How to get back into the flow

Those readers who have experience with depression know how hard it is to get back into the groove after you’ve had a bad day, week, or month. I’ve covered how to it feels to try pushing yourself into doing the tasks you need to do when you’re suffering from mental illness, so today I’m going to cover some strategies that I’ve found useful to help you build your work stamina back up.

1) Figure out what you’ve got to do.

Go back through the emails that have built up and try to update your to-do list. You need to make sure that everything you need to do is on this list. Everything. Even minor things like ‘Buy new highlighters’ and ‘Clean apartment’ should be on there.

Everything that requires your attention or time should be written and curated in one place. This will help give you a better idea of the scope of your work. Now, it might be terrifying when you see the list right up in your face like that, but try to resist the urge to run screaming into the void – take a breath, make some tea, and move onto the next step.

2) Figure out what takes priority

The worst thing you can do now, when you’re finally feeling up to doing work, is to spend time on things that aren’t important or urgent. If you waste your time on unnecessary tasks, you’ll find yourself looking back on your days and feeling like they’ve been wasted – this is dangerous, especially if you’re recovering from a depressive episode.

Instead, you need to know what tasks you have in the backlog, what needs the most attention, and what their deadlines are.

Once you know what the tasks and the deadlines are, you can identify what projects need your attention right now. The easiest way to figure out what is the most urgent/important task is to use the Eisenhower Matrix:

This is a really simple way to figure out what you’re doing and how your tasks fit together. Take note of the two squares at the bottom: ‘delegate’ and ‘eliminate’. If you’re not in a position to ‘delegate’, then you can switch that square to another ‘plan’ square. The ‘eliminate’ square will really pressure you to decide what truly needs to be on your to-do list.

3) Figure out which tasks can be broken into subtasks

The bigger goals – writing your book, finishing a project, etc – might find themselves in the ‘plan’ square of the Eisenhower Matrix. If that’s the case, then you need to break that goal down into the smaller subtasks that contribute to the big goal, and then assign deadlines to each of those tasks. Deadlines are helpful for your subtasks because they will help you prioritise.

For example, writing your book isn’t just a case of sitting down at the computer and writing. Subtasks for a book can include:

  • Writing a plot outline
  • Writing a character outline (or brief character notes)
  • Planning themes
  • Writing the first 1,000 words
  • Writing the first chapter
  • Writing the second chapter

And so on…

The point is that no big project exists as one nebulous blob of effort – you might be able to envision what the project will look like when it’s complete, but no big project can be completed in one hit. So breaking it down into subtasks will a) make the scope of the project easier to manage, and b) make you less likely to freak out when you see it in your to-do list.

4) Figure out a reward system

I get a lot of satisfaction from keeping track of my progress. I enjoy tracking the hours I spend doing tasks or working on projects, and I like to keep a list of the tasks I have completed in a journal that never leaves my desk. My reward is that satisfaction.

You might have a different reward system. You might love Hershey’s Kisses, so you have one after every completed task. You might love pizza, so order one after a long work day. Once, I had a brownie on my desk for about seven hours while I completed my grading work. I wouldn’t eat it until I finished.

Don’t give yourself the reward until you’ve done the task. If you take the reward before that, you’ll mess up the system and it will stop encouraging you to complete your goals. After all, if you don’t need to finish the task to get the reward, what’s the point of finishing the task? You need discipline here.

It’s important to remember that this reward system shouldn’t limit or delay self-care. Don’t use things like meals and showers as rewards – if you’re suffering from mental illness, taking care of yourself and your physical body can have a big impact, so you don’t want to link that in your mind to progress on the to-do list. That sets a dangerous precedent.

Once you’ve set up your reward system, it’s time for the hard part: actually sitting down and doing the work. Pick the task at the top of your list, set a timer for 20 minutes, and don’t stop until it’s finished. Reward yourself when the task is finished and either move on or call it a day, depending on where you’re at in your mental state.

Now, I know some people are more visual learners, so I’ve gone ahead and built a slideshow deck for people to follow this process more easily. If you like that sort of thing and you find it helpful, let me know and I’ll keep making them for these kinds of blog posts.

Take a deep breath, let it out, and don’t let the fact that you had a bad episode hit you too hard. You can get back on track.


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