How do you get work done when life's got you down?
June 1, 2008 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Life kicked me in the teeth, but I've got work to do. I don't need anyone to cheer me up, I'm just looking for a specific bit of advice: how do you get things done when you're depressed?

About a week ago, my dream job pretty much landed in my lap. It's going to mean a lot of independent research and writing, with maybe a once-weekly meeting with a supervisor. I'm confident that on a good day I could rise to the challenge and kick some serious ass.

Thing is, this isn't a good day. My wife left me two weeks ago, and I'm putting the pieces back together, but I'm still all sad and sluggish. I can't think straight; simple goals seem impossible; the smallest setback sends me back to the couch.

I know I'll feel better with time — and I've got lots of help in that department, friends and family and so on. But I'm not about to feel better tomorrow, and I need to get to work. What I'm looking for is advice on getting the job done when your heart isn't in it. Thoughts?
posted by nebulawindphone to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Lexipro, for the short term at least -- helped me get through some bad times and focus on work. Long term, exercise and caffeine.
posted by LordSludge at 4:25 PM on June 1, 2008

That's tough, but as a survivor of more life-kicks in the gonads than I care to remember, it's just sometimes a matter of gritting it out. You have friends; don't be afraid to tell them what's going on, some of them will help you.

I personally recommend meditating- it helps me focus, and will calm your mind. Part of the exhaustion and energy-suck of the situation you're in right now is your mind racing through the situation over and over in an awful fugue. Don't let it- make a conscious effort to clear it and see if your situation mentally doesn't improve.
posted by pjern at 4:29 PM on June 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

meds, therapy (cognitive behavioral might help in you case), exercise.
posted by violetk at 4:29 PM on June 1, 2008

Best answer: The important thing is: GET MOVING. It doesn't matter what. Go do the dishes. Then immediately move on to another activity. Don't sit back down to see how the internet has changed in the last 15 minutes, don't turn on the TV to have on "in the background." If you have nothing immediate to take care of, exercise.

Being depressed makes inertia seem like an natural state, especially since activity doesn't necessarily banish the dark thoughts like we'd hope. But once you're up and moving around, it's surprising how useful a physical outlet can be, even if your brain still hums doom songs in the background.

And also, the more you do in the daytime, the faster you'll fall asleep at night, which means less time laying there awake. If you know what I mean.

So rather than try to muster steam for the really important tasks at hand, get moving on some rudimentary tasks that will provide you with a better platform from which to tackle the big stuff a little later. Do your laundry. Make sure you have some good groceries. Make sure the space you're living in is clean and inhabitable-- it will hurt more to mope around in it than it will to just rip the bandaid off and take care of a few things.

When you are in a phase of life you don't particularly want to be in, the fastest way through it is to create as many opportunities for sudden change as possible, and you're not doing that as long as you are stuck in a rut. Think of your mopey breakdown as something you can always resume in two weeks if nothing else pans out. And good luck to you!
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 4:31 PM on June 1, 2008 [68 favorites]

Oh man, I'm so sorry. That is really rough. I'm going through a dark spell myself, although nothing nearly so difficult, so I was glad to see your question, as I was thinking about asking something similar. These are some things that have been helping me:

1.) Seems like you've already got this part down, but it bears repeating - that this is something you just sort of have to slog through, and give yourself time to be sad, so it doesn't sneak up on you when you need to focus.

2.) Exercise, particularly yoga, has been helping me a lot. I'll also take a break from work (I've been working long hours) during dinner, usually, to go to the gym and listen to angry, dramatic music and let out a lot of frustration on the elliptical or a punching bag.

3.) I find that it's very difficult for me to get important tasks started, and then I lose focus. Knowing I'll lose focus makes me not even want to bother. So lately, I've been setting a timer. If there is something that Must Get Done and Requires My Focus, I'll set a timer for fifteen minutes and tell myself - "I'm just going to do this for fifteen minutes, and if I need to stop, I can." Sometimes I do stop, and then I have to set the timer again, but usually, I find a groove and keep going.

