It’s a problem almost everybody has at one point or another. I can easily count the last five times I’ve struggled to get something done, putting it off for as long as possible, dreading the moment I’d have to roll up my sleeves and do it. And when I did finally do it, it really wasn’t hard or much of an ordeal. And I knew that. Everybody does. So why do we get stuck up on tasks that we could easily clear in an hour or less, and why do these minute little things become such massive and daunting behemoths in our mind? And how does procrastinating while not depressed differ from the same issue while depressed?
The truth is that there is no single best way to get things done quickly when you don’t want to do them. But there are lots of ways to approach this problem – and with a little mental gymnastics, you can usually get these tasks out of the way before they become inapproachable. A big part of this involves speed. Getting things done quickly matters. The second big ingredient is thinking of other things. Anything you can do in autopilot is easier done when combined with something else, something you might enjoy, or something that helps you get through the task. I’ll go through a couple different ways to get stuff done even when you don’t want to – and yes, these have worked for me in the past.
Procrastination or Depression?
The thing is that you have to take these two apart and put them on entirely different frequencies. Procrastination can’t be compared with depression, because procrastination often is a part of depression. It’s a symptom of a condition, not a condition in and of itself.
Not everyone who is depressed procrastinates, and not everyone who procrastinates is depressed. But there’s a correlation between both. It’s important to know why, but also to examine how depression changes how and why we procrastinate, while procrastination is rarely on its own.
When we procrastinate, we do so for a reason. It’s easy to blame something like work ethic and personality. These factors do influence procrastination. If someone doesn’t want to work, they just won’t work. It could be a lack of interest in the work, a lack of proper consequences or experiences with consequences resulting in a lax attitude towards deadlines and requirements, or the person struggling with procrastination is just really terrible with their time management and needs to get it under control ASAP.
But there are often other things in the way of getting things done quickly. Not all of these are linked to depression. In fact, very few cases of procrastination have anything to do with depression. It is estimated that about 95% of college students 1 engage in procrastination – even back in the 70s, in case an argument is made about lax teaching – and most common self-cited reasons include rebellion against control, evaluation anxiety, difficulty making decisions, overly perfectionistic standards, and fear of success.
Other studies showed that procrastination in the workplace was associated with lower pay, short-term jobs, and a higher risk of a short tenure at any given workplace. This goes both ways, meaning that people tend to procrastinate more with bad pay, but are also given bad pay because they procrastinate.
Now that we have established that a lot of people struggle with having the motivation to do things they need to do, let’s look at how depression affects this line of thinking.
Procrastination generally implies a problem in completing tasks in a timely manner, often due to worries about the future. With depression, there are several factors at play. A major factor is the lack of motivation. One common mental aspect of depression is the struggle to concentrate and get things done, especially mentally strenuous things. It is difficult to stick to schedules, and the thought of a task leaves you with the overwhelming sense of wanting instead to just do nothing.
The other side of depression shows itself in the form of anxieties. Anxiety as a condition is separate from depression, but people with depression often develop an anxiety disorder, and many others experience anxieties to a lesser degree. These can manifest in thoughts that end up hindering a person’s ability to do basic things. Instead of getting up and out of bed and going about your day, you lie in bed unable to move, thinking of everything you have to do, overwhelmed by the prospect of a whole day, unable to come up with a good reason to go through it all.
This feeling comes up again and again in other tasks. The good thing is that it can be overcome, with medication and self-regulation.
Think of self-regulation as the ability to suppress some of the symptoms of depression. There are cases where self-regulation alone can go quite far – and in these cases, therapy in general is the key to overcoming a depression – but in many other cases, self-regulation is just one more part of a greater treatment plan, something to consider in conjunction with a few adjustments to lifestyle and the right medication. Here are a couple ways to kickstart yourself into getting tasks done when you’re struggling.
It All Starts in the AM
Unless you have a peculiar schedule that involves getting up to do things at night – which you may want to consider changing, because a lack of sunlight is substantially correlated with worse depressive symptoms – your day is most likely going to start in the morning, sometime after the sun rises. Typically, this is when we rise too, ready to go about our day. However, mornings can be very tough for someone with depression. Kicking the day off on a good note is important, and it sets the tone and pace for how the rest of the day is going to go. But many people with depression shoot themselves in the foot with symptoms of insomnia, and issues with waking up consistently. Others wake up far too early and can’t go back to sleep.
