How Depression Interferes with Getting Things Done (GTD)

How Depression Interferes with Getting Things Done (GTD) - Cassandrastout.com

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Related:

How Depression Interferes with Getting Things Done (GTD) - Cassandrastout.com

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Executive Dysfunction and Bipolar Disorder

students
Credit to flickr.com user Jeff Peterson. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Do you constantly abandon projects and leave messes around the house, such as unfinished crafts or dirty dishes? If you have bipolar disorder, you may be suffering from executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction is used interchangeably with a lack of cognitive control, and is the inability to set and meet goals and to self-monitor.

When people’s brains work without dysfunction, they can analyze tasks and create timelines in which to complete them. People with executive dysfunction stemming from bipolar disorder, however, are often overwhelmed because they can’t break tasks into steps. Judging from the chaos around the house and the missed doctor’s appointments, people might sometimes blame laziness. But executive dysfunction isn’t laziness; it’s a symptom of a broken brain.

In individuals with bipolar disorder, executive dysfunction appears most prominently during in the manic phase. Racing thoughts, a hallmark of bipolar, tend to interfere with recall and thought organization. The manic person might also have trouble prioritizing important details. Everything is perceived to be important. And for sufferers of bipolar disorder with a history of psychosis, managing executive functioning is even more difficult because their brains are wired differently.

Symptoms of executive dysfunction manifest in children similarly to adults. For example, children often don’t know when they’ve overstayed a welcome at a friend’s house, while adults sometimes can’t function at the workplace due to an inability to read social cues. Children usually can’t follow instructions, and may change to a new task before completing the first one. Adults are frequently late and misplace possessions. If you have trouble remembering the names of people you’ve known for years, you might be suffering from executive dysfunction.

The good news is that executive dysfunction can be managed with ideas like these:

• Consciously break projects up into steps.
• Use time management tools such as colorful calendars and stopwatches.
• Schedule repeating reminders on your computer, using sites like Remember the Milk.
• Set goals in advance to coincide with ingrained habits, such as flossing your teeth right after brushing.

With tips like these, executive dysfunction can be coped with. Many people with bipolar disorder learn to successfully deal with their executive dysfunction.

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How to Clean When Your Brain is a Mess, part III

This is part three of a three-part series.
Part I | Part II | Part III

A clutter-filled environment weighs on the mind and wears you out.  We’ve talked about why messes grow like fungi in some homes (hint: brain wiring!) as well as a few plans of attack, but what about when you’re in a mood state?

Depression

Remember Your Priorities: Drag yourself out of bed. Step into the shower, and then just stand there for a while. Take all the hot water you need. It’s okay to slump. Wash your hair, and brush your teeth. Put your shoes on. Eat something small and protein-filled (yogurt, eggs, nuts). Drink a tall glass of water.

You need to take care of yourself before even thinking of attempting chores. When you don’t feel good, the pile of dirty clothes looms like a mountain—one you can still step around on the way to bed or the computer chair.

So first take care of yourself, and then face that armful of laundry. Don’t worry about separating; just toss it into the washer. Don’t add bleach, and make sure to set an alarm when you need to change it over. Fold the clothes when they’re dry. If that’s all you can handle, crawl back into bed. Try again tomorrow, but do two chores instead of one. Then three, and so on.

Get Help: If you are able to afford it, a maid service may be a wonderful investment for you. I know a few people who pay for this privilege, and they all report that they pick up before their maid arrives due to guilt. If that what’s motivates you, then go for it!

Credit to flickr user Omnidu. Used with permission.
Credit to flickr user Omnidu. Used with permission.

Similarly, if you have a partner or roommate, split the chores down the middle. Figure out which tasks you each hate doing and which you don’t, and then discuss who takes what. You can also set a rotating schedule if you get bored with doing the same task week after week.

Speak to your partner when you feel anxious or stressed, because that will affect how much you can take on around the house.  Give them the same courtesy–they’re human, too!  And try to be kind to each other.  If a chore doesn’t get done, then it doesn’t get done. Just try again tomorrow.

Mania

Cleaning during a hypomanic or manic episode is similar to cleaning while depressed. You have to keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed. The difference is that you now have the energy to start up a new project and leave in the middle. If you’re like me, you’ll only end up irritated and turning in circles by the end of the day.

Cut Distractions: Wear some headphones while the kids are at school. Try to work on the same task for three songs, and then switch immediately to another one—regardless of the unfinished state of the first task. After two or three tasks, sit down for fifteen minutes. Drink a large glass of water as slowly as you can. Breathe. Then get back to work on the first task.

Credit to flickr user Natalie R. Used with permission.
Credit to flickr user Natalie R. Used with permission.

Put Things Away: I have a friend who only has a few color-coded dishes per person in her household. Each person washes their own and puts it away. This doesn’t work for me, because I’ll order pizza until I’m broke, but if you’re able to keep your sink empty, go for it!

Similarly, if you take a book out, try to reshelf it. Then it will be one more item not taking up space–and not just in the physical realm.  You have to remember where you left it and why you took it out in the first place, which taxes your already over-crowded brain.

Best of luck tackling your house while struggling through a mood state.  Even though it’s not so much ‘tackling’ as ‘limping to the end zone with a couple of dishes,’ any progress made is time well-spent.  Don’t be too hard on yourself!

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How to Clean When Your Brain is a Mess, part II

This is part two of a three-part series.
Part I | Part II | Part III

As we talked about in part one, most people with mental illnesses tend to have massive difficulties in keeping their homes ship-shape. The trouble lies in how our brains are wired (of course), but that doesn’t mean our struggle is futile. Here are some more ideas for tackling the mess in your house:

Credited to flickr user gcg2009. Used with permission.