4.) Trying to make myself comfortable. This means wearing comfortable clothes, eating foods that are healthy and tasty, drinking lots of water, and getting lots of sleep.

5.) No beating yourself up. Try to live in the space where you are kind to yourself without being self indulgent. Be mindful of what you take on at work, try not to take on too much, and if you mess up and drop a ball, acknowledge it and move on, do not despair over it.

I've not yet tried anti-depressants, but I have thought about maybe trying them, I don't want to suffer needlessly, but I'm a little reticent, so I can't give you any advice there.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:36 PM on June 1, 2008

Make yourself a to-do list. Not the "sit down at a blank piece of paper and plan your life NOW" kind of thing. But as a parking place for stuff you need to do later. And then, as it fills in, as a tool for figuring out priorities. Maybe you don't feel like doing that one thing that's hanging over you right now, but if you get a couple of other easy things out of the way, they will be out of the way when you are in the mood later.
posted by gjc at 4:39 PM on June 1, 2008

What I do is a select a single, small task and do it. If I find myself thinking about all of the other things I have to do, my deadlines, or anything else, I block that thought. I focus on the one task in front of me and stay present in the moment.

String enough of these moments together and you can accomplish anything.
posted by SPrintF at 4:40 PM on June 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do this everyday in this order:
* Eat a good breakfast as soon as you get up.
* Go for a short walk.
* When you get home, make a list of the 5 most important things to get done that day.
* Get ready for work.
* Work and get 5 things done.
* Go out and find people at least 3 times a week during your nights, try to make friends.
* Turn off your computer and TV at least an hour before it's time to go to bed.
posted by bigmusic at 4:41 PM on June 1, 2008 [12 favorites]

I hear you!! Had a similar thing happen to me, a dream job and breakup all at the same time. Nthing most of what's been said here, and also adding that except for your job, which your livelihood depends on, don't worry in the slightest about getting other things done. Everything you do will feel heavy, picking up your car keys in the morning will feel heavy, just walking across the room will feel heavy. Until things get better, DON'T beat yourself up about not washing the car or straightening the living room. Put your strength into healing yourself, not doing tasks that can wait, using many of the excellent suggestions here.
posted by Melismata at 4:45 PM on June 1, 2008

I am so very sorry that you're going through this.

Here's my very simple recipe for surviving and getting work done.

Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. Get showered and dressed first thing, and get out of the house at least once a day. Walk, grocery shop, help a neighbor, it's all good.

Eat well. Treat yourself to tasty things that are also good for you; satisfy whatever your body telegraphs that it's craving. Make sure that you get B vitamins.

Clean the house at your own pace, but know that each step is making it a calm, cozy nest for you to relax in.

Lists are good, but I break them down. Do today, do tomorrow, do this week, do this month. Be specific, and enjoy crossing things off as done, no matter how basic.

Be kind and patient with yourself, and remind yourself that this will pass, and you will enjoy life again.
posted by vers at 4:53 PM on June 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

nebulawindphone, congratulations on landing this plum assignment! What helps me get started: write down a list the things that you need to do, every morning. Then cross each of them out as you complete them.

This simple way of addressing to-dos has helped me get going when I would rather stay under the covers on many a morning. And once I have completed the items on my list, I reward myself - read a book, go for a walk, whatever. I live by my list.

Regarding surviving catastrophic events - I've had more than my share (though not the same scenario as you). Focus on the tasks (and away from the catastrophe) has helped me tremendously. First I functioned day by day, then I also started to set small goals that looked a little further to the future - and had small celebrations once I achieved them.

The plum assignment is great at any time, but particularly at this time - focus your good energy on this good thing, and build on your daily successes (completing the tasks that you set for yourself the night before, or that morning).

