds like a no-brainer; nearly all folks in the personal productivity industry trot this one out. But it still bears repeating. If you want to go to the extreme, you can use the Getting Things Done system with all the Next Action steps, as long as you don't get more hooked on the system than you are about actually getting junk done. Breaking down a project is essential for me, but difficult because I like to see the big picture. I'm big on mind mapping and planning, though sometimes tries to become the project rather than whatever it is I'm working on. Fast says she takes a big piece of paper, a bunch of colored pens, and outlines everything before starting. While this may sound too much like work, it helps her focus when she sees what the steps are.
Get ready the night before: I recently started doing this, and it helps a lot. Getting up has always been an ordeal for me. On my bad days bed is a whole lot more manageable than the realities of real life, and on my good days I still spend most mornings stumbling around trying to find my brain. On top of that, I hate being rushed. If I have a lot of stuff to pull together in the morning, this will affect the rest of my day -- especially when I think I screwed something up again. Now I'll take a few minutes at night to go over my agenda, make lunch, set up the coffee maker, take a shower. Fast plans things like this. If she has to be somewhere the next day, her car has gas, directions are printed up, all her paperwork is together, and breakfast is ready before she goes to bed. She also mentally prepares herself: "I remind myself as I go to sleep that my day will have meaning and then I think of the things I have to do that day."
More on coping skills
Some favorite mind hacks
Of these 50 mind hacks and coping mechanisms, I have a few I particularly like. I'll frequently employ these steps, and some I'd been using as my coping mechanism long before I'd heard of this book:
Remind yourself that you're depressed: At some point, the ol' fake-it-until-you-make-it trick took a dogleg left, and you're going head to head with your illness. To fully understand this concept, let's put it in simpler terms: Consider the source. When those weird thoughts start coming in, just consider the source and carry on. Fast reminds herself like this: "I won't let my depression take over my actions. It may have taken over my mind, but not my actions." My own reminder is similar: "It's just depression, that's all. Go in the strength you have." Or, as one of my editors used to say, "go with what you've got." Makes sense.
Avoid isolation: For me, this is huge. Writing is a solitary business, and I need to get out as much as I can and just hang around with people. That may be the one saving grace with my day job (plus the medical insurance and profit sharing ain't half bad either). I have a home office I use for writing, and the computer is not hooked up to the Internet. To go on line I must go to a public place, crack open the laptop, capture a signal, and risk being seen in public. If I had Internet at home, there'd be little reason to go out (except for the day job). Fast realizes living alone doesn't get it for her, and she top-loads her schedule with all sorts of things to do and people to see, so even when she's writing the isolation time is minimized..
Get some exercise: This may be the single biggest reason I can get away with avoiding medication, and my down times seem to coincide with less physically active periods. A quick bike ride or walk lifts my mood right up, probably because of the feelgood endorphins, and partly because I'm just getting out doing stuff. While that's great now, the sticky wicket is in wondering how I'll work it when I'm 93 or so. By then I probably won't be able to bicycle my usual 50 miles a week or do serious hiking. Shoot, at that age, merely cutting the cheese might leave me winded, so I'll need to figure something out. Might have to swallow my medication instead. Fast says she walks with a friend regularly and takes her nephew swimming. Both are good for the mood, and both are social enough that she's not in isolation.
The one that got away -- Beware of caffeine and sugar highs: Fast recommends cutting your caffeine and sugar intake if you have mood disorders, and that's one I'm gonna have problems with. I love my coffee, the darker and bolder the better, and if it's strong enough to melt the spoon it's just about right. With several cups coursing through my system I am the master of the known universe. Sure the caffeine buzz is temporary and I feel like crap after it wears off, but nobody stands between me and my coffee. I'm not big on soft drinks, but I love southern-style sweet tea. Fast says she drinks decaf about 90 percent of the time, but I honestly can't stand the stuff. Decaf tastes fake to me, and it probably comes from the same evil people who gave you instant coffee.
While there are few real surprises in this book, having all these mind hacks and coping mechanisms in one place makes it worth having. I highly recommend it if depression is part of your life. If it's not, you may still be close to someone who deals with clinical depression or bipolar disorder, and this book may give you a peek at that person's world.