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Depression Kicking Your Ass But You Can't Call Out? Try My Emergency Productivity Trick

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. If you need support right now, you can call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. A list of crisis centers around the world can be found here.

We all have rough days that we need to work through, but working through depression days are a whole different story. On a rough day, we usually need one or two cries to make it through, or a call to a parent on our lunch break to let off steam. We usually come back in the next day ready for a fresh start with the hardships of the past behind us. When you’re working and you’re depressed, the days blur together. The sadness paired with lack of energy and motivation means that tasks get abandoned and neglected, which puts your job at risk. Depression is a health condition that can severely impact someone’s productivity at work. Granted productivity shouldn’t be the biggest concern when it comes to depression, it sadly is because we still have light bills, car payments, rent, and mortgage due. Collections does not care if you’re depressed. They only care about getting their money.

I’ve worked many jobs at the peak and height of depression, including periods where I was passively and actively suicidal. It’s so hard to care about metrics, quality standards, and impressing your bosses when you can barely find a reason to open your eyes the next day. Therapy is important because it helps give you the tools to handle these tougher periods, and medication can give you that needed boost, but it doesn’t take away that some days your brain will make work feel impossible and you’ll still have to get things done.

Out of all the productivity “hacks” I’ve tried for those days, only one has served me where I didn’t tank public opinion of me in a professional setting. Yes, it’s a form of prioritizing, but it’s based more so on survival and less on getting “all the things” done.

What you’ll need:

  • Four different colored pens, markers, highlighters, whatever.
  • Regular black/blue pen.
  • Paper.
  • A timer (not necessary but sometimes helps).

1. List out everything that you have on your to-do list.

Literally, list it all out. It may be overwhelming, but you need to see what you have to do in your list’s entirety. Write down the big things like “create deck for executive presentation” and small things like “change out the water of my desk plants.” Don’t discriminate between what’s important and what’s not. Just write out the entire list.

2. Use a timer and set it to 30 seconds, take one colored pen or highlighter, and label the absolute most important tasks.

I like using a timer for this because it creates a limited amount of time so our brain has to stick to “yes” and “no” answers versus justifying tasks. In my experience, when we take away the time to overthink, we allow our gut to make instinctive decisions that oftentimes are right. That’s why I like the timer. The timer could potentially stress people out more, so if you learn that it hurts more than it helps, it’s fine to leave it out. 

Go through the list and let your brain pick out the most crucial of tasks. These are the tasks that if you don’t get done, your performance review, potential bonuses, or overall job security would be in jeopardy. These could be continually repeating tasks or just an individual project due soon. Either way, go through and label those survival tasks. I like using red because red is such a stressful color and your brain reads it as “emergency.”

3. Take your timer and set it to a minute. Grab your second color and label important tasks that can wait.

These tasks are the important ones, but the deadline isn’t immediate or you have some more flexibility. It’s still important, but realistically you don’t need to sweat about it quite yet. Maybe next week or the week after, but not right now. I like giving a little more time on the timer for this because these tasks typically aren’t as crucial (but are still important). 

4. Go through the rest of your to-do lists and label them in your third and fourth colors.

Your third color is for tasks that you can genuinely put off and you won’t be in trouble. You’ll still get to them, but the deadline is the end of the month or quarter, or you can actually communicate with your manager and maybe adjust the timetable completely. 

Your fourth color is for tasks that are evergreen. Checking emails is a great example.

5. Now put the list away for a moment and think about your various emotional states.

For me:

Red (color one) – I am not OK and I just need to do whatever I can to survive the day and get out of here.

Yellow (color two) – I’m not the best, but I have space to do a little more and I’m not in survival mode.

Green (color three) – I’m fine and can do everything I need to do for the day.

Keep this in mind.

6. Pull your list back out and be honest with yourself. What color emotional state are you in? Base your day around that.

If your emotional state is in that red area, you are in survival. Focus on what’s most important, and keep that at the forefront of your mind. If you can do some evergreen tasks, that’s great, but realistically if you’re in survival mode then that’s just not what you’ll have the energy to prioritize. 

I like this method because it allows me to keep track of my emotional states — who doesn’t love mood trackers? — but things still get done. You won’t seem like you’re falling off because certain tasks are still completed, which keeps your manager off your back. 

Now if even the red zone is too much, I suggest looking into other alternatives like medical leaves, EAP (which you should utilize regardless), or even a change in job or career until you can mentally handle it again. There’s no shame in saying, “I need a break from work.” It’s hard to do because you do still have bills, but where there’s community, there is a way.

This is what’s helped me, and maybe it’ll help you. Maybe there are too many steps! Only one way to find out.

Remember, you got this. I believe in you.

Getty image by LaylaBird

Originally published: September 15, 2022
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