How To Stay Productive When Anxiety & Depression Feel Utterly Paralyzing

August 16, 2018

This article was previously published on August 22, 2017.

If you are someone who deals with depression or anxiety, you know how pesky and debilitating the cycle of negative thoughts can be, especially when you’re trying to stay productive. Here is the scene:

You sit in front of your computer screen for hours and cannot bring yourself to type a single word. “Ugh, I just don’t feel like it,” you think. “I don’t have the energy needed to complete this task and the anticipation of having to get where I need to go from where I am now is on par with finding and forming my own sovereign nation. Maybe I’ll go take a nap or see what Susie is up to on Facebook.” Even on (relatively) good days when you do force yourself to begin, you are met shortly thereafter with that nagging voice that says, “it’s probably not good enough anyway, I better press delete and go eat six snacks while I procrastinate figuring out how to make it better.” 

If this sounds mildly humorous, it’s probably because this sounds majorly recognizable. Here are a few tricks to utilize in order to increase productivity (and stay productive!) while dealing with depression and anxiety.  How To Stay Productive While Dealing With Anxiety And/Or Depression

1. Fulfill the basic task of living.

It is often true that before we can speed up, we must slow down. That may sound like annoying advice when you have a mile-long to-do list, but trust me when I say that much of what keeps us from launching forward is continuing to fall back down a rabbit hole of inadequacy. And nothing makes you feel worse than knowing that you have been neglecting even the basic tasks of living. Start with the simple things: Take a shower. Get dressed. Open your mail. Do the dishes. Not only will the feeling of accomplishment put you in a better head space, but you will avoid the mental pile-up of little things to which you will inevitably need to tend anyway. You may also pay your electric bill on time. 

2. Turn your phone off. 

This one seems so obvious and, yet, no one does it. Focus is a hot commodity when you are dealing with depression and anxiety, and literally anything that can distract you will distract you. Worse, you will welcome the distraction with open arms. I acknowledge that not everyone is in a job where they can take advantage of this luxury, but do your best to inform your colleagues that email is the best way to reach you. If you can avoid needing to see who liked your last tweet or replying to your friend’s coffee invite for even a couple hours, you might be shocked by how much you can get done. 

3. Do “bad work.”

This may sound counter intuitive to anxiety-ridden perfectionists, but more times than not, it’s not actually the work that is stressful – it’s the anticipation of having to do the work and having to do it well. Occasionally, we need to override the system and give ourselves permission to suck if it means making it easier to put pen to paper. Once the bulk of the task is done, it is always easier to go back through and fix it at a later date. What’s more, sometimes we unlock our creativity when we stop censoring ourselves and focusing on doing a good job. I speak from personal experience when I say that some of my best work has been done completely on accident when I gave myself permission to do a terrible job.   

4. Do more than one thing of equal importance.

Do MORE work? Actually, yes. Studies show that when you purposefully overload your brain, you paradoxically stop overthinking and start working on autopilot. This is because work becomes less stressful and difficult to deal with when you are able to emotionally disengage and start pragmatically moving through it as just another item on your to-do list. Logically, your competence and innate abilities do not nose dive simply because you have added another project, but knowing you have more than one task of equal importance prevents you from mentally agonizing over either of the tasks at hand and can help you stay productive. I like to equate it with dating: you are freed up to present a better, less desperate version of yourself if you date a few people off the top rather than rushing to turn on your date’s Facebook notifications or over analyzing their lack of emojis after only two dates. I, of course, am not advocating you date all of Tinder (Planned Parenthood is busy enough), but a couple promising prospects may prove to be healthy.

How To Stay Productive While Dealing With Anxiety And/Or Depression

5. Stay in close proximity to high achievers.

A two-year study done by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management indicates that scooting your chair closer to high achievers may cause an uptick in productivity. And the combination of peer pressure and inspiration may be the external kick in the pants that we need when we are feeling particularly sluggish. This is essentially the psychological equivalent of those fun Facebook memes that go something to the effect of, “Mary is killing it at life. Be like Mary.” Locate the straight-A student or the colleague with the highest output and invite them to work alongside you at your local coffee shop.

6. Try new things/Meet new people.

Anyone in a creative field or a job requiring you to think outside the box can attest to the fact that sometimes you feel particularly inspired and full of new ideas, and sometimes, well, most of the time, you just don’t. Compound the problem with anxiety and depression and the problem only gets exponentially worse. We know that anxiety and depression are rampant in intelligent people, and those same intelligent people (along with most people, really) need extra stimulation to feel engaged and inspired. Falling into a predictable routine will only lead to a sort of psychological sensory adaptation where everything feels muted and dulled, and, eventually, one doesn’t want to leave the house anymore because “everything is just always the same anyway.” It is for this reason that it is important to continue to take risks, step outside your comfort zone, and expand your social circle. This can be as simple as ordering a new menu item at your favorite restaurant or as grand as traveling to a new destination. I once read an article that espoused that the reason we haven’t yet written that career-shattering novel is because we haven’t yet experienced the life-shattering event that will inspire it. So get to it!

7. Heed the second-hand advice of Ricky Gervais.

Ricky Gervais once said, “The best advice I’ve ever received was, ‘no one else knows what they’re doing either.'” It’s remarkably important to remember that when your depressive inner monologue keeps looping, “everyone else has it figured out but me,” because that is the destructive thought that will keep you in bed until noon and will prevent you from tackling the challenges that await you. The perception that everyone else knows what they’re doing is just that: a perception. The most productive and successful people got where they are through a robust series of trial and error, and many of them are still falling on their faces on a daily basis. The only thing separating them from you is consistently putting one foot in front of the other and being able to say, “today I choose to do it anyway.”

What are your tried-and-true tips for how to stay productive?

Related: We’ve Been Planning Our Workday All Wrong, According To Productivity Gurus

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Cara is a writer, actor, funny lady, and free thinker. She is passionate about women's rights and mental health awareness, and has been known to offer witty, insightful commentary on all things modern culture. See Cara's work on her website, and follow her on Instagram @caradaniellebrown.


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