I have a chronic form of depression called dysthymia. It’s described as a long-term, milder form of depression (as opposed to a “Major depression” which is intense and can last from 4 months to 2 years). However, tell someone with dysthymia that their condition is “mild” and you’re likely to get a hearty “FUCK YOU.” The difference between chronic and major depression is the difference between having a hole shot through your hand with a gun, or slowly bored through you with a rusty spoon. Yes. It’s so much milder.
Dysthymia cannot be cured. You learn to treat it, to manage it, but you don’t have hope of someday getting back to “normal.” A dull, low-grade ache of depression is my normal, and accepting that is a big part of learning to live with it.
So, when it comes to approaching things like productivity, writing, starting a business, etc. most of the helpful blogs and books are very discouraging. “Just do it! Just get your butt in the chair and work hard!” seems to be a recurring theme. “Plan your goals, schedule your time, and put forth effort.”
So what do I do when there are days – sometimes even weeks – when I cannot “just work hard,” when getting out of bed and feeding myself is about the most I’m going to get done that day, when that looming schedule of things I Have to Do causes so much guilt, shame, fear, and self-hatred that it does more harm than good?
I ranted about this on twitter recently and was recommended two good articles (here and here) which were a great starting point for me, but it took a lot more introspection and planning before I found something that worked for me. And I’m going to share with you in case someone might also benefit from this.
There’s 7 main parts to this: accept the situation, set (flexible) goals, try things out, keep detailed records, get to know yourself, forgive your failures, revise your plans, and celebrate your successes.
I am not throwing this up here for the sake of touchy-feely bullshit. I mean this.
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
I feel like shit, and feel like I am shit. So I try to prove myself to be worth the space I take up on this planet by creating things and working hard. I start projects, throw myself into art, do extra time at work, get straight A’s, and in general be the most productive, the most awesome, the BEST at anything I do. But… then sometimes I fail. And when I fail, the world ENDS. If everything I am, my whole point of existing, is doing all this stuff, and I suddenly CAN’T do it? I spiral into a horrible, dark place that takes days, weeks, or even months to crawl back out of.
If you’re reading this post because you’re hoping for a way to cram MORE stuff into your life, some secret to make it so you can do EVEN MORE projects… you’re wasting your time. Stress is terrible for mental health, especially when you’ve built up all these precariously-perched, stuffed-to-the-brim schedules and goals for yourself, with the constant strain of work you are not doing, people you are disappointing, goals you told all of the internet but now aren’t fulfilling… etc.
You need to step back from that. You need to take some time to really accept that you are not capable of being the superhero who manages 1500 tasks and is always perfect and always does the best at everything. Your capabilities and those of a neurotypical or able-bodied person are simply not the same.
I think there’s a big mourning process for this. It took me a long time to accept it, to be okay with the fact that my “normal,” my limits, are about HALF of what another person can handle. And to not HATE MYSELF for that fact. I didn’t give myself depression, and you didn’t ask to have whatever obstacles life has thrown at your life. Accepting that you might not be capable of doing epic piles of work will give you the freedom and peace you need to do what you CAN do.
This does not mean that the things you want to do are impossible. Not at all. Absolutely not. You CAN fulfill your dreams, complete your goals, etc. But it might take you longer. It might mean you have to focus on one project at a time. It might mean you can’t write every day, but only on weekends, or you can’t volunteer to organize every single project – maybe you will have to take a backseat role on a few things. AND THAT IS OKAY.
Everything else I tell you is based around the idea that you have taken the time to accept your limits, and are willing to work within them, instead of pushing yourself until you collapse.
Set (Flexible) Goals
I made a (rambly, poorly structured) post about this a few weeks ago, but I basically just googled “how to set goals” and “time management tips” and extrapolated from the top few.
Basically, take an hour or two, lock yourself in a room with a piece of paper, and daydream.
What do you want your life to look like in 5 years? What do you REALLY want? Forget the short term. What do you want to have accomplished by the time you’re 30, or 40, etc.?
Make a list, write a scene. Just picture in your head the ideal version of your life that you want to happen within limits. (Winning the lottery? Mmm. Probably not gonna happen.)
