3 Types of “To-Do” Lists that Can Help When Depression Sets In

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Let’s get real. Making a “to-do” list on a day you’re struggling with depression can be many things, but “helpful” is not usually one of them. Most days I wake up this way the feeling is so heavy I can’t even find the tiniest bit of will to fight it. Or I stare at my list of goals I made the night before and cry, knowing I’ll never complete anything, any time, anywhere, because that’s what the voice in my head is telling me.

I can’t even get in the shower, but I’m supposed to create a thoughtful DIY gift for my anniversary, plan a party, work on a script I’m writing, and make three phone calls?

Um, not happening.

Honestly, when depression sets in, I usually forget why I wanted to do any of these things in the first place. Nothing seems important. Everything feels impossible. I just want time to stop so I can hide under my covers and cry or sleep.

However, over many years of dealing with depression in the various forms in which it visits me, I’ve learned that at certain times, there are things I can do to cushion the blow. Mostly, I’ve developed tools that prevent it from hitting me so hard or so often- though these don’t always work. Once it comes, it’s generally out of my hands, since I’m not exactly “myself” during those times.

When I am able to get a small ledge to hold onto, one of the things that can help me is, believe it or not, a to-do list.

Generally, depending on where I am mentally, these lists fall into one of three categories. I’m going to share them here in case one or more can ever help anyone else when they are slipping down into that deep hole of sadness or numbness.

And please remember, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing, if that’s what you need. Sometimes we just need to stop and be as gentle as possible with ourselves. There is no shame in having to stop.

Here are the types of lists I use. These aren’t in order of “feeling best to worst” or anything like that. Depression simply hits differently sometimes.

List #1: The “Things I Know Will Make Me Feel Better and Start to Move Me Out of a Depressed State” List

This is one only accessible to me when I’m just starting to get a bit “off” or when I’ve been feeling depressed for a bit and can see the light, however dim, at the end of the tunnel.

It usually looks something like this:

Monday- Pick one, when you are ready, and try it. 

  • Take a nice, long shower. Wash your hair. Take your time.
  • Get dressed. Yoga pants and a sports bra are great!
  • Go for a 20-30 minute walk outside.
  • Do a yoga video.
  • Put on music or Friends and clean. Start with 5 minutes. One thing at a time!
  • Journal. Just start writing.
  • Go grocery shopping or order groceries, healthy food and comfort food, both.
  • Do that social thing you had planned. Maybe you’re ready to try it.

You get the idea. This is a list for the times I know I might be able to “choose my adventure,” if you will, which are very specific moments.

Sometimes I try one of the items on the list, and I break down, fall apart, and feel worse. I’m not ready. That’s fine. The most important part of this type of attempt is to never beat myself up for trying. If I start sobbing at the end of yoga or feel too exhausted to get dressed after a shower, I have to reroute. Time to practice self-love and patience to the best of my ability.

List #2: The “Things I Have to Do to Keep Life From Falling Apart, and Once Finished Can STOP” List

Some days, depression is so heavy you literally don’t know why you even wake up in the morning, but life isn’t kind enough to stop for you.

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This is a great moment for me to mention one thing: I personally deal with my depression naturally. I’m not on any prescribed medication at this time. I tried it, and I hated the way I felt on medication so much that I chose to find the best balance I could with a combination of other things.

I am not a doctor or medical expert in any way. This is just my personal experience and opinion. If you are fighting any mental illness that stops you from being able to live your life, meaning you can’t hold a job, keep a healthy relationship, take care of your children, etc, medication may be a very good option for you.

For me, these days come sometimes, but not so often I would trade how I feel for a medicated life. Make sense?

That said, some days it’s so hard to do anything it feels like I could just die. I can’t imagine how I could brush my teeth, let alone accomplish all the important tasks I earmarked that particular day (or week) to do.

On these days, I ask myself what absolutely must get done, and I let everything else go.

These lists look something like this:

Wednesday- This is ALL you have to do today!