Getting a steady sleeping schedule is the number one priority to sorting out your schedules and managing your time – and ultimately getting things done. If you’re not getting enough sleep or are starting the day off on erratic times, then see what you can do about it. For some, a few minor lifestyle adjustments can do wonders. An herbal pill can go a long way for others. But if you need something stronger, consider temporarily using sleeping medication, or speak to your doctor or therapist about switching to different anti-depressants – anti-depressants can help combat the insomnia often related to depression.
Every adult needs a different amount but aim for eight hours of shut-eye and a consistent bedtime. Once that’s covered, and you get a good night’s sleep, you’re ready to tackle the day.
The first task is to get out of bed, so do it fast. If you catch yourself heading towards a cycle of overthinking, then you need to pre-empt it by drowning your thoughts out with a single, simple command. Get up! Just do it. That’s all, really. All you need to do is stand up. Just scoot to the edge of bed, sit up, and shift your weight onto those soles. Do it step by step, and don’t think about anything else. Get up and out of bed!
It’s easier written than done, but you can’t let yourself fall further down the hole. Medication can help eliminate the worst of a depression’s symptoms, but it’s not a cure-all, and not everyone reacts well to meds or needs them to move past a depression. Using speed to start the day is important, because if you can get ahead of your worries early on, then you can stay ahead of them for most of the day.
One Step at A Time
You can apply this technique to a lot of things. I feel I get the best work done early in the morning, if I get myself in a flow right after getting out of bed. Hop on out of the bedroom, heat up a kettle or flip the switch on the coffee maker, and go through a little morning ritual – whatever yours may be.
Then have at your tasks for the day. You don’t have to go through them all but take a big step forward by getting started. Organize your tasks for the day and segment the work. For example: I write, so what I like to do in the mornings is set aside what titles I’ll be working on for the day and get started on the structure for each of them. Then, after I’m through with the rest of my morning, I can happily continue where I left off.
Instead of tackling a big job all at once, I tackle it in pieces. I do the title. I do the headings. I do each segment, bit by bit. I polish each piece. I finish up and move on.
The same can be said for other projects, jobs, chores, and tasks. Instead of “doing the dishes”, start by organizing them. Then get rid of the trash in the kitchen. Wash the utensils first. Then the glasses. Then the plates.
Do it all but do it piece by piece. Step by step. One foot in front of the other, instead of looking at the marathon in its entirety and feeling the weight of every step crush you simultaneously.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
Not all days go well. Some days go just fine, some days are great, and some are bad. It’s easy to blame yourself for the bad things, but that is not a good way to go about a day. Depression comes with self-esteem issues and often even self-doubt and self-loathing, which is a bunch of words that mean you don’t like yourself very much at all. It’s easy then to use yourself as a punching bag, and depression often does it for you. Suicidal thoughts are part nihilism (“maybe there’s no point”) and part morbid self-hatred (“no one cares or likes me”). These thoughts represent some of the worst of what depression has to offer, and lighter, less painful gradients come in flavors like “I did a terrible job today” and “I can’t get anything done, ever”.
It’s not easy to get past these thoughts, and we need people around us to remind us that they’re not healthy, and that we need to think other thoughts. For people with milder depressive symptoms, going to a professional and undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy can help you address the thoughts and actions that influence this type of negative thinking. Otherwise, medication, constant reminders, and positive affirmation is key. Surround yourself with reminders that even on bad days, you’re not a bad person. Even if you make mistakes, your life isn’t one big mistake. Even if you’re having a sad day, your life in its entirety does not have to be a sad story.
One step at a time, don’t think too much about it, and when you do, try and think nicer thoughts. These are simple, intuitive tips, but it doesn’t make them less effective. You just need the practice and the circumstances to put them into use. If you’re not there today, then don’t worry. Try again tomorrow, and make sure you’re surrounded with the help you need to be in a better mental place by then.