Staying productive while depressed
March 7, 2018 8:36 PM   Subscribe

I have a very intense job that doesn't really slow down, ever. I was doing very well at managing it and had finally sort of found my footing, but I just experienced a surprising personal crisis of a sort and I'm not sure how to keep pushing. I have lost my motivation.

My cat, who was my best friend, was surprisingly very sick and I had to say goodbye to her. We has about a week together before she passed and I kept working, but did the bare minimum. That was two weeks ago. I've stayed on the "bare minimum, show people you're functioning" level of activity but the most important part of my job is also self-directed so I've neglected it. (I'm a tenure track professor and need to write a lot of articles.)

I was on track to meet three important deadlines for publications in March and April but now I'm not sure I will make them all, or even any of them. To make things worse, I'm now on break for a week and also have nothing but time to write. This is a huge gift and one I would take full advantage of to write straight through, but I just... don't feel like it, and all attempts to lock down and achieve flow are just frustrating.

How do I get back on the horse?

I should note that I'm not like, actively upset or crying about her death a lot or anything like that. It just seems to have knocked the wind right out of me. But I am also 35 and single and she was my family and we were really bonded. Please don't suggest I get a new cat; it's not a good time. I need concrete ways to get out of bed and glue my butt to a chair and get my work done over the next ten unstructured days.
posted by sockermom to Work & Money (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I should note that I'm not like, actively upset or crying about her death a lot or anything like that.

It's still deep and painful grief, even when your eyes are dry.

I'd recommend giving in to your grief (it won't go away if you ignore it) and using the first part of your writing time to try to write about your cat, your loss, your grief. Get those feelings of loss and bereavement down on paper. Make them real in the physical world. Honour your cat by writing about her. Honour yourself by writing about how you feel.

Maybe once some of that stuff is down on paper, you'll be able to re-orientate your motivation toward your professional duties. Your professional work is necessary but it is not more important than losing a beloved friend.
posted by Thella at 9:07 PM on March 7, 2018 [13 favorites]

I'm so sorry you lost your cat. I lived much of my life with my only family being my dog(s), losing them was incredibly painful. If I were in your position the only thing that might work for me would be to wake up and do the writing very first thing when I am most rested and have the most strength and self discipline. Perhaps set out the writing goals for each day the night before. Once your writing goal for the day is met, then allow yourself to do whatever you like for the rest of the day. Want a giant coffee from Starbucks? Go for it! Feel like sleeping for the rest of the afternoon? By all means, do it. Be really permissive with yourself, give yourself the space to grieve or not in any way you need to.

Once again, Im very sorry for your loss.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:26 PM on March 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I lost my super awesome cat, it was after a long illness and I knew well in advance that the end was nigh. In that respect, it provided more opportunity for closure, and gave me an opportunity to spoil him without restraint during his last few months. A surprise illness is extra stunning because it doesn’t give you time to brace yourself, as it were.

It helped me a lot to read discussion forums and boards about pet loss. Being able to talk about being sad and to memorialize my cat helped.

For task management, I would set a very few tasks for the day (3-5) and spend an hour a day writing on your articles (20 minutes each?) Just set a timer and start just typing words or making an outline of what you plan to write. If it gives you a breakthrough and you’re able to keep going, go right ahead. But at least you’ll be able to look at your task list and know that progress was made. But don’t make big ambitious goals this week.

Pets are family. Of course you’re grieving and can’t focus. That is to be expected. Two weeks is not very long in the face of a big loss. It is true that life doesn’t stop and responsibilities don’t go away. Might it be possible to negotiate another week or so for each deadline? (Tell them you had a death in the family?) If not,’re a human being with feelings. Do your best. Don’t beat yourself up for being a mess. If you know you have a time of day that is particularly productive for you, maybe see if you can compartmentalize enough to get through your hour of work, and then set aside more time expressly for mourning and working on your feelings.

You’ll feel more “together” soon enough. And you know what, a LOT of people will understand and empathize. So many people have had a special pet to whom they were very close. They know. And your cat knew that you loved her, and she was in the midst of that love even in her final moments, which is a blessing. That’s our part of the bargain with pets, right? You did good.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:29 PM on March 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm so sorry about your cat. That is a huge loss--you loved her. Definitely no new cat right now.

If the deadlines are firm, what would it be like to write out ALL of the stories that you have about your cat? Everything you've done together, her first weeks in your life, her favorite things, her worst enemies? That could be a lot of writing, but I can almost guarantee that you won't flow through an account like that without revisiting it and adding things that you've forgotten. As you write for the deadlines, you'll find other cat stories popping up in your head. What would it be like to keep that running account and return to it when you have lulls in the project deadline? With two parallel projects, one taking precedence over the other depending on what your brain serves up, you might find more traction and keep yourself in "work mode."

(As an aside, we never imagine we'll forget mundane things about the people and animals that we've loved. But years on, we absolutely do. Someday you might look back at your cat notes with fresh eyes and appreciate that you've written everything out.)
posted by flyingfork at 9:52 PM on March 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

Is there a favorite book you can read at night before you go to bed? When I am feeling down, I read a book at night, with just the lamp light. It seems to help.

