Non-drug strategies for improving concentration when depressed?
December 8, 2012 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Due to depression, I'm having a lot of trouble concentrating at work. Are there non-drug strategies that I can try?

For other health reasons, I am not currently on medications for my clinical depression. I have already been referred for therapy, so I will be getting help (though these things always seem to take so very long).

But in the meantime, I'd really like to try to keep my job. I'm having a great deal of trouble concentrating on my work while at work. Things are slow right now (and my job isn't over-demanding), so I haven't missed any deadlines and no one has complained, but I can see how little I'm getting done each day. Most of my time is lost in displacement activities from my work: reading metafilter, even tvtropes (I think this is when I realised I was hitting bottom). But eve after I get back to work, I find my mind wandering off work and looking for displacement activity after only a few minutes.

It probably doesn't help that my job is quite solitary (I may not talk to anyone all day) and at the moment extremely boring (I'm doing data-entry, as opposed to programming or something more challenging). The former is probably making my depression worse, while the latter frankly bores me. I do listen to podcasts, but they can't be too interesting (I can't follow stories, etc, when doing data-entry).

Are there specific, non-drug strategies that might help me build up my concentration?

If it helps to know: I work in a private office - I leave the door open, but no one will mind me getting up and walking around or doing weird stuff every do often. There is no place at my work where I can socialize with other people (no lunch room, etc).
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
I get anxious about work and this often affects my capacity to focus at work (it's a nasty catch-22).

The thing that helps me most when I get to a point where I can't concentrate on work is to... Take time off. Do you have any vacation days you could take? (Aim for at least a week).

Otherwise, on a day to day basis, here are some of my strategies: When I get really unproductive, I leave my desk and go for walks outside. This helps me avoid feeling frustrated and hitting the wall of what some work psychologists have called "diminishing returns". If you're expected to stay at your desk, you might want to go for walks at lunch or quick walks during your breaks. Otherwise, I try to do 20 minutes of light yoga in the morning. This really helps me have more focus and energy at work. I also often bring or buy a fruit smoothie which helps me stay energized.

I've also had blood tests done that revealed I have an iron deficiency. My focus has improved since I started taking supplements. I also take, on the advice of my MD, vitamin D. I recommend doing a blood test if you haven't done so already.

But more importantly, be kind and patient with yourself.
posted by Milau at 10:21 AM on December 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have you tried Magnesium?
posted by dgeiser13 at 10:30 AM on December 8, 2012

Go outside every day, eat food, and exercise.

I feel better when I play an instrument regularly and stay off the Internet.
posted by topoisomerase at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there anything you can do to create a bit of pressure? Like, if you are working on report x but having trouble getting motivated, schedule a meeting with someone to discuss it, with the understanding that you will present them with a draft. Even if you don't report to them but could feasibly use their input, it could help give you that extra push to buckle down so that you have something to show them when you meet.

Make a point of talking to other people. If there's no break room this might mean walking over to other people's desks and saying "Bob, how was your vacation," or even "I'm Pat, I work on this floor but I don't think we've met yet." Connectedness really helps me feel less depressed.

The Pomodoro app really helps me with the displacement activity you describe. I tend to want to look at my iPhone during work, but when I see the red tomato and the countdown number I think "oh, another 11 minutes before I can take a break" and then I go back to work.

If you aren't using a to - do list, that will help. Keep it reasonable, even small, so that even if you aren't perfectly focused you can still mark off most of the list and feel proud. I like to keep a cumulative list - I tend to forget all the little stuff I accomplish on a day-to-day basis, so it's really good to have it written down. If I forget to put stuff on the list at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day I write down what I've done and cross it off.

Another thing that helps is to make a commitment with a friend. I send an email announcing my intention. Which might literally read "I am announcing my intention to do X and Y today." And then I follow up when it's complete.
posted by bunderful at 10:35 AM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Firstly you might consider practices such as Zen meditation which can work to strengthen the concentration, working in much the same way that practising scales does in music. Traditionally this has resulted in people staring at their thumbnails for long periods of time. You don't need to take that much interest in your own thumbnail, but you get the general principle.

Secondly, it is important to find strategies for quantifying what you are doing and what you want to do. That is to say, being able to set specific goals, so that you are aware of having met the goals or not. For example, the Pomodoro technique, which alternates set, timed periods of activity, with set, timed periods of rest. Unless there quantifiable aims, it is very difficult to know where one has succeeded or not, opening the door to a general sense of unease and an achievement.

In both cases, it's a question of setting up a framework of committing oneself to activities for a fixed period of time, and not allowing oneself to wander away from that.
posted by Grangousier at 10:43 AM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mindfulness meditation can work wonders.
posted by heyjude at 10:52 AM on December 8, 2012

On days when I'm having problems concentrating at work, I listen to something like the police/fire scanner or air traffic control where they're saying the time on a fairly regular basis. When I mentally note that the last time I did something was 12:22 and the time of tone on the most recent call is 13:05, I know that really need to get back to it. It's distracting, but at the same time helps me refocus, and since many of the calls on the fire scanner are emergencies, it gives me a little bit of adrenaline that seems to help me concentrate.
posted by SpecialK at 11:08 AM on December 8, 2012

Get up every hour and run up and down a few flights of stairs.
posted by Specklet at 12:09 PM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, do things after work. If works sucks, and it's the biggest thing in my life, then my life sucks.

