Productivity is all about mindset. When you’re depressed (and even if you’re not) it’s your mind that throws up blocks and causes you to procrastinate and lose that precious motivation.
So the tips presented here are mostly about changing your mindset and looking at the problem a bit differently. They will not make the tasks before you any easier, per se, but will help you gain the power of mind to complete them.
Many of these tips utilize positive reinforcement and feedback loops. Often getting started is the most difficult part, so here we suggest some ways that enable you to get started with a small task, finish it quickly, and continue off the high of that first success.
As you continue, you will often gain momentum and be able to tackle larger tasks–this is the snowball effect. Of course, while it’s nice when the snowball rolls down the hill smoothly and gets bigger and bigger till it reaches the bottom, sometimes it hits a rock and goes off course, or stops completely.
It’s one hundred percent ok if this happens. If you finish the first task on your to do list and are completely drained and need to lie down, no worries. You’ve still accomplished something.
Maybe you tried as hard as you could, but couldn’t even manage to get that first item done. This is also ok! You tried. You thought about it. And even thinking about doing it, instead of just admitting defeat before even trying, can increase your mental fortitude and make it a little bit easier to try next time.
So let’s dive into some productivity tips!
This is the first item up because I personally find it to be one of the most helpful, but read through all of the tips below and see if you can find anything that works for you.
Put simply, this is making a to do list. But not just any list—I’m talking about a micro list. A micro list is one in which even the smallest steps are taken into account, such as daily hygiene activities. This may seem silly to a healthy, neurotypical person, but if you’re fighting depression, I find it to be very helpful.
For example, a “regular” to do list might look like this:
- Go get groceries
- Clean kitchen
- Do laundry
This is perfectly fine if it works for you, but if you’re lying in bed with zero motivation, this list can look like an unscaleable mountain. Instead, try breaking it down into even the simplest of tasks.
Have a look at this microlist:
- Get out of bed
- Get dressed
- Brush teeth
- Brush hair
- Make grocery list
- Drive to grocery store
- Pick up groceries
- Put away groceries
- Empty dishwasher
- Load dishwasher
- Tidy kitchen counter
- Take out kitchen garbage
- Put load of towels in washer
- Put load of towels in dryer
- Fold and put away towels
Now, this list accomplishes the same as the list above, but in much smaller steps. Smaller steps tend to be much less overwhelming, and they offer more opportunities to check something off your list.
Because one of the toughest challenges facing people who want to be productive is the all or nothing mindset. This is basically the idea that you must accomplish all the things you want to accomplish, or finish a task completely, and if you fail to do this then it’s not even worth doing anything in the first place. This makes it hard to get started, because it comes with the implicit rule that all tasks are big ones, and big tasks are especially hard to tackle when you’re depressed.
By breaking things into micro tasks, we can still see our accomplishments even if we don’t finish the “whole thing.” For example, maybe you start cleaning the kitchen, and you are able to tidy the counter and unload the dishwasher, but then you’re just beat.
The larger task of “Clean the kitchen” is still left incomplete, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t do anything! With a microlist, you can cross those two things off your list and still see progress, instead of feeling like a failure for not completing something.
One more tip—don’t be afraid to include things on your list that you’ve already accomplished and get some joy out of checking those off!
I like to use Evernote, a note taking app that comes with a handy checkbox bullet list that’s super easy to use, and that way it’s always in my pocket. You can use any number of note taking apps, or the traditional pen and paper, but either way, the physical act of checking things off your list can be very motivating. So start making some micro lists!
2 Minute Rule
This one comes from David Allen’s excellent book, Getting Things Done, and it is one of the simplest rules you’ll find. Basically, it says that if something can be accomplished within two minutes, do it right now. Don’t put it off.
The idea is that the upsetting thoughts you’ll feel at putting off something so small will outweigh the challenge of making yourself just do the thing. In other words, you’ll feel worse if you don’t do it.
It’s surprising what you can accomplish in two minute stints. Things can be cleaned or put in their rightful place, garbages can be taken out or laundry brought downstairs, emails can be answered, comments can be replied to, phone calls can be made—whether it’s work, hobby, or home related, the list is quite lengthy.
And all it takes is two minutes. Then, if after those two minutes you feel like you can keep going, by all means, keep going! But if you feel like those two minutes took all the energy and motivation you had, then give yourself permission to rest. You did your two minute thing. You deserve it.
Of course, you’ll want to try to tackle another two minute task when you feel up to it, and just keep on repeating the cycle, continuing to be productive when you can and resting when you can’t. And, most importantly, don’t feel bad for needing to rest!
This one is for tackling larger tasks or projects, and requires a bit more motivation, but it can be adapted to suit different needs. Basically, it splits your time into chunks, divided by breaks, and sets a timer to keep track of them.
The usual cycle goes something like this. You work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. Then repeat this 3 times. Then, you take a longer 25 minute break. Then you repeat the whole thing for as long as you need to work.
It’s important to actually follow the timer though. Once you reach the end of a 25 minute chunk, you must stop working. And during your 5 minute break, you must do something besides working. If you don’t follow these rules, the whole system falls apart.
One reason is because the timer instills a sense of urgency. If you want to finish something before your break, you must go hard at it for those 25 minutes and not dawdle.
If 25 minutes is too long a time for you to focus, you can adjust the times accordingly, making the work chunks shorter or the break chunks longer. Do whatever suits you, but make sure you are consistently taking—and sticking to—breaks.
You can set timers manually, but there are simple apps out there with premade cycles ready for you to use. I like to use Focus Keeper, but feel free to explore others.
Ready, Doing, Done
This one isn’t so much a productivity tip for accomplishing a specific task, but more of a system for keeping you organized and motivated. It is a simplified version of a Kanban Board.
This method utilizes a board, such as a whiteboard or large piece of foam board, that is split into three columns: Ready, Doing, and Done. You post tasks in each column on an index card or sticky notes, according to where they are at in your workflow.
Tasks that are ready to be accomplished, your typical to-dos, go in the Ready column. Tasks that you are currently working on completing go in the Doing column. Once you finish a task in the Doing column, you move it to the Done column, and move a new task to the Doing column.
It is important to set a limit on your Doing column, however, so you don’t get overwhelmed. You can adjust it to your own needs, but a good starting point is to have three items you can be working on at once.
The column method allows you to keep track of your tasks and also shows you your completed tasks, reminding you of your successes and hopefully motivating you to complete more things.
This one isn’t so much a productivity tip either, but something that will help you be more productive towards a better end. Because we can be the most productive little workers in all the land but if our goals are unrealistic or unachievable, all that work we put in will be for nought.
The thing I want to tell you about is controlled goals. These are, just like they sound, goals that are within our control to achieve. That is, they depend only on us and not on others. For example, if you’re writing a blog, a goal you might have is to increase your page views by 20%.
This is a perfectly fine goal, but it is not in your control. You cannot force people to come visit your blog. What you can do is write solid content and practice good marketing techniques to get them there. So, a more controlled goal might be to publish two extra blog posts this month and double your social media presence, since doing those things depend only on you.
For another example, you may have a goal of landing a big project at work, but again, this is out of your control. Instead, focus on what you can do, such as making a killer proposal or volunteering to work on related things so your boss knows you’re willing to put in the work.
The Bottom Line
Productivity tips are all well and good, but even the best tips can’t help you some days. Depression is a terrible place to be, and sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard we try, productivity just isn’t in the cards. So the bottom line I want to leave you with is this:
Do what you can, when you can, and don’t feel guilty about not doing more.
You’re fighting your own brain, and sometimes that’s all you can do.
So keep fighting. Because your health is more important than getting stuff done, hands down.