I lost a cat a while ago, actually, I've lost several, because they never live as long as we do, do they? I didn't get another cat, and had one already, and when I got another one to keep her company, he is as obnoxious as hell, and not like my other one, so I don't recommend it at all.

When I'm writing, it helps to move to another space. Or take a shower and then write. What's the worst that can happen? You'll write crap? I've done plenty of that. So much crap.

No one can force you to anything, least of all yourself. Write memories of your cat, or your childhood, or gaze off into space and write nothing. It's only gestation and fodder for further writing. Nothing is lost over a few days. Be yourself and do what you want to do.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:27 PM on March 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Get it Done When You’re Depressed might be worth reading - even dipping into the first couple of chapters on Kindle might help you get the ball rolling. Hugs.
posted by penguin pie at 1:30 AM on March 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

Talk to a doctor about a prescription for Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant that will increase the amount of dopamine in the synaptic cleft of your brain's neurons. Dopamine is responsible for motivation and is released when we contemplate goals. If you are already taking it, ask about increasing your dosage.
posted by Mr. Fig at 3:02 AM on March 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have two very different suggestions - one, go see a therapist. Even one session where you can unpack how you're feeling and how stuck you feel may help to push you out of a rut. You don't have to be actively upset to have things upend you and sometimes just talking it out with a neutral party can really help.

Two - change your environment if you can. Go stay with a friend or family member for a couple of days or book a cabin/cottage/hotel in a tiny town (where rates might be low this time of year) for a few days. Get some sunshine if you can. Having lost a couple of cats, I know one of the underrated hardest parts are the many moments during the day where you'd notice them there and they're not. Being in the environment where grief is lurking everywhere, even if it's not actively upsetting you, can be really demotivating.
posted by notorious medium at 5:10 AM on March 8, 2018 [12 favorites]

I was also going to recommend talking to someone. Either a professional or a friend to help you with this difficult time. It's a big change to go from a house that used to contain 2 living things to just being by yourself. There's a lot of structure and responsibility that you lose besides the warmth and love of a furry friend.

The book penguin pie recommended is good. I read it in a similar situation when trying to write my dissertation. Just one note, the book is focused on short term solutions to get you back to work. So, if you notice the depression lasting longer, seeking outside help would be wise.
posted by bluefly at 5:20 AM on March 8, 2018

You've just gone through a tremendous shock & loss that is understandably triggering the need for bit of a breather, grieving and processing. The heart wants what the heart wants, as they say, regardless of whether or not your job can practically accommodate your needs.

Everything you're feeling -- including the lack of motivation for work projects -- is totally normal after such a big loss. Grief doesn't always present as sobbing or wailing... Sometimes it manifests as shock, exhaustion, burnout, or still & quiet melancholy. Sometimes tears don't come for a long time, or at all.

It can help to talk about your memories and loss experience with others who can really listen (and who can be present in the moment -- not just listening to add their two cents). Please don't hesitate to reach out to a trusted friend or a professional. And don't be tempted to hold back or minimize because "it was just a cat." Pets are family members that we get to choose, who love us unconditionally and who depend entirely on us to meet their needs. There's a reason that so many people call them "fur children". It's a very intense bond that just about all pet owners will understand implicitly.

Practically, I've found that during mild periods of depression or apathy, drinking a mug of this linden flower tea immediately followed by this specific sleepy-time extra tea right before bed dramatically increased my motivation the next morning. I was generally much more positive and bright. It was especially helpful during a sad period where I found myself burying 4 beloved pets in 6 months, and during which I also had a lot of trouble finding the motivation to power through previously routine work projects. When I mixed a little bit of elderflower syrup into both cups, it seemed to work even better, though I have no idea why. All the herbs in those teas promote relaxation, restful sleep & help relieve anxiety.

B vitamins (folate and B12) can also help with motivation & mood-brightening.
posted by muirne81 at 7:10 AM on March 8, 2018

Because you're pre-tenure faculty, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's not just loss of your dear cat that has you down. I'm tenured faculty, and I'm ready to faceplant at this point in the semester, and my stress level is much, much lower than yours. It might be valuable for you to take a bit of time to acknowledge, not just your grief, but also all the other things that are no doubt weighing on you right now.

My standard answer to "I'm burned out, but how do I push through," is, you don't. You're burned out, and you need a break. Remember that the Registrar, in his or her wisdom, has placed midterm break halfway through you semester so that you and your students can rest and restore yourselves.

I'd strongly recommend taking 3 days or so at the beginning of break to relax. No work allowed. Get lots of sleep, take naps, do some of the hobby stuff that you can never find time for when the term is in full swing, read trashy novels, or whatever you find restorative. You will feel so much better afterwards that you will make up the lost days in improved productivity, and then some.

