Most lawyers who are depressed have a hard time being productive. Work—and here I mean everything from preparing for depositions to arguing a motion in court to the kinds of “work” we assign ourselves, like reading a good book or planting a garden—is a chore to the depressed. It drains us, leaves us feeling as bad as before, physically worn out and emotionally depleted, instead of proud of ourselves and invigorated. Other people with depression seem to work very hard all the time, but there is little payoff for their efforts. As with so much of depression, there is a real chicken-or-egg question—is work so difficult because we’re depressed, or are we depressed in part because we can’t accomplish anything? And as with so many chicken-or-egg situations, we face a false dichotomy: the truth is, poor work habits and depression reinforce each other.
Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.
This is the best book I’ve read on depression. Perhaps it’s more compelling than most books on this subject because Richard O’Connor, a therapist in New York City, has gone through major bouts of depression himself. Depression has often been compared to heart disease; an illness fueled by complex and interrelated factors: genetic, biochemical, environmental. In this book, O’Connor focuses on an additional factor often overlooked: our own habits. Unwittingly, we get good at depression. This book teaches us how to replace depressive patterns with a new and more effective set of skills. We already know how to “do” depression. And we can learn how to “undo” it. With a truly holistic approach that synthesizes the best of the many schools of thought about this painful condition, this book offers new hope, and new life, for sufferers of depression. Go to Dr. O’Connor’s website
The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
Winner of The National Book Award following its release a decade ago, this is a beautifully written book by depression sufferer, Andrew Solomon. Drawing on his own struggles with the illness and interviews with fellow sufferers, doctors and scientists, policy makers and politicians, drug designers and philosophers, Solomon reveals the subtle complexities and sheer agony of the disease. With uncommon humanity, candor, wit, and erudition, he not only helps us understand depression, but also the human condition. Go to Andrew Solomon’s website to read a chapter
The Mindful Way through Depression – J. Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Mindfulness, a simple yet powerful way of paying attention to your most difficult emotions and life experiences, can help you break the cycle of chronic unhappiness once and for all. It seems like every few days, there is a new book or article out on the power of mindfulness. Here, four uniquely qualified experts explain why our usual attempts to “think” our way out of a bad mood or just “snap out of it” lead us deeper into the downward spiral. Through insightful lessons drawn from both Eastern meditative traditions and cognitive therapy, they demonstrate how to sidestep the mental habits that lead to despair, including rumination and self-blame, so you can face life’s challenges with greater resilience. Jon Kabat-Zinn gently and encouragingly narrates the accompanying CD of guided meditations, making this a complete package for anyone seeking to regain a sense of hope and well-being. Go to a review and summary of this book
Listening to Depression – Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D.
I first read this book five years ago and was struck by its originality: depression isn’t just a disease to be fixed with medication and therapy, but a warning signal that our lives are off track and needs to be healed. In this sense, depression and its painful symptoms is a sort of unwelcome wisdom. Dr. Honos-Webb argues that we too often try to cut off or numb our feelings of depression instead of listening carefully to what they are telling us about our lives. Listening to Depression offers insightful ways to reframe depression as a gift that can help you transform your life for the better. Go to an interview with Dr. Honos-Webb
Lincoln’s Melancholy – Joshua Wolf Shenk
I am a little biased here. I am a lawyer and Lincoln is my hero. He not only was a great trial lawyer, but also struggled with depression his entire life. Giving shape to the deep depression that pervaded Lincoln’s adult life, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy reveals how this illness influenced both the president’s character and his leadership. Lincoln forged a hard path toward mental health from the time he was a young man. Shenk draws from historical record, interviews with Lincoln scholars, and contemporary research on depression to understand the nature of his unhappiness. In the process, he discovers that the President’s coping strategies—among them, a rich sense of humor and a tendency toward quiet reflection—ultimately helped him to lead the nation through its greatest turmoil. Go to the author’s excellent website about the book
Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression – James S. Gordon, M.D.
One of our country’s most distinguished psychiatrists and a pioneer in integrative medicine, Dr. Gordon believes that depression is not an end point, a disease over which we have no control. It is a sign that our lives are out of balance, that we’re stuck. It’s a wake-up call and the start of a journey that can help us become whole and happy, one that can change and transform our lives. Unstuck is a practical, easy to use guide explaining the seven stages of Dr. Gordon’s approach and the steps we can take to exert control over our own lives and find hope and happiness. Unstuck is designed for anyone who is suffering from depression, from mild subclinical depression (“the blues”) to its severest forms. Go to this PBS television intereview with Dr. Gordon
Unholy Ghosts: Writers on Depression – Nell Casey
The only book of its kind, Unholy Ghost is a unique collection of essays about depression that, in the spirit of noveliest William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Unlike any other memoir of depression, however, Unholy Ghost includes many voices and depicts the most complete portrait of the illness. With an introduction by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Unholy Ghost allows the bewildering experience of depression to be adequately and beautifully rendered. The twenty-two stories that make up this book will offer solace and enlightenment to all readers. Go to an excerpt of the book
Depression is Contagious – Michael Yapko, Ph.D.
