I was recently on my phone, browsing absentmindedly, when I came across something that really struck me. It was a sentence to the tune of: “depressed people can’t afford to wait for motivation”. To me, this hammers home the idea that waiting around for a burst of energy, vision, direction and whatever else, is a luxury that depressed people simply cannot treat as a given.
I think there’s a great deal of truth to this, but at the same time, productivity in the midst of a depressive spiral can’t be (and shouldn’t be) reduced to Discipline i.e. forming the habit of doing what you have to, reliably, even when you don’t feel like doing it, purely because you recognise that it’s an important thing.
The unfortunate thing about depression is, it tends to bleed you of your ability to complete simple daily tasks, as well as washing you in a fog of general apathy. When you can’t find a good reason to leave your bed to shower or eat, it's damn near impossible to find any reason at all to work towards your goals, both long and short-term. In this way, we can see how discipline kind of goes out the window.
I must admit, I, myself, am not necessarily the poster-child for religious productivity and habit formation, (I’m sure the people who know me well are laughing right now) but there are a few things here and there that I’ve picked up, that I can pass on, even if I haven’t perfected all of them yet. Also, I have some lived experience of finding a way to Get Things Done despite being in a depressed haze, so I’m going to do my best to make sense of navigating these things.
The Luxury of Motivation
So depressed people shouldn’t bank on a flash of powerful motivation, but also they can’t necessarily fall back on habit. What avenue is left? Honestly there is no universal answer. The “trick” is to be attentive to yourself over time and understand what’s helpful to you and what isn’t. A decent support system certainly doesn’t hurt either. I’ll use myself as an example.
Things that don’t work for me:
Bullying myself, guilt, impatience, fear tactics, “others are worse off” and “just get over it” rhetoric etc.
Things that also don’t work for me:
Over indulgence in my whims, dishonesty about what I’m capable of, “nobody has it worse than me” rhetoric etc.
Things that have worked for me:
Baby steps, accountability check-ins from loved ones, working towards bite-sized goals that empower me to do bigger things, capitalising on small bursts of energy when they do come along, talking to people in a similar position to me in a way that’s constructive rather than triggering, self-compassion, well-dosed and well-timed tough love etc.
I used to be a very impulsive person and still, my love of instant gratification persists. But now I indulge in these things in moderation (well, I try). Growing up, my mum would always refer to a book called “Stop Screaming At The Microwave...”, when she spotted me procrastinating and getting impatient at subpar results as a product of my own behaviour.
This behaviour, I believe, goes hand-in-hand with that compulsion to wilfully ignore an obviously better (read, more fruitful) course of action in favour of something that promises Easy Results, Now. We all know it. We all succumb to it at times. It’s chocolate for breakfast instead of oatmeal, it’s reading a friend’s notes instead of attending the lecture and doing the reading, it’s looking into Fit Teas instead of starting that gym and balanced diet regimen you’ve been putting off. It’s seductive, it’s understandable, but it does come with a price.
Constantly chasing instant gratification will, at the best of times, create the same disorienting and chaotic feeling as not having a solid routine. If you’re depressed, it will further derail your goals and widen the chasm between you and your responsibilities in the external world. Creating distance from responsibility doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well... The thing is responsibilities can be a huge source of self-esteem; the right ones are rewarding and give you a return on your investment. By no means am I a proponent of Rise & Grind, I <3 capitalism, productivity=life culture, but responsibilities aren’t necessarily to do with money and it helps no one to ignore the fact that working towards goals (which may include financial security) and having direction in life feeds most of us.
These can be the very things that help to lift us out of depressive episodes.
This is a preventative measure to practice when you aren’t depressed.
In my experience, habit formation and maintenance is a behaviour to guard jealously in order to give yourself the best possible chance of recovering from a depressive period with as little damage done to your external and internal life as possible.
My impression of the relationship between emotional life and depression is very similar to the one between sport and injury, and habit plays a crucial part in both situations. Injury can and probably will happen to most sports people. It’s a part of the pastime and it's certainly not a moral failing to be ashamed of. However, it is something to be avoided and ideally mitigated when it does happen. This mitigation is where habit comes in.
Let’s say I train every other day and maintain a certain level of fitness and muscle tone. If I’m suddenly forced to take two weeks off due to a severely pulled muscle, I’m in a much better position to ‘bounce back’ afterwards relative to my counterpart who hasn’t been active in ten months. (I’m not a sport scientist so please don’t take this as literally accurate, but you understand the point I’m trying to make.) Similarly, let’s say I’ve been cultivating life skills since a young age (e.g. cooking, hygiene, cleaning etc.) such that they are now habits that are second nature to me. If I am suddenly hit by a bout of Seasonal Depression, although these habits are now ten times more challenging and wholly unappealing to me, I am arguably in a better position to take care of myself than my counterpart who never formed these habits in the first place.
This isn’t to say that in these situations, I am immune to being heavily impeded. I can't even guarantee that in these situations I’ll necessarily be in a better position than my counterparts. But hopefully you can see my reasoning and if not agree to it specifically, agree to the general principle that all we can do is help ourselves as much as possible by way of preparedness.
High Functioning Depression
So we’ve covered the elusive nature of motivation within depression, instant gratification and the importance of forming solid habits between depressive episodes. The last thing I want to briefly touch on is high-functioning depression and burnout…
High functioning depression is a slightly different beast, when it comes to productivity. Often, being productive is not an issue. Quite the opposite. The issue can sometimes be avoiding rest and introspection by going and going andgoingandgoingandgoing until you reach a point of burnout - at which point you have to stop abruptly, by force.
Taking a moment to pause and rest when your depression is high functioning can feel like desperately taking a deep breath when you didn’t realise you had been holding your breath at all. Taking this breath is often a terrifying prospect because you may feel as though the intensity of your academic/ work life is the only sufficiently distracting force stopping your depression from becoming unmanageable and all-consuming. The name of the game is entirely avoiding examination of your mental state.
If this is what you're dealing with, I cannot recommend seeking professional help enough. Of course therapy is a resource that I believe everyone should use, much like visiting the GP, but I particularly emphasise it in this case because the combination of depression and burnout is a potent one, and ideally nobody should have to navigate it without proper support.
If you need help but don’t really know where to start, MindMapper’s screening service can connect you with the most appropriate and helpful mental health resources to cope with what you’re dealing with. Visit mindmapperuk.com - thanks for reading!
NB - I am not a mental health professional. All opinions and interpretations voiced in this piece are my own and are experience-based/ anecdotal. Consult with qualified professionals or official resources for definitive information on Depression and or Productivity.
Image source: Bojack Horseman