5 Ways to Stay Productive if Your Depression Is Getting in the Way

For some people with depression, symptoms like fatigue and lack of motivation can make even seemingly simple tasks feel insurmountable. These 5 expert tips can help.

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switch meds, take a walk in the sun, have a friend pick up supplies
Here’s why strategies like asking your doctor to adjust the timing of your antidepressants, getting enough sunlight during the day, and having a list of items you need to keep stock of at home can help you stay productive and get things done.iStock (3)

Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide. Depending on the severity of someone's depression, it can significantly interfere with their ability to function day to day and perform even seemingly small tasks, both at home and at work.

“There are a number of different reasons why it's hard for many people with depression to get things done,” says Rebecca Brendel, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and the immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association. “So many of them have to do with both the mental and physical symptoms of depression itself.”

Along with a sad or low mood, depression is also often accompanied by symptoms like difficulty falling asleep, oversleeping, fatigue, or a lack of motivation, says Elspeth Ritchie, MD, the chair of psychiatry at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC.

“And [getting things done] can be even harder if someone had a hard time falling asleep or woke up in the middle of the night and is feeling tired as well as depressed,” says Dr. Ritchie.

For instance, prior research indicates that depression is linked to greater impairment at work among people with the condition compared with those without the condition. One study, published in October 2019 in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that among Danish employees, those with depressive symptoms spent more time out sick or unemployed compared with employees without depressive symptoms.

For some people, depressive symptoms can also affect their ability to get important tasks done at home, like cleaning, cooking, or showering.

“Although it can be hard to do things like meet deadlines and multitask if you have depression, the consequences can be very real,” says Stephen Peterson, MD, a staff psychiatrist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC.

They can affect your health, your career, and more, Dr. Peterson says. “And not accomplishing goals and tasks can even shut you off from a friend or spouse, and potentially seriously impact those relationships,” adds Ritchie.

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5 Ways to Boost Your Productivity if You Have Depression

If your depression is getting in the way of being productive, it’s important that you have ways to cope, says Dr. Brendel. These five strategies can help you get things done.

1. Break Tasks Into Smaller Chunks

Working with a therapist to find strategies that help you tackle tough tasks can make them feel more achievable and raise your likelihood of getting them done, says Ritchie. One such strategy is breaking one large task into smaller ones.

If the thought of having to wash and style your hair all in one sitting makes it hard for you to get it done, try washing your hair one day and styling it the next day, says Ritchie. Or if you like wearing makeup but don’t have enough energy for your usual routine, consider choosing only one item to wear that day, such as mascara or lipstick, and leaving the rest for other occasions when you feel more up to it, she suggests.

Or if you have a project at work that feels daunting, consider breaking the project down into smaller, more manageable tasks that you can complete on different days.

2. Ask Your Doctor About Adjusting Your Meds

If you’re taking medication for depression, know that some drugs can be sedating and make you feel sleepy, while others can be activating and make you feel more awake or restless, research has shown. “When you take them can make a difference,” says Ritchie.

If you take your antidepressant early in the day and find yourself sleepy throughout the day, Ritchie suggests talking to your doctor about whether you could try taking the drug closer to bedtime so that you’re more likely to feel awake during the day when you’re at work.

And if that doesn’t work, consider asking your doctor to adjust the dose of your antidepressant or switch you to another one that might not make you feel as tired, Ritchie advises. “The doctor should be able to drill down on which medication is right for you, based on what activities you do during the day and when you need to be at your most energetic,” says Ritchie.

3. Ask Friends and Family for Help

Asking for and accepting help is so important for people with depression, says Peterson. “You not only get encouragement to accomplish your tasks and enjoy your life, but you can also get help with basic needs,” he says.

For example, says Peterson, maybe a friend or relative could help you purchase or keep stock of certain items you need around the house, like soap and toothpaste, for which you could later reimburse them. “Keep a list of things you need so that you can get them yourself or ask a friend or relative to add them to their shopping list,” adds Ritchie.

Consider choosing a friend or relative you can reach out to when you need help finishing a task such as housecleaning, cooking, or errands, she suggests.

4. Get a Head Start Whenever Possible

If the thought of getting started is a challenge for you, consider getting a head start on something you know might be difficult. Do some of the necessary steps in advance so that you’re already ahead of the game when you need to get a task done.

“Think through your day the night before and get as many things ready as you can,” says Brendel. “Need clothes cleaned at the dry cleaner for the weekend? Put them in a bag by the door as soon as you think of it, so you can grab them on your next trip out.”

If you know you’ll need to cook for yourself or your family, consider ordering your groceries online for delivery at a certain time of day or purchasing pre-cut vegetables, for instance, to get ahead and save yourself a few steps, suggests Ritchie.

Or before you head home from work for the weekend, consider making a schedule in advance of the following week so that getting started again each Monday feels less overwhelming for you.

5. Take Advantage of the Sun’s Energy

There’s evidence that natural sunlight exposure can be energizing and mood-boosting both in general and for people with depression, especially during the winter when there are fewer hours of daylight, says Ritchie. Try to take advantage of the sun’s energy when you know you’ll need it, whether it helps motivate you to exercise first thing or if you need a pick-me-up during the day.

Taking a walk during the day, for instance, can help energize you, says Ritchie. “In addition, seeing nature has its own benefits for lifting spirits and the exercise you’ll get from the walk releases endorphins, brain chemicals [that] make us feel better,” she adds.

Not feeling up for a walk? Sitting by a sunny window can still energize you and boost your mood, which in turn can help you stay productive, says Ritchie.

You could also try using a light box, a device designed to mimic sunlight, if you live in an area that doesn’t get much natural sunlight. Light boxes have been shown to help relieve symptoms among people with depression.