Sadly (or happily, depending on one's perspective) I have been at my most productive when my spirits have been at their lowest. And that's how I have brought myself back from the dark those times.
posted by seawallrunner at 5:00 PM on June 1, 2008

Response by poster: I don't think antidepressants are what I'm looking for.

I've taken them in the past, and I'm not opposed to them on principle, although I've got to say they never did much for me. But this time around I'm pretty damn sure it's the situation that's got me down, and not any sort of chemical imbalance. I didn't think antidepressants were supposed to help with that. I certainly can't imagine they'd make me miss my wife any less.

If I'm wrong, feel free to set me straight, but otherwise I'm not interested.

posted by nebulawindphone at 5:00 PM on June 1, 2008

Aw, sorry. Everyone has given good advice, but I'll just add: don't be afraid to recruit friends/relatives in a very practical, physical way to help you actually implement all these plans. Something as simple as meeting them in a cafe to work quietly side by side every night for a week, followed by a nice dinner together, or having them come over and get you out of bed in the morning and to the gym together.
posted by footnote at 5:01 PM on June 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Self-imposed deprivation works for me. Yeah, sure eat breakfast - but no lunch, no TV and NO INTERNET until you've done X, Y and Z.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:12 PM on June 1, 2008

Do have someone you can use as an "accountability partner"?

I've been struggling with the same thing over the last couple years, from a major nutkick. I've talked to a couple friends about helping me by suggesting going out for photo shoots and other things that I used to enjoy, but now seem to neglect. I've made it my rule to NEVER say no to an invitation like that. Even if I don't feel like it, I go, and once I go I feel better and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Even being honest enough with a friend to ask them to just call and ask you about the progress on a specific project can give you a little push to get moving, because you know someone will ask you about it.

Good luck.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:14 PM on June 1, 2008

I'm in a similar position. I've been told that talking to someone impartial like a councillor or a psychologist may help a lot. I'm seeing someone on Thursday.

Also, for further information:
The Black Dog Institute
Beyond Blue

Good luck.
posted by dantodd at 5:15 PM on June 1, 2008

Write a country song?

Seriously, I find it kinda ironic that your question contains the answer I would give. Stay busy. I mean lose yourself in your work. Use this to drive yourself for a while. If you're the vindictive sort, even use this as a sort of revenge. "Leave me when I need you this most, will ya? I'll show you!"

I've been there.

Alternatively, anyway you could postpone the start of this dream job? You deserve the time to mourn the loss of this relationship. Explain the situation to your new boss, tell him normally personal crap doesn't impact your work, but you feel with a couple weeks of pulling your shit together, that you will be a much better employee going forward, then spend the time on that couch you need. It will get sickening/boring quickly and will be it's own motivator. If you're actually good at what you do, they will wait.

Or phone it in (metaphorically), do what you have to do to get by the first couple weeks, and then when things force you to kick it up a notch, do so.

But what do I know?
posted by cjorgensen at 5:21 PM on June 1, 2008

I drink.

Yeah, I know, I know, but it works for me. Get to the point where you've got a bit of a buzz on and rip into it (the project, not the rest of the bottle).
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:59 PM on June 1, 2008

What I'm looking for is advice on getting the job done when your heart isn't in it.

Lists and timers. Micro-lists. I basically break down a task into very small chunks, and write them down. I decide I will work on Task A for a time I know I can deal with, sometimes as little as 5 minutes, sometimes as much as an hour. I set a timer and go. To help motivate me (and I don't know why it does) I track how well I'm going with a spreadsheet. Sometimes I weight the tasks and aim to get to a certain number of points by the end of the day, and try to beat it the next day. Other times, I just colour in the times that I feel like I've been productive (and yeah, you guessed it, try to beat it later).

I spend a little time reading motivational blogs (action precedes motivation, yeah, thanks) and organisational blogs (but I tend to then spend too much time perfecting the system that will motivate me (funny).

I do think about why I should do anything at all (because my end goal of achieving X will make me feel good, pay for my food, is better than the alternative etc) and I write this down so when I can't remember why I'm getting out of bed, my slightly more together self reminds me.

