Depression and Productivity

In February a thread on Lifehacker popped up requesting advice on how to remain productive while depressed. As someone diagnosed with unipolar depression it hit pretty close to my heart and I commented in the thread, but decided I wanted to expand a little on that here.

I’m a writer, and work professionally as a police/emergency services dispatcher. Between my desire to continue writing and the unforgivingly hectic nature of my day job I don’t have much of an opportunity for lost days, productivity-wise. So I’ve developed a number of tactics in order to keep myself mobile and operating while all I want to do is hide under the covers.

Know you’re not alone, and reflect on that.

One of the most destructive forces in depression is the isolation that can blanket you. Often I’ll have these conflicting feelings where I can’t stand to be around other people but being alone is maddening and terrifying. Beyond that, self-criticism involving how other people don’t feel or react in these ways is so corrosive. Take a moment and remind yourself that you’re not the only one feeling this way and there is ABSOLUTELY NO SHAME IN IT.

Engage in practices that help you work on nonjudgment, self-awareness and self-compassion.

For me, Buddhist meditation was the key here. We spend so much time judging ourselves that to be able to sit, experience what’s happening internally and not judge myself for it is incredibly novel. Takes a lot of practice and I’m not always able to achieve it but it can be so healing, and despite the “Buddhist” descriptor it’s not religious or spiritual. The first time I sat with my depression and didn’t judge it was a revelation. As I continued to practice I became better able to spot times when my thinking became trapped in a recursive loop, either anxious or depressive. Recognizing these times when your mind locks itself up is essential for being able to step back, take a deep breath and change your direction. And finally, I’m able at times to step back and have compassion for myself. Give myself a little extra breathing room and realize that yeah, this shit really is difficult and I’m still going in spite of it.

To-Do And Task Lists Are Your Friend

Using a to-do list can focus your productivity and keep you on task. There are times that I’m right on point and know exactly where a project is going, and there are times that I’m lost amidst the fog and darkness. If I build a roadmap in my good moments, it can help in the bad ones. But there’s a caveat here that goes back to Point 2: you need to establish a positive, constructive, understanding relationship with your Task List. If it just makes you feel guilty when things sail by it does you no good.

I use a Google Docs spreadsheet to track my progress in writing, reading and other necessary actions each week. It’s literally just a grid where I check off something if I’ve done it that day. At the end of the week I reflect on what I’ve done and what I haven’t, where I’m light or maybe a bit heavy in terms of focus. And then I take a moment to again reflect on what I’ve been able to do in the context of my illness.

Schedule fun things into your life like they’re work projects.

Productivity doesn’t need to be drudgery and it shouldn’t feel like an albatross. You’ve got enough on your shoulders already. Looking at your To Do’s or Project Management is much more positive if you include the fun stuff in there too, from “Attack that extra candy bar in the desk drawer” to “Friday – Indulge with wine” to “Go walking in the rain in my bare feet.”

Physical sensation can help you feel alive

One of the strongest aspects of my depression is anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure. I break through that however I can just to keep the depression on its toes. Like the above, I’ll walk in the rain in my bare feet (or the snow, being up here in Massachusetts). I also love piping hot showers. If I need to stay at my desk a great companion is a steam inhaler (basically a facemask that I lower my face into) and a drop or two of menthol oil. Awakening your senses in these and other ways will leave you feeling more focused and alive. In a recent and incredibly good TEDtalk, Andrew Solomon proposes that the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. Do things that reinforce vitality.

Open your damn windowshades!

Especially in the midst of depression, I have a tendency to close off my apartment and office like a cave. I put the shades down, turn off most of the lights, bundle up. But when I get more sunlight I tend to have a more positive attitude and this applies to indirect sunlight as well. Letting sunlight into the room I’m inhabiting fundamentally changes the way I approach whatever I’m doing and how I’m feeling. As much as I just want the world to go away, want to shut myself off from it, allowing myself to see the outside world reminds me that it exists and I may not be as isolated as I think.


Science suggests that expressing what’s got us down or anxious can help alleviate or at least mitigate those feelings. Writing it out can help counteract, to again quote Solomon, the “burdensome nature of secrecy” that so often accompanies depression. Even if you never share it with someone else.

Journal whenever the mood strikes you but also try to keep some kind of regular practice. I try to scrawl out a journal entry twice a week or so, but do what works for you. Also, vary up your form and format. Don’t always write autobiographically, don’t always write “I.” Mess around, be creative. Write letters to yourself using “you.” I’ve found this format to be particularly helpful when I’m lacking in compassion for myself. My “I” tends to be so self-critical, but when I’m writing to “you” I possess more love and patience. Also: HAVE FUN. Journaling doesn’t need to be tedious. Fantasize about one of your dreams coming true, or pen a journal entry you might’ve made in an alternate universe.

Never accept limitation. Keep moving, even if it hurts.

I hope any of this helps. Remember to breathe. Good luck and remember: you’re not alone

Broadcasts of Note: Hidden Fragility, Russia Engagement, Surveillance Landscapes, Randomness, What If

YouTube: Jim Crutchfield at UC DavisComplexity scientist Crutchfield talks about the hidden fragility of complex systems and their implications, such as a vulnerable power grid or insect-driven climate change. Half hour long and pretty down-to-earth/not jargon-filled.

CSIS: Engage or Contain? Future Policy Toward Russia Trilaterally ConsideredTrilateral Commission report launch panel. Worth a listen if you’re interested, but nothing earth-shattering.


YouTubeTrevor Paglen’s 30C3 talk, Six Landscapes – Fantastic talk on landscapes of state surveillance. Incredibly engaging, quite humorous at times.

On BeingLeonard Mlodinow on Randomness and Choice – Great interview with the physicist and writer. Largely covers randomness, with a side-helping of what physics says about free will.


TedRandall Munroe – Comics that ask “What If?” – Munroe’s not quite as comfortable out from behind his comic, but he does a great talk anyway.

Readings: Utah BLM Troubles, Fairness versus Freedom, Cost of War, Geeks versus Bankers

Quotes in quotation marks, comments by me in italics.


FoxUtah Residents become next to confront Bureau of Land Management, in growing debate – Given that the FBI is already enroute to investigate the nitwits at the Bundy Ranch, I’d say people bold enough to, er, ride their ATVs over some preserved ruins, might be on the losing end of this.


Storify@leashless’ Reflections on The Deceptive Milieu – “The job the Government should be doing: direct action on climate, nanobio risk, horizon scanning for new risks, *deep* public health. Real.”  “Four issues at the heart of the deceptive milieu: human extinction risk, ongoing colonialism, sexual violence (including children), religion”  “Quietly understanding what is really going on around us, together, is The Truthful Milieu. And we can form that together *anywhere* we like.”  Great series of tweets from Vinay Gupta.


Kieran HealyUsing Metadata to find Paul Revere – “Is that not marvelous? I have always thought this operation is somewhat akin to magick, especially as it involves moving one hand down and the other one across in a manner not wholly removed from an incantation.” –


FiveThirtyEightFairness vs. Freedom – The venerable statisticians visualize mentions of fairness and equality versus freedom and liberty in Democrat and Republican platforms since 1948.

@JohnnyGellerThe cost of decades of war – (Paghman Gardens in Afghanistan 70s by William Podlich)

@ErikBrynThe Great Restructuring: More demand for computer geeks, less demand for bankers HT: @ChrisGiles_