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Productivity Hacks Don’t Work When You Have Mental Illness

But there are other strategies that can help you get things done

Photo by Ana Tavares on Unsplash

YYou’re sitting at your desk, unable to do anything but keep sitting as thoughts float like thick clouds through your brain. There’s a looming deadline ahead, but try as you might, you can’t bring yourself to pay attention to the computer screen in front of you. Everything feels dull and gray.

Staying focused for a full day of work is hard enough, but it can be impossibly overwhelming when you feel like your own brain is fighting against you. The fog of depression can sap your energy and creative thinking, while anxiety and post-traumatic stress can impede concentration. For people with mental health issues, popular productivity hacks don’t work. “We all have an emotional cup,” says Robyn Gold, a psychotherapist based in New York City. “When your brain becomes chemically imbalanced, your cup gets overloaded much more quickly and makes it difficult for you to complete daily tasks with efficacy.”

Of course, for many people with depression or anxiety, it’s still possible to be productive at work — particularly if you understand how your mental health is influencing the way you work, and can reconsider the usual advice on how to get things done.

Think small

Procrastination is common, but get out of hand for those with mental health struggles. People with PTSD often avoid situations, thoughts, or feelings that trigger traumatic memories. People with depression may put things off because attempting to tackle them sparks thoughts of low self-worth. And people with generalized anxiety disorders may experience heightened worries about things that will go wrong, which can paralyze them from getting started on anything. Patricia Arean, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, calls these moments “a normal reaction on steroids.”

If a project feels overwhelming for you, try thinking of the smaller picture.

“Our brains are wired to search for things in the environment that are dangerous or might cause us harm,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with feeling a little depressed if you can’t do something that you’re trying the first time, but when you have a mental illness, it’s harder for you to get past that phase.”

If a project feels overwhelming for you, try thinking of the smaller picture. “Long-term goals… tend to overwhelm the system that is already flooded with cortisol,” says Nick Wagenseller, a therapist with Dragonfly Transitions, a young adult therapy program in Klamath Falls, Oregon. “If you have a deadline a week from now, break up the workload to smaller bites. Every small accomplishment releases a shot of dopamine,” he adds.

Take breaks

People with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can find it difficult to motivate themselves, Arean says, because of what researchers call cognitive burden, when your brain is overloaded with distracting thoughts.

The natural temptation when you’re going through a depression fog or getting waylaid by anxiety is to try harder, but that can hurt your productivity. Instead of pushing through, try breaking for a quick walk or calling a friend for a few minutes, so that you can return with a fresh mindset.

“I used to think I was so busy I didn’t have time for a break,” says Liz Coalts, a government employee in Albany, New York, who was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. These days, she makes it a priority to take a walk during her lunch break every workday, and on days when her symptoms are severe, she isn’t shy about taking a sick day. “My setbacks are shorter and less severe when I acknowledge I’m having an issue and either leave work or call in sick,” she says. “You get over a cold faster when you rest. Mental health is the same way.”

Write things down

People with PTSD often report having difficulty remembering things, which can be a serious problem at work. Studies suggest that the disorder affects the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, both of which regulate our short-term memory (though researchers still aren’t exactly sure what causes these changes in the brain).

When your brain is overloaded with self-defeating or anxious thoughts, it can be difficult to pay attention to what’s going on.

Similarly, people with depression and anxiety can also find it difficult to remember things, but not necessarily because their memory is impaired, says Arean. When your brain is overloaded with self-defeating or anxious thoughts, it can be difficult to pay attention to what’s going on, which may make it appear that you have difficulty remembering things. For example, if your boss is outlining a project during a meeting, you might be so preoccupied with everything that you’ve done wrong in the recent past that you couldn’t concentrate on what was being said, and forget the plan by the time you returned to your desk.

If you find yourself forgetting deadlines or things discussed in meetings, get into the habit of taking notes in a notebook. That way, even if you didn’t fully absorb the details the first time around, you can go back and reread your notes when you need to.

Focus on what’s doable

Depression can distract a person with negative loops of self-talk, while anxiety distracts with constant worries. PTSD can cause a person to flash back to a traumatic memory, which takes them out of the present.

If your ability to concentrate fluctuates predictably, consider negotiating deadlines based on what you think you can realistically achieve. Cut yourself some slack on deadlines that are flexible by keeping your mental health in mind as you schedule.

Staying well rested can help you more easily manage both your health and your work.

And make sure you get enough sleep, Arean says. Some disorders worsen with sleep deprivation, so staying well rested can help you more easily manage both your health and your work.

And although it may be a scary thought, it could help to tell your boss and co-workers about your condition, if you trust them. A survey conducted by British researchers earlier this year looked at workers with depression in 15 different countries, and found that in workplace cultures that avoided talking about mental health issues, employees with depression took more days off of work and were less productive than those who worked in a more supportive office.

In the long run, though, if you’re struggling with mental illness, the best way for you to increase productivity at work — and the best thing you can do for your mental health, in general — is to seek professional help. Ultimately, the way to take care of everything on your to-do list is to take care of yourself first.

Writer. Words in The Atlantic, NYTimes.com, Washington Post, NPR, Smithsonian, Pacific Standard, etc.

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