Sometimes I break it down into really small lifestyle blocks eg, I only need to breathe in and out for another hour. I may reevaluate after that hour, but for now, I'm accepting that i've made that decision, and I'll do the best that I can (not the best there is) for that time.

I think it's about trying to set yourself on automatic as much as possible, and waiting for the grieving time to pass.

I'm sorry, it must be so hard for you right now.
posted by b33j at 6:01 PM on June 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry to hear of your troubles. Make a list of objectives for 1 day. When you accomplish an objective, praise yourself. Come to and ask for high5s, or whatever. It's physically and mentally hard to accomplish anything when you are suffering from a big loss, so you'll deserve lots of praise.
posted by theora55 at 6:15 PM on June 1, 2008

pretty damn sure it's the situation that's got me down, and not any sort of chemical imbalance. I didn't think antidepressants were supposed to help with that

Those emotions you think you're feeling are just electrical and chemical signals in your brain. Most anti-depressants are serotonin-reuptake inhibitors; when your brain cells show each other little chemical happiness messages, they extend the time that those messages are visible. So whatever happiness you can manage to feel resonates longer; pleasant thoughts are easier to sustain, and you are rewarded more generously for having them.

You'll still miss her; it just won't be as painful. Things that remind you of her won't trigger endless loops and cascades of memories; you won't fill every idle moment with compulsive imaginary conversations with her. (Yeah, I've been there.) You'll be more able to function and focus.

At least try antidepressants.
posted by nicwolff at 6:18 PM on June 1, 2008

One thing about seeing a therapist of some sort is that it provides a way to stop obsessive or otherwise disruptive thoughts about the sad circumstance. You can write down the thought on a list for your next session while reassuring yourself, "I deal with this topic Tuesdays at 3:00" or "I will explore this thought further Tuesday at 3:00." You've thus taken action without derailing yourself from whatever you're supposed to be doing in the moment, e.g., work, being with friends, etc.
posted by carmicha at 6:18 PM on June 1, 2008

Oh, and they take a month or so to start working, so go to a psychiatrist now.
posted by nicwolff at 6:19 PM on June 1, 2008

this time around I'm pretty damn sure it's the situation that's got me down, and not any sort of chemical imbalance. I didn't think antidepressants were supposed to help with that

I found an antidepressant very useful for a fairly serious situational depression I once suffered from, which seems to me like -- though I am not a doctor -- what you have right now. Mine was caused by something different, but the symptoms were very similar. I know exactly what you mean about simple goals seeming impossible. Some days I didn't even leave the house because doing so had become a multi-step process. (It should be one step: leave the house.) In any case, it helped a lot. The medicine doesn't really care why your brain chemistry is out of whack, it works (if it works; sometimes it doesn't) regardless.

The medicine can help you function. By functioning, you can improve your life. By improving your life, you can allow the current bad times to recede into the past and lose their emotional immediacy.

Sure it's something of a crutch. But if you had a broken leg, wouldn't you want a crutch? Well, why not for a bruised mind? There is really nothing to be gained by trying to tough it out.
posted by kindall at 6:22 PM on June 1, 2008

Meditation is an easy suggestion to give, and an easy one to blow off, but it really is one of the best things I've done in your situation, and I don't do it at other times. Just spend 10 or 20 minutes sitting there until the emotional storms pass and you feel like you find yourself, separate from them. (The book When Things Fall Apart is a great one to learn this from.) Writing things out is another way to get there -- you get it all out of your head onto paper and with it there, you get a few hours of clarity to work.

For me in these situations, it has helped a lot to focus my energy based on a realistic understanding of where I'm at -- I only have X (X being about 40% of my normal Y) hours to concentrate today. "What is the least I can get done to keep s going on from hurting my work situation?"

