I’m good at my job. In fact, most days I’m REALLY good at my job.
I excel at sales. I write and edit as naturally as breathing.
I build strong relationships with people and network with ease.
I come up with ideas and marketing campaigns that blow my boss away.
But those are on the days my mood is normal or hypomanic.
There are other days, when depression is pulling the insides of my brains apart and scattering them across the path I walk; debris from the emotional landmine I tried to avoid but stepped on anyway. These are the days that I have the performance of a 5-year-old that was thrown into a management position. And then, quite frankly, I suck.
This is why….
There is a needy little monkey that comes in the package deal with bipolar disorder, depression and ADD. Probably with many other forms of mental illness come to think of it.
This hyperactive little rogue is the reason so many of us lose our jobs, battle to perform despite our genius, and let even simple tasks get the better of us. Colleagues cannot fathom why keeping a simple excel spreadsheet organised and up-to-date is such an impossible task for us. BUT IT’S SO EASY they say. We ourselves cannot understand why we sit and stare at our screen and don’t know how to arrange information into a logical sequence. If we even remembered we needed to do it in the first place. Like seriously, what the fuck.
The confusion only escalates when depression swings into mania. Because suddenly we are super organised, efficient, systematic and juggling several balls perfectly. So the question is often asked with utter frustration: You did it just fine last week, why can’t you get it right now? One day you manage to answer 100 emails at bullet firing speed, and the next you cannot read through one or formulate a response in under an hour.
It is a primary symptom with Bipolar, one I have only recently learnt how to manage fairly effectively. I wanted to share the system I developed that works for me, with the hopes that it might help some of you who think and behave in similar ways. I’d also love it if you shared your ways of coping in the comments below – I’m sure there are many different techniques and we can all learn from one another and embrace this badass monkey (who often ventures into the jungle gyms of our brains and has an absolutely wild time).
For those of you reading this who battle to relate to the seemingly child-like way I need to cope on the bad days, I hope it helps you understand a little bit better when one of your colleagues seems to be completely incapable of managing the most simple of tasks. It is frustrating, I know. It may seem like we’re stupid, lazy or simply not dedicated to our jobs. None of that is true. We try and cope, and we do our best to hide it. One in six people will experience depression at one point in their lives. The chances are high that you will have at least one colleague who has to work harder than you can imagine to remain competent. It’s not a character flaw or an indication of our IQ. It’s not an excuse. It’s another strand of the string that is woven into who we are. And it’s only one piece of us. There are so many more, including the ones you probably love – our creative, fun, quirky, bubbly, idea-rich, bouncy Tigger natures in that same string. We’re not always tied into a neat bow, but in the end we usually manage to hold things together.
These are the key areas where we occasionally hit a wall:
- Concentration – it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to focus. No matter how hard you try or attempt to will yourself to do it. The task at hand comes and goes in your thought process, you stay fixated on the computer screen or page of a book – reading the same sentence over and over again. Attention wanders from what you’re doing to the shopping you need to do after work without you even realising it is happening.
- Inability to make decisions or prioritise – a project comes up that demands our immediate attention, yet we spend our time doing a report that is only due in a month’s time. It becomes a monumental task to figure out which tasks take priority or what needs to be added to our to-do list. When you’re depressed, simple decisions become mountains to climb. We know we are struggling as it is, but when your colleagues and bosses start pressuring you it escalates your anxiety as well, forcing you into decisions you are incapable of making. Depression can then switch from manifesting in silence and withdrawal into hysteria and emotional explosions. Aka, screaming at the person sitting next to you or sobbing in the bathroom.
- Processing information – Our speed at catching on is snail speed. Often we need people to repeat what they said to grasp what they meant. Emails need to be read and re-read a few times to understand what is required in our reply. It’s a bloody pain in the ass because it makes us appear stupid and spaced out.
- Memory – This is the most difficult one for me to deal with. Unless I write something down I will forget what someone asked me to do a minute before. And even if I do, unless that list is right in front of my vision field, I will forget to check my notes.