Pump Up the Volume: Pop your favorite upbeat dance song in the stereo. Most articles which contain the words “How to Clean” in the title emphasize this step because it’s so effective. Music therapy is a flourishing science. In patients undergoing chemotherapy, playing music decreased both their anxiety and frequency of vomiting.

Music also stirs up motivation and affects your emotions. Sadness is triggered by minor keys and happiness by fast tempos, but a depressing song with a peppy beat triggers both. Making an enjoyable playlist can be one of the easiest ways to get pumped for cleaning.

Figure Out Where Your Time Goes: If you do nothing else on this list, track your time for a week. Some people use a logbook and others use a color chart; do whatever makes the most sense to you. Next, figure out where you can squeeze in ten-minute bursts of laundry or dishes. If you thrive on a schedule, assign a day to each room and work for however much time you can devote to it. Then, cut activities you don’t really need. According to my graphs, I spend an appalling amount of time glued to my computer chair, so that has to be first to go–ten minutes at a time.

Credited to flickr user koalazymonkey. Used with permission.

Write a List: If you have frequent access to a computer, Remember the Milk is a fantastic listing tool. You can schedule repeated tasks like, “take out trash every Tuesday”, or “Mom’s birthday every November 5th”. You can even tag them with things like home or errands. We also have a printable weekly calendar available on our Downloads page which may make this step easier.

Warning: I’ve been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)–which is uncommon in a manic patient–due to my frequent and sometimes uncontrollable listing. If you also deal with this manifestation of perfectionism, please be aware of how vulnerable you can be when setting routines in this manner. Don’t get too caught up in tweaking your list!

What About Guests? – Aha, here’s a challenge. What happens when you’ve been told that your brother-in-law will be crashing at your place in three hours and your home is a toxic wasteland? (True story.) You weep and gnash your teeth, of course!

Or you can take a look at The Emergency Clean Sweep by My Messie House, which is perfect for this situation. Unfortunately, the site is now defunct, but this is a fantastic outline for tidying up on a basic level. With instructions like, “place the bills next to your computer,” it makes far more sense than stuffing everything in a closet until the visit blows over.

In addition to following these instructions for emergencies, I occasionally challenge myself to get through as much of the list as I can during a set time limit. It isn’t a routine, but I find that when my house is just too overwhelming, I need to hit the reset button.

Thanks for reading! Stick around next time for part III of our cleaning series, where we’ll look at how to tidy the house while in the grip of a mood episode.

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How to Clean Your House When Your Brain is a Mess, part I

This is part one of a three-part series.
Part I | Part II | Part III

Also known as, “Hi! I’m Cassandra, and I Live in a Filthy House.”

That isn’t entirely true.  As it stands, my kitchen is clean, which happens roughly three times per year.  But my office is a clutter minefield, and there is an entire room in my house filled with stuff waiting to be put away.  Suffice it to say that I could normally be a contestant on a junior Hoarders.

Credit to flickr user judsond. Used with permission.

All right, show of hands: who else has scrambled to hide the–possibly moldy–dishes when surprise guests drop in?  Parents with mental illnesses, how many Legos have imbedded themselves in your feet in the middle of the night? You’re not alone, and there’s a logical explanation why.

Primarily found in people on the autism spectrum or with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), executive dysfunction is the inability to set and meet goals, self-monitor, and resist wandering off while in the middle of a project. In persons with bipolar I specifically, the wiring in their frontal lobes is so tangled that they suffer these difficulties even during stable periods. It goes without saying that their capacity to execute plans drops sharply during manic states.

It looks like clutter in the mind really does lead to clutter in the house!  Here are a few ways to tackle your piles head on:

Start small!  Most people get excited about starting a routine and try to implement everything at once, like New Year’s resolutions.  Invariably they fail because the habits they need aren’t in place.  In addition, baby steps don’t tend to work well for people with bipolar; they get overwhelmed quickly and have delusions of grandeur about conquering the routine.

Lovely Dishes
Credited to flickr user avrene. Used with permission.

Rather than assigning one room per week at first, try dedicating yourself to one thing at a time. For example, I’ve constantly struggled with my dirty dishes. I tried doing them every three days, then two, then one. Gross? Sure. But it’s what I have to do to ease myself in. Most times I still fail!

Recommended Link: FlyLady – Marla Cilley, also known as the FlyLady, has garnered a lot of praise for sending specific instructions and encouragement via email. She takes a lot of the work out of building a routine for yourself, and one of the biggest proponents of “baby steps” around. If you can handle the volume of emails without being overwhelmed, this site may work for you.

Don’t kick yourself if you make a routine and then stop following it. Just start again tomorrow, or adapt the one you have. Sometimes I’ve made routines that worked well for weeks, and then stopped when I grew bored with them. You have a lot on your plate, so you’ve learned to be flexible. Your cleaning has to be, too. Track where your time goes and then figure out where you can squeeze in a ten minute burst of laundry duty.

Recommended Link: Unf*ck Your Habitat – Billed as an alternative to FlyLady, UFYH lives by the 20 minutes of cleaning/10 minute break method (20/10). They also allow readers to post pictures of their progress. But be careful: the blog mistresses “terrifies” people into cleaning via swear words. On the plus side, the site have a positively reviewed (profanity-filled) app for the iPad and iPhone.

Best of luck whipping your home into shape! But please remember that it’s a process–one we’re not wired for. In part II, we’ll be covering other ways you can build your own time-management scaffolding.

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