Times like these are when you need to engage your support network of friends and mentors. If you don't have a support network, this is the time to start building one! Reach out to your fellow pre-tenure faculty members or your post-tenure mentors and see who's going to be staying in town over break and propose a work date where you'll get together at a coffee shop and work. (We call this "Writing Jail" or "Grading Jail" and it's practically an institution. If you don't have anyone local to do this with, I'm on break next week, too, so, PM me, and I'll do a virtual Work Jail with you over chat or something!) And make some plans to do something social with them, while you're at it.

Be kind to yourself! In all likelihood, you can get to tenure by flogging yourself relentlessly and working all the time (ask me how I know!), but that is not sustainable over a lifetime (ask me how I know that, too!) and you can do yourself, your career, and your health a big favor by learning how to rest and recover now.
posted by BrashTech at 7:27 AM on March 8, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you are able to immerse yourself in grief, even for a few days, I highly recommend The Grief Recovery Method for Pet Loss book. When I had a very similar situation with my little baby cat who I raised her entire life, this book helped me so much. I didn't even do the whole thing, but the exercises that I did do were definitely one of the things that got me through the wind knocked out of you phase.

Take care, I am so sorry for the loss of your sweet one.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 2:33 PM on March 8, 2018

I'm joining BrashTech on the academia aspect of this. Where are you on the tenure clock? There's some doldrums in there, and lots and lots of existential angst when something so big is hanging over your head for so long. It can be hard to pace yourself (insert some cliche about sprint versus marathon here). And hey, we all need spring break right about now.

Lots of good practical advice above as always, and I know from reading you that you've been through worse. Hang in there - you've got this.
posted by Dashy at 7:05 PM on March 8, 2018

Oh, honey. My sincerest condolences on your loss of your best friend. I lost my dog in similar circumstances 18 years ago and can still vividly remember the crushing, heartbreaking, soul-sucking grief. I'm so sorry you're going through this.

You can only do what you can do. And it's absolutely okay if you can't do it all. Nobody can. (Believe me, I've tried!) I'm an overachieving perfectionist with insane levels of anxiety, and I've been known to work 15 hour days for months on end with no days off, barely eating, barely sleeping. Finally, a doctor told me that if I didn't immediately take 3 days off, he was going to admit me for exhaustion and stress. I took the time off.

That's my best suggestion for you: take some time off. Take whatever time you need. Indulge in as much self-care as you can handle. Self-care till your sick of it. Self-care more than you think you should. Make sure you're eating. Drink plenty of water. B complex vitamins and vitamin D are good for depression and stress. If low energy is an issue, try rhodiola; it's an herbal supplement that gives you energy and alertness without the crash you get with caffeine. Any prescription medications, make sure you take them on time, every time.

Got any hobbies? Indulge. My therapist told me a couple years ago to take up a creative hobby where I'd work with my hands and have a tangible output. I color adult coloring book pages, make a variety of paper flowers (I'm trying to cover all the walls in my room with them, since I hate the paint and can't change it), do cross stitch, and most of all, hand-sew English Paper Pieced quilts.

Plaster your living space with Post-It Notes. Got a favorite saying? Put it on a Note on your wall. Favorite quotes, inspirational phrases, reminders, smiley faces, anything that will even momentarily lift your spirits. Some of mine: Put in the reps. this is my life now; what's next? What would I do if I was a badass? You have to treat yourself with respect; to do otherwise is to desecrate something holy. You MUST keep going. You never get over it; you just get through it. Don't be a writer; be writing. I only write when I'm motivated; I just happen to be motivated every day at 8 a.m. Wake up; Kick ass; Repeat. It's not what they take away from you that matters; it's what you do with what you have left.

I've had some success changing the mechanics of my writing. Laptop keyboard vs USB keyboard. Pen and paper vs computer. Sitting at my desk vs in my recliner. Working in my bedroom vs office vs kitchen vs Starbucks vs my favorite restaurant. Change fonts, change colors, change anything and everything until you can make words come out of your head and go on the page. Go write sitting in the kitchen sink.

Be gentle with yourself. It's okay not to be okay.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 11:19 PM on March 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, sockermom, I'm so very sorry to hear about your kitty. When I was doing the school admin work from home while also going through some grief/depression, one thing that helped was creating my own structure and accountability. I committed to 2 friends that I would work for 3 hours every morning and asked them if I could check in with them to make sure I stuck to my plan. I texted them when I was starting, then sat in my work spot and played my starting song (Back in Black), then worked for 6 pomodoros, then played my closing song (5 oclock somewhere), then texted the accountability friends. Some days I texted the accountability friends at every break in my pomodoros. The one rule I made for myself was that I had to be honest with them or there was no point to this system. Perhaps something like that would help?
posted by eafm at 4:49 PM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, the other thing you might consider, as I see that you specifically mention getting yourself out of bed, is to have a morning list and a morning text person. A list of whatever five or six things you do upon getting up (mine are breathwork, water, start tea, meditation, acupressure/stretching (moves my massage therapist gave me to do every morning) -- once I've done all that, I might as well stay up) and a person who expects to hear from you by whatever time y'all agree on, to say goodmorning and report on your progress through the list.
posted by eafm at 5:06 PM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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