Then go back through that dreamy imagining, and make it solid. “I want to be a writer” Okay, does that mean you want to have published one book? You want to have won a writing award? You want to make x number of dollars or sell x number of copies? “I want to be secure financially.” Great! Get out a calulator and figure out how much you have to make to be there, what debt you need to pay off, etc. “I want to start my own business” Does that mean you want to have opened the doors to your physical store on day 1 of your 5th year? Do you want to quit your day job and live off the business? Do you want to make x number of sales?
Next, when you have some tangible goals, such as “I want to make $10,000 a year from my business” or “I want to have three books published” or “I want to own my own house,” etc. Break it down even further. Work backwards.
What do you need to do to have your goals happen? Well, to own your own house, you would need a loan, need x amount of money saved up, etc. To have three books published, you will need to write three books (ha!), have a publisher (traditional or self-published), etc. Make a short list of what essential things are needed for each goal. Then break it down further – what essential things are needed for each of THOSE steps.
Keep working backwards until you have a plan of attack for each of those goals.
When you are planning your day-to-day, keep those goals in sight. Literally. I have mine on the wall, and I write them out at the top of every month, and sometimes every week if I need to keep sight of what’s important.
As you make to-do lists and schedule things, make sure that the things directly related to your 5-year goals go FIRST whenever possible. Anything that is NOT related to those 5-year goals, ask yourself… do I really need to do this? The answer is probably no.
While certain projects might seem really interesting, if they aren’t contributing to the things you yourself said were the MOST IMPORTANT things you wanted to have accomplished in five years… why are you doing them? If they are going to take a lot of time and energy away from the projects that are essential to you… maybe you should cut them out.
Try Out Plans
This applies to everyone, but especially for me and my own mental illness: the first productivity schedule / plan of attack / goal achievement tool you try might not work. The second one might not work. The third one might not work.
So instead of throwing all your hope into one basket and feeling crushingly defeated when it doesn’t work out, go into it with the idea that you are going to test drive two or three options and see which ones work for you.
Google “time management” or “how to be more productive” and you will get a dozen plans to choose from. I’d advise not buying any books. There are hundreds of websites willing to give you this information for free. So read some blogs, ask friends how they get things done, or look up “productivity tips from successful authors” / artists/bloggers, etc.
Some things I have tried:
- Scheduling out my entire day: I wake up, get a piece of paper, and think about what I want to get done that day, then I write like… “from 8:30 – 9:30 am – write blog post. From 9:30 – 10: check twitter. From 10 – 11: Work on novel draft.” Then I follow the plan.
- Goal lists: I make a list of goals for the month, the week, and the day. They are divided into “High priority,” “second priority,” and “if I have spare time.” I try to only plan ONE high priority task a day, and several of the other two.
- Daily routine: When I come home from work, I do a list of 4 things, and every day at 9 pm, I run through a routine of reading, writing, editing, and self care, and go to bed at a specific time every day.
- Notification Reminders: There’s several great reminder/task apps and websites, such as To-Doist, google Calendar, or just the free task app that came on my blackberry (don’t judge). I’ve heard good things about Omnifocus, too, but haven’t tried it. I plug all my deadlines, daily tasks, etc. into the app, setting repeated tasks and reminders accordingly, and let my phone dictate what I need to do that day, and happily checking off the tasks as I do them.
This is something I hear a lot about on writing tip sites/podcasts/etc. but it is essential to this process for people with extenuating circumstances.
Keep track (even for a short period of time) of what goals/tasks you set for yourself, when you accomplished them, your emotional state that day/time, your sleep hours, your food/water intake, anything special that happened that day, etc.
You should start noticing trends – maybe you get a lot done after 9 hours of sleep, but 8 hours of sleep you have a harder time. Maybe on days when you set 2 tasks, you were motivated and got them done, but when you set 3, you sank into self-loathing really fast.
Writing this stuff down in some sort of log (a spreadsheet, a notebook, something) is essential. You may look back and have a hazy feeling of “well I THINK I get more done when I work late into the night” but when you get it all on paper, you may find that while that is true, those days were followed by two crash days, when you felt so horrible you couldn’t get anything done. Or maybe you think you get more done right after lunch, only once you see it on paper, it turns out you get almost ALL your work done after lunch, and now you know that that time is extremely valuable.
Being very aware of what’s going on inside your own head is absolutely essential.