Dr. Yapko has identified the types of relationship patterns that lead to negative ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others and culls from the latest findings in neuroscience, social psychology, epidemiology, and genetics to provide a practical, proven plan for developing the skills and insights you need to forge stronger, healthier social connections and enjoy an enriching, interconnected life. While commonly prescribed drugs address some of depression’s symptoms, they cannot change the social factors that cause and perpetuate the disorder. By treating a social condition as though it’s a disease, the problems compound rather than diminish. The foundation for recovery is to build a healthy social life based on understanding what to expect from our relationships, what we should give, and how to relate to and accept others — skills that have been neglected by modern society. Dr. Yapko’s groundbreaking plan of action — filled with skill-building emotional and mental exercises, anecdotes, and illuminating explanations. Go to an article written by Dr. Yapko about his approach to treating depression
I Don’t Want to Talk About It – Terrence Real
Depression is a silent epidemic in men who hide their condition from family, friends, and themselves to avoid the stigma of depression’s “un-manliness.” Problems that we think of as typically male — difficulty with intimacy, workaholism, alcoholism, abusive behavior, and rage-are really attempts to escape depression. And these escape attempts only hurt the people men love and pass their condition on to their children. Real reveals how men can unearth their pain, heal themselves, restore relationships, and break the legacy of abuse. He mixes penetrating analysis with compelling tales of his patients and even his own experiences with depression as the son of a violent, depressed father and the father of two young sons. Go to a video of Terry talking about men and depression
What to Do When Someone You Love is Depressed – Mitch Golant and Susan Golant
There are few circumstances in life as hard and at the same time as important as being a friend to a person who is suffering from depression. What to Do When Someone You Love Is Depressed offers guidance to the friends and family of a depressed person on how to keep one’s own spirits up and at the same time do what is best to help a loved one get through a difficult time. Read an excerpt here
The Zen Path through Depression – Philip Martin
Extremely accessible to people with little or no Zen experience as well as to longtime students of Buddhism, The Zen Path through Depression shows how the insights and exercises of Zen offer relief for those suffering from depression. Read an excerpt here
Beyond Blue – Therese Borchard
In this part memoir/part self-help, Therese Borchard, who blogs about depression at her site, Beyond Blue, endears herself to the reader and then reduces even the most depressed to laughter as she provides a companion on the journey to recovery and the knowledge that the reader is not alone. Go to her popular depression blog now
Get it Done When You’re Depressed –Julie A. Fast and John Preston, M.D.
When a depressed person can’t meet the expectations of society, the depression becomes worse and a vicious cycle begins. The goal of Getting Things Done When You’re Depressed is to break this cycle. Readers will learn how to prepare themselves mentally for working while depressed, how to structure their environment so they can work more easily, how to work with others and how to prevent depression. Go to an interview with the author
The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques – Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D.
What I like about this book is that it provides an overview of the some of the best techniques out there that scientists and therapist are using to help and heal people from depression. As Margaret Wehrenberg explains, you must first understand your brain. Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience research presented in a reader-friendly way, Wehrenberg skillfully describes what happens in the brain of a depression sufferer and what specific techniques can be used to alter brain activity and control its range of disabling symptoms. Containing practical, take-charge tips from a seasoned clinician, this book presents the ten most effective strategies for moving from lethargy into action, taking charge of your brain, and breaking free from depression to find hope and happiness. Read an excerpt here
I spend time – too much it – trying to keep my desk in check.
Like a taciturn child, it erupts with tantrums of disorganization. The fact that it’s a mess today seems unfair, as if a hole suddenly formed in the ceiling above me and dropped a cache of briefs, case opinions and half-used legal pads onto my workspace.
I shuffle the papers that lay before me. They look back at me. Ten minutes go by. I reshuffle everything all over again. Sound familiar?
Mind you, on the Clutter-o-Scale, my desk is only a 4 out of 10. If so, why the grief?
Some of my angst comes from having trouble finding things. But an equal measure comes from the sense that I should be more organized. We have made a religion out of organization in this country which has sprouted temples of crazed worship like The Container Store or Organize.com. Maybe this growth industry is in reaction to how much stuff/junk/information we like or have to obtain and perpetually reorganize. This mania has even spawned an inane reality T.V. show “Hoarders.”
Too many things compete for lawyers’ attention besides the usual culprits of returning phone calls, court appearances and last minute deadlines. When you add a messy desk to an already stressed-out life, well, it becomes the enemy.
