How to Get Something Done When You’re Feeling Down
When people are depressed their energy, activity, and mood levels decrease in a spiral. The lower energy you feel, the less you do, the worse you feel emotionally, and the cycle continues. Being productive can help interrupt that negative spiral and turn it around. The author offers five strategies for how to break the cycle and move forward: 1) As a general rule, try to have one source of accomplishment and one source of pleasure in each of your mornings, afternoons, and evenings. 2) Find the sweet spot between not working enough and expecting too much of yourself. 3) Alternate between easy, medium, and hard tasks. 4) Cultivate a deep-work habit to reduce your need for self-control. 5) Consider getting treatment for your mental health.
Over the past two years, I’ve slogged through many, many unsuccessful rounds of fertility treatments trying to have a second child. To say the stress and grief from this has affected my mood and anxiety levels would be an understatement. It’s been hard not to plunge into a deep depression, and I’ve felt depressed for periods. Yet I’ve managed to stay reasonably functional and productive. How? Using tips from my psychology training that I’ve outlined here.
If you’re depressed, your number one job is to look after yourself. Productivity is secondary to your mental health. However, learning how to be productive when you’re feeling down can help with depression recovery. If your first reaction to this topic is that it feels like extra pressure, stick with me while I explain how and why being productive can help with depression.
All emotions have an evolved purpose. Sad, depressed, apathetic emotions cause us to pause, withdraw, and reflect deeply. This has self-protective aspects. Sometimes it’s wise to cocoon away from danger. Sometimes it’s wise to question what we find meaning in and not to keep plowing ahead doing the same things. But in depression, this self-protective, withdrawn, low-energy mode essentially gets stuck “on,” and becomes unhelpful. Instead of depressed feelings signaling the need to question whether what we’re doing with our lives is meaningful enough, everything starts to feel meaningless. Emotions are a signaling system. They help let you know when you’re safe versus in danger or heading in the right or the wrong direction. However, when they become prolonged, they lose their effectiveness as signals.
When people are depressed their energy, activity, and mood levels decrease in a spiral. The lower energy you feel, the less you do, the worse you feel emotionally, and the cycle continues. Being productive can help interrupt that negative spiral and turn it around. Here’s where to start.
1. Schedule daily sources of accomplishment and pleasure.
For mood health, we need two types of activities: those that provide a sense of accomplishment and those that provide pleasure. A well-researched therapy for depression called “Behavioral Activation” is based on this principle.
As a general rule, try to have one source of accomplishment and one source of pleasure in each of your mornings, afternoons, and evenings. These can be very simple. For example, a source of pleasure could be sitting in a sunny window to drink your morning coffee. A sense of accomplishment could come from a workout, vacuuming under your bed, or a work task.
Some people find it helpful to schedule activities in advance so they can more easily hit the recommendation of one pleasure activity and one mastery activity, per morning, afternoon, and evening. (You would end up with six per day — three for pleasure, and three for a sense of accomplishment.)
If you’re depressed, the pleasure you get from activities will typically be muted compared to normal. So, it may be a little harder to identify activities you would enjoy. This is another reason to schedule in advance. Start by brainstorming a list of the activities that provide either pleasure or a sense of mastery or accomplishment for you. Ask someone who knows you well to help if you feel stuck.
This tip benefits productivity in direct and indirect ways. Activities that provide a sense of mastery or accomplishment are productive, and the structure of this approach will benefit your biological rhythms and your mood.
2. Reduce your usual workload.
When you’re struggling with your mood and high stress levels, attempting to work at 100% of your usual output is ill-advised. However, not working at all typically isn’t helpful either. Why?
Regular work helps provide structure to your day. When you have the structure of regular activities, this helps regulate your biological rhythms, such as those related to eating and sleeping. Without the structure of regular activities, including work and socializing, those biological rhythms will become more dysregulated, which will tend to make depression worse.
Fifty percent of your usual activity is a good sweet spot between not working enough and expecting too much of yourself. You may even find that your productivity doesn’t decrease that much with this approach. It will force you to prioritize deep work and other truly important tasks. Limiting yourself to 50% of your usual work will help you let go of activities that were only medium-productive to begin with. Fifty percent isn’t a hard and fast rule. You can choose a different number if you’d prefer, but adopt the principle.
