Time Management when you have Anxiety and Depression

I find getting enough work done in a week very challenging. Anxiety prevents me from starting work I need to do and Depression stops me doing anything much at all. I have to work independently on my PhD and do chores, for most depressed people getting up is a challenge that can take many hours or never happen. How can you manage time when your mood resists planning?

This is going to be a very personal look at time management but I hope you find my experiences helpful. I’ll take you through my current progress to achieving some level of productivity.

First lets take a look at the expected amount of work. In general, you are recommended to do 40 hours a week like a full-time job, however full time jobs include lunch breaks, etc. So I took 2 hours off per day in a 5-day week to get to 30. I actually do these 30 hours erratically partly because I don’t cope well with timetables. I time myself using the timer on my phone.

I usually set it to 6 hours for a single day and pause it whenever I stop for a break or go eat lunch. If I’m struggling to motivate myself I’ll set it to 1 or 2 hours: the length of time I have to work before I’m allowed to do anything else. These shorter times should be set either to the minimum amount of time you can focus or the length of time after which you will usually find you are in the flow of work. For me that’s 2 hours, if I work for 2 hours I am generally more comfortable with my work and feel positive. I have no idea how many people experience it or how long it takes. I will note that if you have other disabilities such as ADD it is worth avoiding exhaustion and doing short bursts when you feel less motivated however if you can pull productive all-nighters then it is possible you could benefit from a longer enforced work period that could get you in the zone. I actually have very good concentration unless I am severely depressed, so others may find 20-45 minutes more appropriate.

Think back on your final year project / dissertation. Most of you will have passed this in order to secure a classification that opened the door to a PhD (for others think of any independent, time-sensitive project that you completed). What worked for you? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? How can you augment your strengths and downplay your weaknesses?

I have a few strengths:

  • I am a pragmatist not a perfectionist. Surprisingly for someone with anxiety I am not concerned about my work being “perfect”. I can hand in a “good enough” piece with as much confidence as something I believe is brilliant. How can I increase the overall quality of my work without falling foul of perfectionism?
  • I usually have excellent focus. How can I maintain this when I’m depressed?
  • I have the initiative to look up resources and learn new skills to help solve problems. How do I start building a skill-set that means I don’t need to look things up so often?

I also have a few weakness:

  • I have a deep fear of being wrong. Now I separate this from perfectionism because I don’t obsess over details but if I have any inkling that I’ve made a fundamental mistake I panic and don’t want to commit the “mistake” to paper. How do I let go of this fear?
  • I have an obsession with fully understanding something before utilising it. I cannot use a theorem or technique when I’m wobbly about its foundations. This seems sensible at first glance but I don’t need to understand how a laptop works to use one so I should, in some cases, be able to use a mathematical technique without needing to drill down into why it works. Is this a weakness? How can I turn it into a strength?
  • I become easily overwhelmed. I have work for my supervisor, independent work, hobbies, personal projects, chores and a partner to think about. I become paralysed by indecision frequently. Is there a way to avoid feeling overwhelmed?

Asking these questions is an initial step and by trying to answer them you will move forward to a more productive work style. I have yet to answer mine, but hopefully over the course of my PhD and basic awareness does help. It generally means you can assign tasks in a way that suit your strengths. For example, I know a goal like “work 6 hours today” is largely achievable whereas a goal like “perform this analysis that you don’t understand” will be incredibly frustrating and I am unlikely to complete the task at all. If I know I need to understand something to use it I, at the moment, need to schedule in the time to learn its foundations and implications and mull them over.

The key is to use strategies that are personal to you. I find a simple diary and list system the most useful. If I need to do something I write in my diary. If I’m having trouble with my productivity on a specific day I’ll write a list for just that day that I can tick off. I also use an online habit tracker and to-do list called Habitica. It ensures that I have all the important stuff located in a single place. I am also happy to work on weekends / in my holidays. For some this encroaches on their work-life balance, which is very important, but I may struggle to fit 30 hours into a Monday-Friday so I do a few hours in my free time to compensate. To stop it taking over my life I always assure myself that I can stop work at any point and go back to my day-off. Making my work a hobby is a helpful reframing when you find it difficult to work during normal hours.

I hope some of you found this helpful, please share your experiences / tips in the comments!

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