Many of us struggle with the pressures and the grind of trying to get through our tyrannical "to do list". We try different planners/organizers, apps, and others tools to help us organize our lives. We look for those extra free moments to get something done, or we burn the midnight oil in desperation to catch up.
But there are times when I encourage my clients to work on doing less, not more. For example, when a person is so chronically stressed out and overwhelmed by her to-do list that she loses the ability to relax and find joy and meaning in her life, or she neglects her most important relationships, it's time for her to do less. Similarly, when someone is struggling under the burden of depression (and it's best pal anxiety), the to-do list often seems downright impossible. Enter the "to-don't list."
The to-don't list is a critical coping strategy for the depressed or otherwise overwhelmed person. She builds this
to-don't list by combing through her to-do list and identifying those things she can eliminate, postpone, delegate, or ask for help with. She prioritizes her goals and responsibilities, and adjusts her expectations of herself while she is depressed. She needs to free up plenty of time and mental space for rest, pleasurable activities, and self-care.
Many things can make this process challenging. For one, depression itself taxes a person's cognitive abilities, so that they may have a hard time making decisions or thinking clearly. Feelings of guilt and worthlessness are also common symptoms of depression, and these can get tangled up with the to-do list, so that the depressed person feels guilt and confusion about saying "no" to requests, or becomes overly preoccupied with the fear of letting others down. We also know that depression taxes a person's creative thinking and problem-solving abilities, creating a kind of tunnel vision that limits how well she can cope with challenges.
When a person is depressed, she does herself a disservice if she holds herself to the same standards of functioning that she might maintain when she's not depressed. This only compounds the problem, by setting off a series of cognitions (self talk) that serves to reinforce and deepen the depression: "I'm not good enough", "I can't take care of myself", "life is too hard", "I'm a failure", and so forth. The fact is, during a depressive episode, symptoms present direct challenges to a people's capacity for functioning in an efficient way and caring for themselves: profound fatigue; difficulty concentrating and making decisions; sleep problems; lack of appetite; overwhelm, and sometimes, physical pain.
When my clients are depressed, sometimes I encourage them to think of it as a cold (analogous to mild or transient depressed mood), or a serious flu (when severely depressed). When we have a physiological illness like a cold or the flu, with more "outside" or measurable symptoms like fever, runny nose, coughing, and sneezing, we are likely to pay attention to our bodies' messages, and we may feel we have permission to do things to help ourselves heal and feel better. We often allow ourselves permission to slow down a little bit... to leave work early... to ask our partner to do more... to order takeout when we're too tired to cook... to take a nap... to eat what our body most needs. We might say "no" without guilt, because we feel our illness gives us a pass to focus on our own most pressing physical needs.
The truth is, we do not need an "excuse" to honor our needs and take care of ourselves - to the contrary, we have a responsibility to do so. When we're depressed, we especially need this same kind of self-care mentality. Our body reminds us of this by shutting down and insisting we pay attention to our here-and-now feelings, needs, and limitations.
Depression drains us of vitality and energy, leaving us feeling like we have no "pep." We can use this as an acronym that reminds us how to streamline our to-do list and beef up our liberating to-don't list. If you find you're getting paralyzed by overwhelm and indecision in this process, it may help to enlist the support of your non-depressed partner, parent, wise friend, or therapist.
No: Say No
P: Prioritize & Postpone
E: Adjust Effort
P: Pass Along
Let's break down the "No PEP" acronym.
Say NO - It's critical to say no sometimes! Especially when you're depressed.
Saying no is harder for some than for others... and those who have a hard time saying no are more at risk for depression. Shield your to-do list and beef up your to-don't list as needed by graciously declining invitations and requests from others that you're just not up for. Sometimes we even need to rescend a 'yes' and back out of something we previously committed to.
“When you say 'Yes' to others, make sure you are not saying 'No' to yourself.” -Paolo Coehlo
Prioritize and Postpone - Distinguishing the to-do list from the to-don't list is largely about cross-checking the importance/potential benefit of a particular goal or responsibility, with a realistic assessment of the time and energy it requires, and consideration of its "deadline." The busier we are, and the more our energy and functioning are compromised for whatever reasons, the more crucial it is to run things through this weight/time/effort/deadline equation.
When we're depressed, our priorities necessarily shift. Health-promoting and soul-nourishing activities need move to the top of the list. Our children will still come first, for example, but we may have to redefine what that means and find less taxing ways to meet their needs while we prioritize our own urgent spiritual/medical needs.
Adjust Your Effort - Thoughtfully consider what amount of effort (and time) you really need to invest in a particular item on your to do list. Ambition and high effort are often rewarding, but a key element of success and satisfaction in life is making wise choices about which endeavors are worth giving 100% to... and which ones are not. Many things necessarily fall into the category of things we need to do "just well enough." If we fail to thoughtfully discern the difference, we may find ourselves investing time and energy that is out of proportion to a task's importance or payoff. Ever spent an hour rearranging your sock drawer, or 2 hours picking that perfect stock image for your blog post? (been there)
Pass along - Consider what items on your to-do list you can delegate to others or ask for help with.
Some resist delegating because relinquishing control is difficult for them. It's true that others may do things differently or not quite up to your standards... but it's important to focus on the benefits of lightening your load, which often outweigh the costs or risks. Think of delegating as a leadership activity, where you work smarter rather than harder, harnessing the power of all the resources at your disposal.
Asking for help is also enormously difficult for many people for a variety of reasons. Think of your depression as an opportunity to practice this important life skill that will bring you and your loved ones many rewards in life when you dare to embrace it.
In addition to asking friends, family, and colleagues for help, we can also use resources in the community. Sometimes it is worthwhile to spend some money to bring some ease to your overwhelming life. Think about which services might help you most... getting some extra childcare, trying a meal delivery service, delegating your laundry to a wash and fold service, hiring a handy person or personal assistant for a few hours. If finances are a concern, look for Groupons, first-time customer deals, Yelp discounts, and the like to bring your cost down.
The courage to seek emotional support
One of the most valuable, even life-saving, help-seeking behaviors a depressed person can engage in is summoning the courage to seek emotional support. "Silent tears hold the loudest pain" -Prakhar Sahay
Author Brene Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection) offers us these words of inspiration: “One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on "going it alone." Somehow we've come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we're very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It's as if we've divided the world into "those who offer help" and "those who need help." The truth is that we are both.”
Let's ALL add this to our every day to-don't list:
Don't suffer alone.
And for our to-do list?
Find ways to support someone who is depressed or otherwise overwhelmed
so they don't have to go it alone.
Maysie Tift is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Certified Master Hypnotist with offices in San Rafael, CA and San Francisco, CA.