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Mental Health Self

The Tiny Tools That Are Beating My Depression

March 28, 2018

The Tiny Tools That Are Beating My Depression

Back at the end of November, I wrote this post, about the anxiety and self-doubt that was springing from the impending end of my time as a stay at home mom. This post apparently hit a nerve with a lot of people; it was one of those ones I got piles of direct messages about, commiserating, suggesting solutions, or thanking me for just articulating the reality of this particular scenario. While many of the messages were very touching, and some had some good ideas, there were two sentences that seemed so innoccous at the time, but turned out to be the key to getting my mental health under control so I could deal with the other issues with a clear head. Nestled inside a much longer message, was the seed that grew into my personal beanstalk out of the darker times I was having:

“I’ve found that I really need to plan each day in advance so that I feel I have a reason to get up every day. Even if it’s a weekend, I make lists and will put things like “shower” on the list so I can feel good about getting something done.”
This small suggestion seemed so straightforward, I knew it was something I could at least try. I knew if I had to write a list everyday, that would be my downfall. I would do it for a few days, and then one day wake up and not feel like it, and the experiment would be over. I needed a fixed list. On our chalkboard wall in the kitchen, I made a list of the days of the week, with no more than three to do list items per day, that were tasks I knew I needed to do at least weekly to get our house running the way I wanted to.
Monday- Soup, Vacuum, Bath
Tuesday- Laundry
Wednesday- Blog, Bills & Mail, Pizza
Thursday- Groceries, Meal Planning, Nice Dinner
Friday- Bathroom, Laundry
Saturday- Yard, Dump
Sunday- Bread
This list achieved a few things. The first was reducing overwhelm. I definitely am prone to leaving things undone because it feels like the sum of everything I have to do is insurmountable. With my list, there are only two or three things I am truly responsible for each day, and even if those are the only things I’ve done all day, I haven’t failed. The list is in a very visible and central place, so I am always reminded of what I have to get done that day.

There have been many days in the past few months when I have gotten to 3:30 or 4pm, and I haven’t completed anything on my list for the day. Then I find myself faced with a question: “Can I really not do it?” There have been days when the answer is yes. When my son has needed intense amounts of attention, if I was sick, or if I hadn’t gotten enough rest. In asking myself that question, I give myself two positive choices:
1) I can get up and start doing the things, great.
2) I can recognize my own needs, have compassion for myself, and give myself permission to rest.
Notice that there is no failure option. If I can’t do the things, it’s okay. If I can do the things, it’s okay. The next day the list is there, and I can start again. I usually try and move undone items to another day that week, but sometimes things just get let go until the next week.

So here’s the really powerful side-effect of implementing this list;
“The more times you succeed at something, the longer your brain stores the information that allowed you to do so well in the first place. That’s because with each success, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine. When dopamine flows into the brain’s reward pathway (the part responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation), we not only feel greater concentration but are inspired to re-experience the activity that caused the chemical release in the first place.” – Why Our Brains Like Short-Term Goals, Monica Mehta

My brain has been learning that achieving small goals feels good. I don’t have to do the whole thing for my work to pay off, even though that’s what my depression tells me. So I’ve started using another productivity system that focuses on small goals. I actually did it by accident. It happened because I hate washing the dishes more than any other chore.

Our sink is shallow and the faucet is low, making the threshold of how many dishes makes me feel like we have endless dishes to do and it’s going to be too hard very, very low (we took this into account in our kitchen reno plans, so hopefully that will help too.) One day a few weeks ago, I was heating something in the microwave for two minutes. I decided I would just do the dishes until the two minutes were up. When the microwave dinged, I was only a few dishes away from being done with the whole job, and felt happy to finish.

This method of giving yourself an amount of time to work on something for, time yourself with a timer, and stopping to take a break when the timer goes off is called the Pomodoro method, after the tomato-shaped timer the inventor of it used. The traditional Pomodoro method usually involves 25 minute increments, and it’s used by many computer engineers. I have adapted it to my life and needs, and generally, use much shorter increments. As my brain has been conditioned to enjoy these small successes, it actually suggests them to me when I least expect it.

Recently after a particularly long day, I had just put my son to bed, and I was about to collapse on the couch with my iPad. Then my brain chimes in “You know what would feel better than sitting down right now? Cleaning up the living room for 10 minutes and then sitting down in a clean room.” It did. It felt much better, because 10 minutes of cleaning actually takes up much less of my energy than 60 minutes of using part of my brain to block out the mess around me while I try to relax.
For me this is powerful. I don’t have to do the thing until I’m exhausted. I don’t have to do the thing until it’s finished even if it takes all day. I just have to do the thing for X amount of time, where X is what I feel like I can manage. It short cuts the inertia that drags me down and keeps me from getting started.

I’ll write more in the coming months about my future plans and my feelings about being an at-home caregiver, but for now I just wanted to share how these two incredibly simple tools are genuinely my greatest asset in my work to manage my mental health. I have remarked out loud to my husband many times in the last month or so things to the effect of “I feel functional, I don’t usually feel functional. Things just aren’t as hard.” and that feeling is an incredible triumph for me. I know part of my lightening mood has to do with the extra light in the sky as we enter spring, but I did not feel this way last spring, not at all. Have you tried similar methods that worked for you? Do you have other simple tricks up your sleeve that achieve the same result? I’d love to hear about it over at Hey Jillian on Facebook.
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