We’ve all been there. One day we’re on top of the world, excited to start a new day, crush our to-do list, and achieve our goals. Other times, we’re feeling burned out and struggling to get even the simplest tasks done.
In an ideal world, we’d be able to take time off work and family responsibilities whenever we need to. In many cases, taking a break can make a difference in our recovery. Unfortunately, life doesn’t stop for many of us when we’re struggling with our mental health.
So how do you keep a steady routine at work when even your regular, daily tasks take so much extra energy an effort? With some preparation, you can still get some things done while taking some time to take care of yourself.
Sometimes you just need a few easy tips to help you on your way. So here are five things you can do today to stay productive while struggling with burn out or a mental health condition.
Please keep in mind — These tips are not meant to be a cure or a solution to the problem. They are just meant to help you adjust your workload, goals and expectations while you recover.
Manage your expectations
Let’s say you break your ankle. Would you expect to continue going out for your morning runs in a cast?
Of course not.
The same thing happens when you’re struggling emotionally or mentally.
You’ll probably manage to do some of your daily tasks, but you won’t be crushing your to-do list like you used to. And that’s fine.
One of the best things you can do when you’re recovering from stress or mental illness is to adjust your expectations to your energy levels. Include only one or two of the most critical tasks in your to-do list, and focus your energy on getting those things done.
And if you’re working on a big project, it helps to break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks you can complete every day.
For example, let’s say you’re working on a pitch for a client. First of all, think of all the tasks you need to do to complete the projects. Then, choose one or two, and write them down on your to-do list. In this case, some of the steps to complete your pitch may include:
- Talk to your client about their needs and goals for the project
- Find what services you can offer to help the client with their project
- Create a timetable according to your current and future workload, as well as the demands of the project
- Define a budget taking into account the time and effort it’ll take to complete the project, as well as any resources you’ll need to buy for it
- Draft and edit the pitch
- Send the pitch to your client
Looks like a lot, right?
Let’s be realistic — even on a good day, it’s quite a lot to finish in one day. But if you’re not in the best place emotionally or mentally, even finishing one item of your list can be a struggle.
So, forget about that long list of tasks you still have left to do. Instead, add one task to your to-do list and take as long as you need to complete it. It can be one day or one week. What’s important is to be consistent until you have finished the task.
At the end of the day, after you’ve completed your tasks, reflect on how it feels to get something important done. That satisfaction is a feeling you can remember as you’re completing the next tasks to keep you motivated.
Personally, I like to plan my daily tasks the night before. Knowing what I’m going to do the next day is reassuring and it helps me get into the right mindset quickly in the mornings.
Down-sizing on your expectations and completing small but urgent tasks will help you stay on top of the most important things you need to do and feel accomplished.
We all need a little help from our friends sometimes.
As you probably know, friends and family can be a crucial source of support when you’re struggling. A parent can give you a hand with home repairs. A friend can get some groceries for you on their way to your home. A coworker you trust can take some tasks at work off your hands.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t ask for help due to shame or the stigma attached to mental illness.
Many people find rejection and misunderstanding while attempting to seek support from friends, relatives, and even health professionals. And when you’re already struggling and vulnerable, not getting the help you need can be nothing short of crushing.
It may be that your loved ones hate seeing you struggle and would like to help, but don’t know how to. Perhaps their well-meaning ways to help are not making you feel better.
I wish I had thought about it a few years ago when I started feeling stressed out by many events in my life — juggling a full-time job with a side gig as well as my partner’s struggles with mental illness. My performance at work dropped and I started to isolate from my team.
My team leader was concerned about my attitude and performance, so she approached me a few times to offer support. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I could trust her, although she proven to be a sympathetic leader. Had I accepted her help, my last six months at that job would’ve been more productive and my work, more helpful to my team.
So, how can you even ask for help when it feels like no one will care or understand?