If work sucks, but after work or on the weekends I'm doing something awesome, then 1) my life suckage is reduced 2) I have something cool to talk about at work, which is good for helping me connect with others, which makes me less depressed 3) I have a reason to get through my work and leave at a reasonable time so I can go do Awesome Thing.
posted by bunderful at 12:27 PM on December 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Geocaching. The quiet outdoor activity which gets little publicity, but which millions of people do. Anecdotal evidence, for example, that it is a useful thing for people with a wide range of depression and cognitive problems.

It's good for many reasons. It's very cheap or free (need an app, and an account on e.g. As a displacement activity at work, you can plan and research geocaches to find. People of all abilities and ages can, and do, geocache. You get outdoors, and get some exercise in a variety of places. The problem solving parts of the brain are worked, as are the bits that deal with literacy, maths, geography, environments. There's a nice sense of satisfaction, of accomplishment, in finding caches, that increases the more you find. You see lots of interesting things outdoors that you would never have otherwise noticed. The geocaching community is friendly and positive. You can geocache in isolation, or with other people.

Here's the introductory video. Use the map to find geocaches near to you; there are nearly 2 million geocaches worldwide so there should be some within distance. Here are some cool geocaches.
posted by Wordshore at 1:22 PM on December 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have this problem and what I end up doing is having a day-to-day log I keep in a text file that I always have open, and at the start of the day I write down several things I want to finish by the end of the day that I have out of the long list of things I'm working on.

This way, I have documented proof I'm working on stuff, and by the end of the day I usually have a pile of "deliverables" that I've done. This also lets me focus on one thing at a time.

Other things I do are taking regular breaks (Tea time) and not eating lunch at my desk when I can help it. I also have a small notebook I draw in to get my mind off work and my eyes off a computer screen for small breaks.
posted by hellojed at 2:20 PM on December 8, 2012

like hellojed's example, make to-do lists. It is almost excruciating to stop and take time to make them when you are unfocused and behind on your work. But getting into the habit is essential. Not just because it organizes your work, but because it gives you an overview of what's going on. You will be able to see that things aren't as bad as they seem, or that they ARE as bad as they seem and you can make a plan to get out of the hole.

You have to experiment with the level of detail that works for you.

And use a process like hellojed's to document things that distract you while you are working on something. One, so you don't forget those things, and two, writing them down sort of takes the life out of a distraction. Instead of wasting energy on trying to remember it, you know that you've made note of it and will get to it later. (This works for meeting too. Write down questions for later, and tell others to do the same.)
posted by gjc at 2:41 PM on December 8, 2012

For those times when you have to buckle down and get your work done you could try the Pomodoro Technique.
posted by bleep at 2:58 PM on December 8, 2012

Are you allowed to wear headphones? Listening to music or an audiobook while doing data entry can make it more bearable. If you are badly depressed, you might find that ragy music is better than "cheerful" music. Cheerful music when I am depressed just makes me more miserable because it feels like it is dangling something in front of me that I believe I will never be able to reach. And it feels fake. But it might be worth experimenting with either an engaging book to make the time pass faster, or some sort of trancy electronic music to help you concentrate, or some angry/fast music to match your mood a bit.
posted by lollusc at 3:09 PM on December 8, 2012

Set a timer so you commit to 15 minutes of data entry at a time. Also, caffeine can help you focus; people with ADD commonly self-medicate with coffee.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:29 PM on December 8, 2012

Is it seasonal? If it is effect by the seasons, add more light to the office. Hell, if you don't have enough windows add more light, even if you have to buy a desk lamp yourself.
posted by Hactar at 4:33 PM on December 8, 2012

Here's a little blurb about fatty acids and fish oils. They're easy to find in health food, grocery and drug stores. They really work and I haven't heard of any side effects.

Good luck!
posted by snsranch at 5:00 PM on December 8, 2012

1. Treat the depression as aggresively as possible. Exercise, good nutrition, some time in the sun every day. Fish oil, vitamin D, and meds if the doctor recommends them. And exercise.

For work, be as organized as possible. Make a list of tasks, and do 1 task at a time. When a task is done, give yourself some praise, and go to the next. Going out for a quick walk between tasks is a good plan. Try to recognize your accomplishments more than the frustrations and bleakness. Small steps will move you forward.
posted by theora55 at 10:41 PM on December 8, 2012

I find white noise to be relaxing and to distract me from my own nonsense.
Good luck to you.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:08 PM on December 8, 2012

Maybe try to schedule blocks of time for data entry that are broken up by more interesting but still useful activities, like learning new programming at codecacademy or a similar site. Do an hour of 'work' work and a half an hour of personal development or something.
posted by _cave at 8:37 AM on December 9, 2012

Here's what I take for my depression, and it seems to be working well for me:
Vitamin D3 (because it's that time of year)
5-HTP (200 mg per day)
Fish oil (2000 mg per day)
B-complex (one every other day, though that's idiosyncratic--once a day is better)

And progesterone cream during the two weeks after ovulation (unique to perimenopausal hormone crash issues, so YMMV)

Yoga and/or zen meditation.

Walking the dog for an hour a day.

And I use the Strict Pomodoro extension for Chrome, which helps me stay focused.
posted by RedEmma at 11:51 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Meditation with all the new-ageyness and spiritual stuff removed?

It's practicing concentration. That's it. The idea is that practicing focus - practicing controlling your attention - will improve your life.

Chade-Meng Tan wrote a book called "Search Inside Yourself"; he's an engineer at Google, and has honestly made meditation-for-engineers a life's work. He asks for at least ten seconds a day, which, well, is a pretty low bar for giving it a shot.
posted by talldean at 12:06 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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