The record-keeping should help with this process, but you also just need to keep your finger on your emotional pulse at all times. Take time for introspection (I do this on my drives, on my 15 min breaks, when in line, or if something major is happening, I take a few hours to really dig deep and understand my own thoughts).
This whole post is about the process of figuring out how to structure your life so that you can accomplish the things you want most out of life. If that structure isn’t working for you – if it’s making you feel anxious to have so many goals, or if you are starting to hate yourself for falling behind… you need to adjust.
If you don’t meet your goals that day, or that week. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Forgive yourself for not being at your best. Train yourself that the second you start self-hating, stop, and forgive yourself instead. Immediately.
Yes, you didn’t reach your word count this week. But that’s okay.
Yes, you were supposed to do the dishes this weekend and you didn’t. That’s okay.
If nothing else, forgive yourself because self-loathing is incredibly useless and unproductive. Nagging yourself and tearing yourself down for messing up isn’t going to make the work get done any faster. Hell, you’ll probably make it worse. Cut it out. Take a deep breath, get some perspective – this is one week out of hundreds of weeks in your life – and move on.
If you find yourself struggling with this part in particular, google “destructive thought processes” and “negative self talk.” Read some self-help guides for restructuring your thinking and learning how to tell when your internal monologue is just your mental illness eating at you, and not anything good or useful to your life at all. It’s honestly one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Revise your plans.
If you find that three weeks have gone by, and all your goals aren’t being met and you’re just feeling worse and worse, it’s time to change the plan.
If you are consistently failing at your productivity plan, you are not the problem. The plan is.
Recently I figured out that while I can handle writing an average of 800 words a day (though I DO NOT write every day – it’s more like 1500 words 2-3 days a week and nothing the rest of the time), if I try to push myself to write 1,000 words a day or more, the guilt, self-loathing, and sense of failure is so overwhelming that I end up writing zero words. Having those goals that I simply cannot reach on a regular basis was doing me more harm than good. So I took some time to accept and forgive myself for the fact that, no, as long as I am working full-time, I will never be able to “win” at Nanowrimo, and I revised my plan, lowering my monthly goal to 24k instead of 50k.
Something else I learned about myself recently is I can only do one task a day on weekdays. So I can either write, or I can do the dishes, or I can run errands. But I cannot do all three (or even two). Trying to push myself to do more ends up in me being stressed, hating myself for failing, and miserable – and unable to do anything.
It is better to set a small goal and accomplish it, than to set an ambitious goal, get stressed out trying to achieve it, and winding up miserable and doing nothing at all.
Keep track of your goals and your progress. Get a word count tracker. Use tools like mint.com to track your money savings. Cute little thermometer gauges, graphs, progress trackers… these are GREAT. Put them on your blog, or keep them in an open browser window so that you can look at them every few days and remind yourself YES, you DID that.
You DID post six blog posts this month. You DID finish writing the first eight chapters of your novel. You DID save $2k towards your new house. YOU DID THAT.
If you have a friend or partner in life, get them to help with this. I email my goals to my life partner, Chris, and when I achieve them, he emails me back poorly photoshopped gold stars, or buys me celebratory take out, or just goes “WOW you wrote 4k this week?? That’s impressive!”
This part is probably natural to most people, but I find that with depression, I tend to blow my failures out of proportion and minimize the things I do well. Having hard numbers in front of me makes it difficult to sink into self-loathing. How can I hate myself when I have written two short stories this year and made good headway on a novel? How is it true that I’m a worthless flop if I have this blog full of posts I’ve written?
I hope this post helps someone.
I have read dozens of posts and articles about how to achieve more and be productive, and all of them left me heartsick with my own failings. I really want you to know that even if you are looking at a life where you will never be as high-achieving as your peers, that does not mean you can’t still accomplish everything you want out of life.
Things are not hopeless.
You absolutely can do whatever you want to do. Just take it slowly, don’t expect perfection from yourself, and make sure you are spending your time/energy on what matters most. Understand your mind/body’s needs and don’t make things harder by running yourself ragged with stress.
You can do this. I absolutely believe in you. 100%. 🙂
If you’re going to try this out and want to post about your progress on twitter or a blog, let me know in the comments! I would love to follow your progress and cheer you on. 😀