Unstructured schedule, complicated by mental illness
February 8, 2014 9:02 AM   Subscribe

I am a writer on disability for bipolar depression and anxiety. Because I am on disability, my days are largely without structure. Right now after a mental health crisis, I have a lot of structure lent during weekdays by various mental health appts. (therapy 2x/ week, a DBT group, checking in/picking up meds at the mental health center weekly). Otherwise, I'm left to my own devices. I am an ambitious and prolific writer, but I still have trouble sitting down to do work. It's nearly impossible for me to say "I'm just going to work on x project" and stick to that." (I was being treated for ADD, but the meds were making my mania worse and the only non-stim med was making me really fatigued.) Anyway, given that my moods/sleep schedule are so changeable, I have trouble committing to a schedule. I just started reading The Willpower Instinct, and I'm hoping that helps. For those of you who've dealt with having a lot of unstructured time, what's been helpful?
posted by mermaidcafe to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
What has been helpful for me is sitting down, figuring out what I need to accomplish, and making a detailed schedule. Actually writing it down is important because then it's not an abstract idea of what I want to get done floating around in my head, it's a concrete plan to follow. And it's not just a "to do" list, I list what order to do them in with a specific amount of time set aside for each task. If it's time to do a task and I have trouble motivating, I make a deal with myself, maybe to work on something for at least 10 minutes, or just get the beginning of something done. For me 9 times out of 10, if I start something, I end up working on it for the entire allotted time. Getting started is the hard part.
posted by random thoughts at 9:33 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

My ADD and anxiety are both seeing moderate improvement from my having joined a gym. This was despite the fact that I was doing at least some cardio at home, before. But I'm more consistent about it when I'm doing it elsewhere, and less distractable in the middle of my workout. I dunno where you are, but my Planet Fitness membership is only $20/mo, and it's only not-$10 because I live equidistant between two locations and I wanted to be able to go to whichever one was nearer any errands I need to run. But mostly, it gives me somewhere to go even on days that I don't need to be anywhere else.
posted by Sequence at 9:44 AM on February 8, 2014

You could try reverse scheduling -- kind of like it is explained in The Now Habit. I.e., put on your calendar lots of stuff you really WANT to do (movies, coffee with a friend, fitness class, going to a concert, massage, eating a cupcake etc.) Put in a LOT of fun stuff. Then work around all that fun. I think the idea is that you often don't want to work because you don't see the fun stuff that you'll get to do -- if you commit to the fun stuff first, slipping in the work is more bearable.
posted by EtTuHealy at 9:56 AM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Joining the MeFi Health Month team has helped me add structure to my days. It allows me to set (and, to a certain extent, to customize) a number of goals for each week and month without assigning a rigid daily schedule; so long as I tick off the desired goals by the end of the week, I get points for accomplishing them.

Gamifying your goals works reeeeally well for some people. I didn't really think I'd be one of them; I joined for the team support and camaraderie, not the point system. But I was surprised how efficiently that ping! of accomplishment started to feel like a reward in itself.

Some teams are competitive, and the system provides metrics for measuring player-to-player team competition if that appeals, but by and large, Team MeFi is enthusiastically supportive. You can check in daily and get encouragement or ideas for coping, get some high-fives for accomplishing your goals, or get sympathy when circumstances prevented you.

I am an ambitious and prolific writer, but I still have trouble sitting down to do work. It's nearly impossible for me to say "I'm just going to work on x project" and stick to that."

I don't know if HM would help you with establishing habits and keeping goals in sight, but it did for me. After just a few months of setting a writing/pitching goal in my HM rules, I was professionally published for the first time, and I've had three more pieces accepted since. I won't give HM the entire lump of credit for this, but it definitely contributed.

I mentioned this in a MeTa for prospective HM members here. It turned out that all the writing in the world was never going to get me published, but just a few months of making it a daily check-in did. Health Month transformed my dream from "someday I'll get this published" to the much simpler "did I work toward my goal today, yes or no?" Whatever your goal is, it's possible HM would help you establish the habits to work toward it.

I've taken a similar approach to my exercise and anxiety-related issues: set simple goals that I check off, yes or no, each day. Did I socialize? Did I put on nicer clothes? Did I leave the house? (Unemployment means I don't have to leave the house or get dressed every day; HM helps me remember those can be good things to do.) Did I do my physical therapy or some weight-lifting? Did I [whatever]?

Changing these from the emotional or judgmental "I really ought to" to a simple "yes, today I did" or "no, today I didn't" helps me prioritize. Seeing the whole week ahead of me, and what I've checked off so far, helps me decide: will I have a chance to do [thing] later in the week, or should I just get it over with now?

The HM interface also suggests players start each month with a pledge to reward themselves if they finish the month with some points remaining. I slacked off on those rewards for many months, but I'm starting to realize that they are also part of how the system works best for me: making promises to myself to reward desired behavior, and then following through on those promises.

I joined the already-established team and found them very welcoming and happy to include me. The social-networking aspect helps me a lot, so I post almost-daily reviews and comment frequently, but if you're more private, you can just track your accomplishments and not post to the wall.

If you're on the fence about joining, keep in mind that there's a free level: you can set 3 goals for any month for free just to see how it works and get used to the interface (which I will admit is clunky) and get to know the team. All the info about how to sign up is at that link above, and if you decide to join, I'll be among the people welcoming you!
posted by Elsa at 10:15 AM on February 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

have you tried neurofeedback? also look into the 80/20 rule for getting things done- perhaps you are a perfectionist?, also try, its called the pomedro (spelling) technique. but i made my own with Flylady, I call it 15 and 15. 15 minutes for the task /writing- 15 minutes, to pleasure read, knit, watch a show, walk, basically a break and 15 minutes back to writing/task
posted by TRUELOTUS at 10:15 AM on February 8, 2014

also google superbetter
posted by TRUELOTUS at 10:15 AM on February 8, 2014

Hi, I found Greg Frost's program, MindVIP helpful for maintaining motivation last year when I started a period of extended study on my own. The only thing with GF is that his advertising copy is a bit weird sometimes, but his products are good.
posted by Musashi Daryl at 10:35 AM on February 8, 2014

TRUELOTUS is talking about the pomodoro technique.
Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato btw.

Would it be possible for you to volunteer a few times a week?
posted by travelwithcats at 10:44 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't want to imply that your issues are necessarily solvable by 'productivity tricks', but:

– Get hold of Get It Done When You're Depressed, which is specifically not about treating depression but about being productive while depressed.

– That book has its flaws but it includes the brilliant insight that you shouldn't wait to feel like doing something before you do it. Many many 'motivational' techniques will make things worse by subtly reinforcing the belief that you need to be in the right frame of mind before you can open a laptop, type out a sentence, etc, which are all physical actions.

– If possible, work in an environment where the most interesting thing to be doing is your work.
posted by oliverburkeman at 10:50 AM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

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