3. Alternate between easy, medium, and hard tasks.
Another element of good mood hygiene is that you shouldn’t do all easy tasks or all very hard tasks for long stretches. Where does this recommendation come from? Partly it comes from observations of how kids learn best, and people with developmental disabilities. For these groups, negative feelings often manifest as behavioral outbursts. We see that behavior and happiness improve when people are not being under- or over-challenged constantly.
You don’t need to take my word for this, you can easily observe for yourself how you feel if you are constantly challenged to the edge of your capacities versus if you intersperse this with familiar activities you feel confident with, but that still feel meaningful and productive (e.g., mowing your lawn or writing your monthly newsletter).
When you’re scheduling your three activities per day that will provide a sense of accomplishment, aim for one hard, one easy, and one medium.
4. Cultivate a deep-work habit to reduce your need for self-control.
If you’re depressed, you’ll want to rely on self-control as little as possible, because everything feels more effortful when your mood is low. The best way to reduce the self-control needed for highly productive work is through strong habits. By this, I mean a daily routine of doing deep work at the same time each day for a couple of hours.
You can create a deep work habit by doing it at the same time and place each day, and by cueing the start of your habit in a consistent way. A habit you do every weekday at the same time will be easier to keep up than one you do at varying times e.g., do your deep work at 10 AM everyday, not 10 AM on Mondays and 3 PM on Wednesdays. This approach also helps reduce decision fatigue.
When you have a very consistent habit, the cues associated with the habit become enough to trigger it, without you needing as much self-control. This effect is well-documented through research but it can take a few months of keeping the same routine for it to no longer require nearly as much self-control.
With consistency, it’ll become much easier to get started and to stick it out through your deep work session. Eventually you’ll be able to start deep work on auto-pilot, without it feeling like a big lift. For example, I start my deep work sessions by mixing an electrolyte drink, and setting timers on my Google Home for 60, 90, and 120 minutes. Initially I stumbled into this routine, but once these routines became my habit cues, I kept them up. My original reason for using the timers was to help train myself to concentrate for two hour blocks, and to help me better understand what the fluctuations in my focus were across my work period. The timers also help me pace myself, avoid unproductive overworking, and avoid boom and bust cycles of activity. A third reason I use the timers is that I find it harder to concentrate in the second hour. I need to be more protective of my concentration in my second hour of deep work. The timers remind me to do that.
Once firmly established, it will become much easier to maintain your habit, no matter what mood you’re in and what strong feelings you might be having.
5. Consider getting treatment for your mental health.
This might sound obvious, but a way to be more productive if you’re depressed is to not be depressed anymore or be less so. Almost universally, people wait far too long before accessing treatment for their mental health. When I was a therapist, I would ask clients when the onset of the problem was. Frequently, the answer would be years ago, not months or weeks.
There are a variety of approaches you can try, including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or medication. Taking a broad-based multivitamin and mineral supplement can also help you be resilient to stress and is a simple option, especially if your eating habits have worsened due to your depression. Learning self-compassion skills can also be extremely beneficial for depression, stress, and anxiety if you tend to be self-critical. Skills for identifying and disrupting rumination are important to master as rumination impairs mood, productivity, and problem-solving.
Treatment can help you understand how depressed feelings affect your functioning. For example, depressed feelings put people on the lookout for any signs of interpersonal rejection. This is part of their evolved purpose, since in an evolutionary sense, it’s dangerous to be excluded from our tribe. In reality, this isn’t always helpful. At work, this can manifest as you perceiving other people as being unsupportive, not liking you, or not recognizing your talents and capabilities, even when this isn’t the case. And this can lead to misplaced irritability and hostility towards bosses, coworkers, or clients.
When you’re depressed or experiencing emotions like grief or anxiety, you won’t always be able to be as productive as you’d ideally like. Give yourself grace about this. Try a 5 minute self-compassion meditation if you need it. Be patient with yourself but also give the recommended advice a try. Depression often causes people to have negative expectations, which can include expecting advice not to work for you. If you know this, you can avoid this trap and experiment with the strategies provided.