My final suggestion is math. Or alphabetizing. If all else fails and you have to pull yourself together quickly, trying to do math in your head will help. As I try to get the neutrons to connect to figure out "what is 4684 divided by 12?" I feel the emotions easing their grip on me. In fact, it feels a little bit like a relief. So, then I try to dive into that place of relief to get some stuff done.
posted by salvia at 6:32 PM on June 1, 2008

Sure it's something of a crutch. But if you had a broken leg, wouldn't you want a crutch? Well, why not for a bruised mind?

Because unlike walking on a broken leg, thinking on a bruised mind can actually help you heal, or lead to ideas and transformations that are quite valuable.

Of course I believe that in certain situations drugs are appropriate, but the poster has already expressed a desire to work things out on his own, and if he's asking us, he'll probably ask other people too. I think advising drugs to someone who is already making a proactive effort (and who doesn't really want to take them) isn't very helpful.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 6:42 PM on June 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

ianad, but i wouldn't recommend the drugs unless your depression was really interfering with your life.

i would, however, recommend a prescription sleep aid if you are having trouble sleeping. regular sleep alone can do wonders for your mood and concentration--and the newest generation don't have nearly the risk of addiction that older pills did, so there are fewer long-term consequences. an antidepressant can be difficult to a) identify a good match for you, and b) see results in time to make any difference in the short term anyway.

exercise is good, too. being around friends is good, eating right and well is good, and getting things done is great. clean the house. do the laundry. mow the lawn. accomplishment feeds off itself--if you get two things done, you're more likely to get three things done. i'm a big fan of burying myself in work, too.

i'm sorry that this has happened. check in with a therapist if you haven't.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:58 PM on June 1, 2008

Flylady was the only way I got through pharmacy school while pretty severely depressed. You may think me insane for recommending a cutesy-poo site about housework - but really, her entire site is about how to do what you gotta do, 15 minutes at a time, whatever the project may be.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:59 PM on June 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Research has shown that the face is not merely a mirror of our internal emotional state, but that it can directly affect that state. Which is to say that if you force yourself to smile and laugh with your face, you'll feel happy, and if you make sad or angry faces, you will feel those emotions. I was feeling bummed last night so I tried laughing for a minute or too and I began to feel more cheerful. Give it a shot.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:56 PM on June 1, 2008

*a minute or two
posted by ludwig_van at 8:57 PM on June 1, 2008

Think of the dream job as the beginning of your awesome new life, not a continuation of the shitty recent developments. In a way, you've now got the freedom to make your life the way you want it to be, and maybe you can get some distance on your current troubles such that they can be dealt with like credit cards, a junky car, or some other recurring hassle.
posted by rhizome at 9:55 PM on June 1, 2008

"Just' get through the day.

Just take a breath in.

Ok, now just breathe out.

Done? Good. Now, just go get a coffee.

Finished? Just read a paragraph of your research.

Just one thing at a time.

One breath at a time, one task at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time.

All the above advice still holds true, but don't overwhelm yourself. "Just" do one thing at a time. Celebrate the little wins. Then move on to the next task, or sentence, or word.

Working through the foggy days like this has helped me more times than I remember.
posted by flutable at 4:02 AM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Create routines. Make lists. Focus on them. Failure means shorten the list by one item, success means lengthen the list by one item. Do the list.

The brain is very malleable. Keep it focused on the routine and the list, and those things will get done.
posted by ewkpates at 5:09 AM on June 2, 2008

I've posted some of this before in different form but:
First week of November 2001. Wednesday, I asked my wife for a divorce. Friday I was made redundant, and as I was walking home I was mugged by four teenagers who opened negotiations by breaking my nose, and things proceeded from there. Saturday was mostly sobbing. Sunday, still bleeding from my nose (which ended up needing plastic surgery to fix) I flew across the Atlantic for the biggest job interview of my life--and nailed it.

Forward momentum is the main thing. Do not allow your life to come to a standstill. You need to do something every day such that when the day ends you can look at it and feel you've achieved something. World of Warcraft isn't it.