Think of the people who are closer to you. With whom do you feel safe? Is it a parent, a significant other, a friend, a coworker? It could even be people like a yoga teacher, a mentor or boss, or a therapist. Then, remember how they’ve reacted when you or someone else tell them about stress or mental illness. Have they been sympathetic then?
In my case, my team leader had reacted with empathy when my other teammates approached her with personal and work-related issues. So I had no reason to believe she would not do her best to help me.
Also, the people around you may help you in different ways. For example, some people are better at showing emotional support and others, at helping you with practical things. Do you have that friend who’s always up to doing things for you but flinches at emotional displays? You might not get emotional comfort from them but they may help you with practical tasks like chores or errands.
This may sound like a lot of emotional work to do on a bad day, so keep it on your list and use a good day to make a mental list of friends who could give you a hand during your bad times.
Stress, burnout and mental illness often make people feel isolated. But it’s essential to use up some of your energy to stay connected with your support network and ask them for support. With their help, you can get important things done without over-stretching yourself.
You’ve probably read that exercise has a positive effect on your mood and energy levels. It releases endorphins —a feel-good chemical in your brain that gives you that “runners’ high”—, keeps you physically strong and healthy, helps you get more social interaction and provides a healthy way to cope with negative emotions.
True — working out will not cure your depression or solve your problems. But it may alleviate some of the symptoms and give you more energy.
The best part is, you don’t need to join your local gym to reap the benefits of physical activity. Simple activities like walking your dog, gardening, even grocery shopping instead of online shopping will give you at least some of these benefits.
To get you started with increasing your physical activity, first identify what you like to do. Yoga, dancing, gardening, walking, and even cleaning can be some options for you if you’re not keen on going to the gym.
Then, using tip #1, manage your expectations. Use your good days for an intense workout; and save the light, less effort-intensive activities for the bad days. For example, you’ll want to go out for a run on a good day but just have enough energy to do a 10-minute gentle yoga routine on a bad day.
In short, any amount of physical activity will have a positive impact on your mood. And the best of all — it’s free!
Keep your environment simple
Believe it or not, a cluttered space can be a danger to your physical health — from making your home a fire hazard and increasing your risk of falling to giving you asthma or allergies due to the dust and dirt that clutter collects. But more importantly, it also affects your mental health.
Recent studies show that a cluttered environment keeps you stressed out and anxious and even makes you more likely to over-eat.
When you’re struggling emotionally, you may not have the energy to clean up as often as you used to. But with some planning, you can reduce clutter and be more comfortable, especially if hiring a cleaning service is not an option.
One thing you could do is ask a family member or friend to help you out on the weekends with tasks like laundry, decluttering, or light cleaning.
If you’re going at it by yourself, focus on cleaning or decluttering one small space at the time. Cleaning up your entire house will require a lot of time and energy. Instead, use a few minutes each day for more straightforward tasks like cleaning up one drawer on your desk or picking up clothes from the floor.
Another useful tip is to simplify a few daily chores. For example, using paper plates means fewer dishes to wash. Don’t have enough energy to cook? Look for pre-made ingredients like frozen vegetables or precooked rice to throw in a pan for a quick meal. Going through your memberships and subscriptions and cancel paper correspondence will reduce the number of brochures lying around your home.
But what about mental clutter? Anyone who’s ever been on social media knows information can be overwhelming.
If the amount of information you’re receiving every day makes you anxious or depressed, unfollow or mute accounts that share harmful content. And if you want to take it one step further, deactivate some (or all!) of your accounts.
Think of social media as an extension of your personal space. As such, consider what you’d like to let in that space. Anything that makes you feel unsafe or anxious does not belong in your space — physical or mental.
As you can see, it’s possible to make life a little easier when you’re struggling with mental health or stress. From relying on friends and family to using your good days to work out, plan, and declutter, you can still stay on top of your most essential tasks.
Do you have a tip I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll update the post with the best ideas (and a link crediting you, of course).