Desks are the pedestals of our productivity. How we organize the stuff on them has a big effect on how well or if we get things done in a timely fashion. But just as important as these practical concerns is the impact it has on our mental health.
What is your Organizational Style?
According to Kelly Lynn Anders in her book The Organized Lawyer, “Not everyone prioritizes about what the eye needs to feel relaxed. Some ideas work for some and not for others. That’s why it’s important to know your type.” She identifies four types of organizers:
Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.
Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.
Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.
Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness around them and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.
Which type are you? She has a lot of useful suggestions, among them is color coding files. On her own desk, she keeps commonly used files close at hand. Because she identifies herself as a “stacker,” Anders avoids cabinets and other hidden spaces for her files. “The reason I don’t have a lot of hidden storage is stackers have a tendency to squirrel things away,” she said. Check out some of her other suggestions at her website.
A Contrarian Point of View
While we don’t have his brain’s elephantine computing power, it’s worth considering that your desk mess might not be so bad after all.
Dr. Jay Brand, a psychology professor, argues that a squeaky clean desk doesn’t always equate with a productive employee. It can actually hinder personal efficiency because a person’s desk is an extension of his/her mind. That’s because our human memory has a limited capacity, or finite ‘cells’ available for storage and since most people do multiple things at once they almost immediately ramp their working memory to capacity. They need a place to park some of the information from their working memory into the environment and what more logical place than their desks?
According to Dr. Brand, “these cluttered desks that people use to store information from their working memory are called ‘cognitive artifacts’, and they expand a person’s capacity to think and utilize the environment”. He argues that companies with clean desk policies waste time by requiring workers to clean up their cognitive artifacts every night and re-clutter them the next morning. He points out that everyone has a different working style and piles can be organized topically, chronologically, or according to an individual system. As long as the pile means something to the person who made it, it is effective.
I’ve known plenty lawyers in this group. But I ain’t one of them. Maybe it has to do with my own depression over the years. Or, as Kelly Anders suggests, it’s just my type that determines how I lay out the work space in front of me.
The Depressed Desk
When a lawyer has depression, motivation and organization are BIG problems. A lack of energy blunts motivation. We already know that it’s a good idea to keep our desk together, but there simply isn’t much neurochemical juice to get it done. But, time or a court’s scheduling order waits for no one. If we don’t keep the paperwork on the conveyor moving, we end up a casualty of our work days and add to the stress/anxiety/depression mix.
“Many people equate depression with the inability to work. In reality, the problem is often the inability to feel like working. People who are depressed assume that their lack of motivation is a sign of weakness, and if they could just buck up a bit, they would be more productive. But waiting until you feel like doing something is the single biggest mistake you can make when you’re depressed and need to get things done.”
Yes, we need to start working in spite of our desire not to. Dr. John Preston, in the same book, elaborates further:
“Depressed people find it very hard to ignite this self-generated action due, in large part, to decreased metabolic functioning in the frontal lobes of their brain, which are responsible for initiating behavior. So if a person waits a long time and not only not accomplish the non-rewarding tasks but also miss out on the big projects that can bring big rewards.”
So it appears that folks who aren’t depressed and are motivated people have ramped up brain metabolism. I’m envious. Yet, there is something we can do about it. As I’ve written about before, consistent exercise helps boost the happy chemicals in our brains, jacks up metabolism and improves our motivation and focus. Moving is motivating.
We must outfox depression. It would have us do nothing. So we must do something. When I apply this simple wisdom to my day, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how my feelings catch up with my doing and how my doing affects my feelings.
My experience during bogged down moods, was that I’d get most things done, but it would take lots of energy. When I’d come home from work, I’d be spent.
Six Simple Solutions
I agree with an observation made by Leo Babauta on his blog Zen Habits: “The most important thing to remember is that you must have a system in place, and you must teach yourself to follow the system. Otherwise, you just clean your desk, and it gets messy again”.
Here are a couple of tried and true tips that have helped me:
1. Get rid of all those pens. Only keep three or four. More than that, and there’s too much ink in your work space. If you love pen, keep your stash at home. I often troll the pen aisle at Office Max — strange, but true. So I know how difficult it is to part with them.
2. Take home any books that you don’t use on a regular basis. It’s just more clutter and keeps you from easily putting your hands on the important stuff you need to do your job.
3. Hide cords – these are like a floating octopi with tenticles that seemingly go everywhere. Use twist-ties or coil your cords up.
4. Only keep on your desk what you need for that day. Then section off your desk and workspace so that everything has a specific space.
5. Have a dump day. Take everything off your desk and out of your drawer and then put it in a big pile. Then, sort through what is garbage and what you really need throughout the workday.
6. Schedule a date and time to clean your desk. Ideally, at the end of a workday. Weather permitting, do it on Friday’s around 4 so that I start my Monday fresh.