How to keep moving forward, even when your brain hates you.

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If you’ve been around here long, or if you know me in person, you probably know I have a slightly defective brain, which is to say that I have a history with clinical depression. Add on to that a(n un-)healthy dose of perfectionism, and you have an expert procrastinator. I can miserably waste a day (and yes, if you didn’t get anything useful done OR even enjoy yourself a little, that was a day wasted) with the best (worst?) of them.

But I’ve been at the depression game for 10+ years now, and the perfectionism for 20+ (I distinctly remember bawling over imperfect crayon drawings. Started young.), and I’ve had to somehow manage to get stuff done. I still struggle with low mood, low motivation, unreasonable levels of physical/mental/emotional exhaustion, etc. on a semi-regular basis, and I still struggle with the “Why bother? It will never be good enough/It won’t make any difference/you’ll be crushed if it fails so why risk it”-monster… every fucking day.

So ever so slowly, I’ve built myself a toolbox full of tricks to keep myself going, regardless of how I feel or what my jerkbrain is yammering on about at the moment. None of them are magic bullets–I still don’t always get as much done as I’d like, particularly when the brain chemicals are just really not cooperating–but they help.  Maintaining some sense of forward progress is one of the best ways to talk back to your jerkbrain… and everyone’s brains are mean to them every once in awhile.  So without further ado, a (probably incomplete) list of my anti-procrastination/anti-negativity tricks.

Let hard things be hard.

Be kind to yourself. Stop telling yourself that whatever you are struggling with “should” be easy. If something is hard for you, it is hard for you. There are probably Reasons, though those may just be how you are wired. Acknowledge these things. When you finish something hard, be proud! Celebrate a little.

And really, just stop saying “should” to yourself about your thoughts and feelings in any context. You feel how you feel. The things in your head are the things in your head. You can’t change either directly through sheer force of will. You can only change what you do. Stop beating yourself up for who and what you are right now–it isn’t productive. Focus on moving forward.

Quote from previous paragraph as a pretty, sharable image.

Believe in the power of ritual.

When I was 20 years old and seeing my first therapist, I was a bit of a brat. I maintained for quite a long time that many of my very-depression-influenced views of myself were completely logical dammnit.  In fact, I distinctly remember multiple fights in which I tried to convince her that I was, in fact, a terrible person and underserving in her help.  To be fair, at the time I was so overwhelmed with how awful I felt all the time that it seemed hard to believe that just changing my perspective on things could make a difference, and that was the view she represented. Still though… brat.

So you can imagine when this put-together sweet young woman suggested I come up with a ritual to help me when I felt particularly anxious, something I could do and tell myself “this is a thing I do that helps me calm down. If I do this thing I will feel better”… I wasn’t too keen on the idea. Really, I’m going to drink a cup of tea or take a bath and magically my heart is going to stop beating out of my chest? Um, fuck you lady.

But like many things that year, the power of ritual is something I was very wrong about. Frankly, this raised-catholic girl should have known better. Rituals are really just habits that we perform for reasons more symbolic than practical, but they are enormously comforting. Religions have used ritual to create community and a sense of familiarity and well-being for… however long religion has been around.  Why not take control of this tool ourselves, hack our own psychology?

So I have my rituals.  I do, in fact, make myself a cup of tea when I need to relax. When I start a big research/writing project, particularly one that is really stressing me out, I work on nice crisp yellow legal pads with my favorite pens, and I make a big deal out of setting up my workspace. When I’m trying to give my anxious brain permission to relax after a long day, I light some candles and take a bath. Silly little things… but they make a difference.

Go somewhere.

Brains get in ruts. Changes in scenery can help break you out of them. You do, of course, have to avoid using this to just procrastinate longer: I have been known to spend the afternoon looking for the perfect coffee shop to write in rather than just writing. But used wisely, this is an amazing tool. If you can’t physically go somewhere else, go somewhere else mentally–a long-ish piece of fiction works well for this. Abruptly change what you’re experiencing in order to force your brain to think something different.

Help someone else.