These are the performance tricks I hold up my sleeve for emergency depressive days:
- We do have one very important gift we can use to our advantage: Creativity. We think in colours and big fluffy clouds of information. Breaking overwhelm into small chunks is essential. One of the biggest challenges is getting to work and seeing a mountain of tasks and not knowing where to start. So I break them down into the tiniest possible activities and then group them accordingly. I create an A4 page each morning with a mind-map to keep the information in one place where it is easy to see everything in context. I use lots of colour and highlight the tasks I know are a priority. Here is an example:
- I don’t plan my day hour by hour in advance because I know that certain tasks will be easier depending on my mood at that time. Some may take longer or shorter than expected which throws everything out which can cause anxiety and confusion. So I work in blocks of time. I break my time into areas of focus.
So for instance, in the next 45 minutes I will tackle my marketing block. I check my mind-map for the marketing cloud and look at the tasks I have listed. Then I set a timer for 45 minutes and go at them one by one. I do what I can in those 45 minutes, focussing purely on marketing, nothing else. I turn off all notifications popping up on my screen that would distract me. When I am alerted that time is up I give myself 5 minutes to do whatever I want. I go onto Pinterest or colour in a small bit of a picture I am working on. Then I proceed to my next 45 minutes. I decide what to do next based on the energy level of my mood and what needs to be done, ensuring I hit the highlighted clouds first.
- I keep a separate notebook open for things that come up during the day that I mustn’t forget. For example, when my boss walks into my office and says I must complete a project that just came in. I write it down as he speaks, taking notes of everything he says so I don’t have to ask him to repeat himself. I always have my pen and notebook on hand. I then take out a post-it note and write this priority task on it and stick it to my laptop screen and only remove it once it is done. It will bother me in the corner of my eye until I finish it. This takes instant priority in my next 45 minute block, and if it is really urgent I swop it out with the work I am busy with until my timer goes off again. Then it automatically moves on to my next block of time until it is complete.
- Post-it notes are my saving grace. I do the same with phone calls – into the notebook and onto my screen corner if it’s urgent. Any tasks not transferred to post-its (i.e. not urgent for today) get added in advance to the cloud page for tomorrow.
- The balancing act between routine and variation. The irony is that the very thing we despise is the thing we most need: Structure. Predictablity. It keeps us as stable as possible. BUT we cannot handle boredom when we are in this cognitive state while depressed. So the trick is to play around a bit. One way is to break up the work day into blocks as I mentioned above. Sitting through one massive task all day is killer. If that is the way our specific job and role flows we need to at least break that massive task into smaller segments. Another method is to add variation by moving with our moods as far as possible. Do what you can. If right now you feel like you can face drafting a sales pitch, but can’t stomach doing an excel report, then do the former while the going is good (unless of course the report is highlighted as a priority).
- Tick, tick, tick. Setting up a long to-do list at the beginning of the day causes anxiety. Sometimes we overestimate our capabilities and then panic when we can’t even get through 3 bullet points. So we leave them all instead and get nowhere. But if we make shorter to-do lists in our colourful clouds on the mind-map, we can aim to get through one cloud. Short lists. Ticking tasks off is still exceptionally important though – we need that sense of achievement and to feel proud of doing something even though we didn’t think we could make it out of bed that day. In a way we are praising ourselves when nobody else is. It inspires you to keep going.
- I don’t look at the clock, except for my 45 minute timer. Time goes by super slowly when you’re depressed and knowing we have another 7 hours to go seems insurmountable. Think in 45 minutes. Or 30 minutes. Whatever period works best for you. Just don’t go over an hour. That is when things start falling apart.
- Finally, I know I need inspiration and a reason to go on. I have a white board at work with the focus on what I’m working towards – for me that is exciting book launches and sales goals. At home I have a vision board on my desk that I am constantly drawn to as I work. It holds my big vision – a published book and my own studio, for example. It motivates me to keep working because in the end it will result in my dreams coming true, if I just keep at it.
This is a system that works for me. It isn’t flawless – and trust me – there are still days when I don’t get it right. It has improved my productivity at work a hundred fold though. I hope this sparks some ideas that may work for you too. Remember to share in the comments below if you have other methods that help you tame the monkey. Sharing makes us all stronger!