When you have depression, your natural inclination when faced with a to-do list is to crawl back into bed, right? Trust me, I’ve been there. When I’m depressed, I’d rather stick my hand into a box of tarantulas than load the dishwasher.
It’s rare that you do get the motivation to tackle something on your list. But, when you do, have you noticed that staying focused on that getting that task done is impossible?
Have you tried to complete a task like “pick up the living room,” only to end up staring at the mountain of toys, not knowing what to do next? I’ve been there, too.
Turns out there’s a scientific reason behind the inability to get things done (GTD) with depression. It’s called a “lack of cognitive control,” or, more colloquially, “executive dysfunction.” There’s even a disorder for it: executive dysfunction disorder.
Getting things done, or GTD, is a productivity system developed by David Allen. GTD encourages people to “brain dump” everything in their heads out onto paper, and then file that away into a trusted system. A trusted system involves calendars, your phone, and anywhere you’d like to schedule tasks.
But executive dysfunction interferes with GTD because a brain dump can be overwhelming for people with depression. I’ve written about executive dysfunction and how it relates to bipolar disorder before. But it’s been a while since that post, so I figured a refresher is in order.
What is Executive Function?
Executive function, when things are going well, is the ability to set goals and self-monitor. This means that you can recognize that picking up the living room requires you to pick up one toy at a time, rather than staring down a mountain of them.
Executive function is, in so many words, the ability to break tasks down into compartmentalized parts.
Most of the time, executive function, for people who have learned it (which is a whole ‘nother post), is automatic. But studies have shown the depression (and bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) interferes with executive functioning. Breaking down tasks into parts is extremely difficult when you’re suffering from depression.
Which is why you end up being overwhelmed when looking at that mountain of toys. you literally cannot comprehend the steps it would take to clean the living room.
How to Cope with Executive Dysfunction
The good news is that executive dysfunction can be managed with ideas like these:
- Consciously break projects up into steps. I’ve written recently about how to break tasks and projects into steps, so I’ll just summarize here. Next time you’re facing a task, try writing down every step you can think of. Then put them in the order that you need to accomplish. Then tackle the task, one step at a time.
- Use time management tools such as colorful calendars and stopwatches. Once you write down the steps of a task, try timing yourself to get each step done. Make a game of it, and you’ll be able to complete the steps more quickly.
- Schedule repeating reminders on your computer or phone, using sites like Remember the Milk. Reminders can be extremely helpful. Use a calendar app on your phone to make appointments, and set notifications for thirty minutes ahead (or however long you need to get to the appointment). “Set it and forget it” gets the task out of your head and into a trusted system.
- Set goals in advance to coincide with ingrained habits, such as flossing your teeth right after brushing. Setting goals to follow ingrained habits is a great way to build new ones. They’re called “triggers,” and they’re a positive way to build upon a foundation that you already have. When you do one habit, you immediately follow it with another. If you’re a tea drinker, try taking the trash out every time you boil water, and you’ll never have to remember to take the trash out again.
Structure is extremely important for people who suffer from depression. Executive dysfunction is a real problem.
Consciously breaking projects down into steps, using time management tools such as calendars and repeating reminders, and setting goals to coincide with ingrained habits are all ways to improve executive functioning.
You can do this. You can improve your executive functioning.
I wish you well in your journey.
- How to Clean Your House When Your Brain is a Mess, part I
- Learned Behaviors: Passing on Coping Mechanisms
- Can Bipolar Disorder Symptoms Contribute to Hoarding?