Specifically, lend someone your skill in something you are good at.  Yes, you will feel warm and fuzzy for your good deed, and maybe that warm and fuzzy will quiet the SAD! part of your brain down. But more than that, this is about reminding yourself that you are capable and useful. Often our own tasks take on so much importance that they just seem impossible, and you can almost convince yourself that your brain just doesn’t work anymore.  Putting your mind to work on a problem with low stakes for you–someone else’s problem–will show you it still functions. And then it will seem silly not to start that paper you’ve been avoiding.

My secret: This is a large part of why I tutor. It’s hard to tell myself I’m stupid and worthless when I spend a few hours a week turning kids who were terrified of and failing high school chemistry into kids who get Bs in high school chemistry. That’s not nothing.

Check SOMETHING off your list, no matter how small.

A classic anti-procrastination technique. I find it is particularly effective to do this with small tasks that I have nonetheless been dreading. Just this morning I called to cancel a subscription service (NatureBox) that was taking up more space in my budget than it was worth. I hate making those calls. They always try and talk you out of it, sell you a cheaper product instead… it’s just exhausting. But it didn’t take much brainpower, I was done in 5 minutes… and there goes something that’s been sitting on my to-do list poking at my anxiety for a month. After that, I totally feel up for doing something more substantial.

When all else fails, bake brownies.

Ok, so this one is pretty specific to me. You may not bake, or may not have a place you can bake, or you may even not like brownies. The actual point of this one is… when you are just damn stuck, and you can’t bring yourself to get anything really productive done… instead, do something simple and satisfying that you are good at. Preferably something that produces a physical end product. Because the goal here is to do the thing, and then look back and say “Hey, I actually can do stuff.” It’s a last ditch effort when everything seems impossible and you just want to pull the blankets over your head at 6pm.  It’s surprisingly effective, in that I usually do go on to do something useful afterwards… and in my case, it’s also quite tasty.

Call in the professionals.

Getting help from a therapist or counselor is a really good idea when you’re feeling stuck or spending a lot of time fending off your jerkbrain… regardless of whether you actually qualify for a medical diagnosis. Some things are just hard. Even some things that we think “shouldn’t” be hard, are hard for us. Therapy doesn’t have to be a years-long process of talking about your childhood and how you view yourself and completely transforming your life. It can be, of course, and if you need that I can heartily recommend it… but you can also just say “hey, I’m having trouble with this Thing That Is Hard. Can you talk it through with me and help me feel better about it?”  And they’ll say yes, because that is their JOB.

No excuses on this one either. I’ve heard them all–I don’t have time, I don’t have money, there’s nothing wrong with me, I should be able to deal with this on my own. Do it anyway, you’re worth it. Here is some information on how to do it while short on money.

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So yep, that’s my list, at least all the major things I can think of at the moment. As you can see, it’s more about how to think about doing hard things than the actual mechanics of getting them done. That’s what’s hardest for me–fighting my own resistance and negativity–so that’s what I focus on.

In terms of managing your time and to-do lists, there are so many systems and productivity gurus out there… find what works for you. But I would recommend keeping it as simple as possible. If you’re spending hours a day organizing your calendars and to-do lists…. you’re just procrastinating.  Also, take breaks when you’re working hard on a big project. Schedule them if that helps you.

Also, before I go, a final semi-related aside:

To my friends in grad school:

Grad school is absolutely, undeniably, a Hard Thing. I’m sure you’ve all developed or are developing your own list of ways to cope with that, and that’s awesome.

But might I humbly suggest… making therapy one of the tools in your toolbox. Grad school is not a healthy environment. It’s set up to make you feel stupid, all the time! That’s important for learning, but it can wear on even the most enthusiastic scientist. There are also many powerful forces in grad school pushing you to work at 110% AT ALL TIMES. That’s literally impossible. It’s an environment built to make even the most resilient person a little bit crazy.

You should have reasonably easy access to mental health care through your school… use it. Maybe not all the time–maybe just when you’re extra stressed because of exams or orals or TAing or your PI being an asshole.  Maybe check in once or twice a quarter. You don’t have to be at the point of complete collapse to go… it can just be a tune up. Do whatever works for you, but please… at least make it an option in your head.  Grad school is an INSANE place, and therapy is one good place to get reality checks.