  • Shower and get dressed and ready- power through!
  • Go to audition at 11.
  • Send eBay package- MUST go today before 5
  • Pick up cat food
  • Switch wet laundry to the dryer

After I’ve done this list, I have full permission to stop. I don’t hold myself accountable for one more thing. Not a workout. Not dishes. Not calling anyone or folding the laundry or sending a single email. Nothing.

Dinner can be ordered, it can be unhealthy, it can be done over an app so I never have to speak to a person. Sweats on, bra off. Calls unanswered. It doesn’t matter.

These lists are to basically tell my mind, “Look, I know you don’t have anything to give right now. Just turn it on for a very finite amount of time, because you simply have to. Then you will be rewarded with full permission to shut off, to cry and go numb and care about nothing.”

It’s a bit of a mind trick, but, for me, it works.

The idea is to keep this list very short, 3-5 items max, and only add the items that would mess up your world and make things so much worse if they didn’t get done today. Nothing extra.

Maybe you’ll get going, and some chemicals will flood in, and you can do more. It’s happened to me countless times. But if I don’t have full permission to stop, and soon, my anxiety makes everything worse, and I’m too miserable to even have a chance to feel better.

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List #3: The “Celebrate Any and Every Tiny Task You Accomplish Because Just Getting Out of Bed Today is So Hard- You Are AMAZING” List

This list is for the really, really hard days when you don’t necessarily have anything forcing you out of bed in the morning.

I know that, in my experience, I can sometimes hit a bout of depression that feels like I simply wake up three days later. Time passes, and I can’t do anything. I can easily sleep twelve hours, wander around for a long time, get lost on my phone or tv or doing literally nothing, and have basically no awareness of the days going by. I tend to go numb during these hard spells, and when emotions do rise to the surface, they are intense and painful and almost always a complete panic.

Honestly, I’ve learned to just love and be patient with myself after those days, because fighting makes me shame spiral and I just get worse. However, this list does often make me feel better on those totally numb, “why bother” with anything days. Even if I just do one thing, I feel good about it, because one tiny thing is more than I could have possibly imagined accomplishing when I woke up.

A partial list of items I am very happy to celebrate on days I can barely wake up (and yes, I do like to write them out on an actual list, because it makes me feel proud of myself!):

  • literally getting out of bed
  • brushing my teeth
  • giving my cat some love
  • washing a single dish
  • feeding myself properly- a meal or a healthy snack or just real food
  • getting the mail
  • throwing away trash
  • making myself tea
  • washing my face
  • changing into clean pajamas
  • answering an email
  • making an appointment for a future date
  • getting up and stretching for a few minutes while I watch TV
  • talking to my husband on the phone
  • taking five deep breaths
  • paying one bill
  • writing anything- journal, note to myself, something for a blog, a nice comment on someone’s Facebook wall
  • putting away one item
  • showering
  • taking off old nail polish
  • having a good cry
  • taking vitamins
  • thinking of one thing I’m grateful for
  • answering a text message
  • folding a little laundry
  • getting even the smallest bit of good news
  • brushing my hair out and putting it back up
  • eating a fruit or vegetable
  • drinking a glass of water
  • thinking or speaking or writing something kind about myself

Please, if it helps you, steal this list to print or save somewhere and give yourself credit for every tiny accomplishment on your depression days. Remember that you are amazing and strong for each and every thing you do above and beyond lying in bed in the dark.

Also remember that if that’s all you can do some days, that’s ok.

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The common theme in all these lists is this: do what you can or must do, and leave the rest. Treat yourself with as much love and patience as you would the dearest person you know, the person you love the most. If my husband could barely get out of bed in the morning, I certainly wouldn’t berate him and call him names for not keeping the house perfectly clean or not finishing that big project he’s been working on. I would say kind things and love him harder.

Treat yourself the same way. You deserve it. You haven’t given up, even though it may feel that you have sometimes. You are here, you are alive, and you are doing your very best.

That’s all any of us can do, after all.

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