Find a shrink. At this stage, almost any shrink will help. Once you're past the stage of just wanting to talk, when you know what it is you want to talk about, find a good shrink. Seriously.

Sleep, but not too much. Do take something to help you fall asleep. Do get up when the alarm clock goes off. Caffeine. Chocolate worked for me too, keeping my blood-sugar level right up.

Divorce is bloody but you've survived the worst of it already. What you've described is doable. Do not expect to kick ass straight out the gate, but once you've taken the first step the second, third and rest become that much easier.

Best of luck.
posted by Hogshead at 5:42 AM on June 2, 2008

In addition to all the terrific suggestions above, I'll nth the benefits of antidepressants to help get through situational depression.
posted by walla at 6:00 AM on June 2, 2008

I know the following may sound incredibly naive, and I'm usually the less naive person on this earth, but this worked for me some years ago.

Working freelance, my personal life and my work life are inevitably more intertwined than most. There are things that, years later, I still regret, and most of them involved putting work in front of significant events influencing my and loved ones' lives, which somehow resulted in significant trauma I had to cope with. Needless to say, I tried to work myself silly afterwards, which is apparently the simplest option barring substance abuse. Didn't work.

Get going, organise yourself, split tasks, even menial ones, in sub-tasks; carefully arrange life and processes, set time aside for yourself, and don't allow yourself to use it for plunging in despair, try to spend it doing something positive instead; eat lots of fresh fruits, and bask in sunlight at least half an hour a day with some music plugged in; also a presence of friends, or even a pet (if your schedule and or lifestyle allows for it) could really help. Most of all, be conscious that you cannot set aside your current problems, but your first priority is now to heal, with getting things done and getting back to "function" (which is, I think, a horrible concept in itself) a (close) second.

Be rational in organising your time, and plan little rewards for yourself along the way.

Good luck: while apparently a cliche, "every end is a beginning in disguise" holds some truth.
posted by _dario at 6:07 AM on June 2, 2008

When I was going through my divorce in '05, I was a wreck: out of work, temporarily homeless, bereft of family -- so I kept myself very busy. I would accept any freelance gig; I did some writing; I exercised; I took a part-time job in a nursery. So my advice is, keep moving, keep busy. Take on small tasks. Focus. Physical labor is really helpful.

It'll pass. Try to focus on anything positive, even small things like a lovely day. I know it's hard, but the good news is that people have come through worse situations than yours and lived to tel lthe tale and even laugh aboutit.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:58 AM on June 2, 2008

Everyone else has been saying just keep moving, and I can concur.

I credit my cat with getting me through 9/11 -- he can be an outright pest when it gets close to his feeding time. I lived in New York City on 9/11, and in the days following, I would get myself stuck into these mental panicked rabbit loops, but my cat would still pester me at his dinnertime every day, just like clockwork -- HE didn't care what had happened, he still needed kibble!

It was a link to normality when I needed it. It was a visceral reminder that no matter what else had befallen me, there were some things that HADN'T happened to me, and I was still alive, there were still creatures dependant upon me, and I still had responsibilities that I couldn't let slip -- the bad things that HAD happened didn't change that.

So I just focused on doing that. Feeding my cat, feeding myself. Laundry. Getting sleep. Cleaning his litterbox. Cleaning my bathroom. Getting grounded by doing basic, self-care things, because self-care was doubly important.

It got me through.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:52 AM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

You have to mourn. In Japan, companies are known to give something like sick leave for people who've run into heartache (link).

I've gone through something similar to you not too long ago (though not nearly as heavy as what you're bearing), and I had to balance. I'd see concerts, see other people, get things done, but there were times when just sitting, breathing and being mindful of the pain was really helpful too.
posted by k7lim at 10:53 PM on June 4, 2008

« Older Best mobile internet service for telecommuting in...   |   Historical Stock Certificate: Worth Anything? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.