How Lawyers Can Get Things Done When Depressed

Getting things done at work is a top priority for any lawyer.  This is all the more so when a lawyer is suffering from clinical depression because it becomes harder and harder to be productive: stacks of paperwork become bigger stacks of paperwork, deadlines begin to feel like death sentences when they’re not completed and time is running out, and the e-mail box is overflowing like a sink onto a cold tiled floor.

The failure to fix the lack of productivity problem spirals folks out of control.  Not accomplishing things make’s their work problems –  like their overall life problems – seem, essentially, unsolvable. Depressed lawyer can’t seem to remember a time before their depressive episode(s) when they were on top of their game. Author Andrew Solomon writes:

When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely in the present moment, as in the world of a three-year old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly, and you’re certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will feel better.

A Tsunami of Self-Condemnation

When you combine lack of productivity and disorganization, you have a recipe for hating one’s self; a toxic self-condemnation that goes on throughout the day for the depressed lawyer: “I got nothing done this morning.  I feel useless and out of control.  I feel like crap.”  They feel incompetent in a profession that prizes competence because they blame themselves for not having the motivation to check things off their list of things they must get done.  What they fail to see, is not they’re inept or lazy.  They’re sick.

Depression creates a real fuzzy dullness in the brain that prevents anyone within its gravitational pull from getting much done; a psychic disorientation that feels like you’ve been kicked in the head by a horse. The reason is that there is actually decreased metabolic functioning in the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for initiating behavior.  So even though we desire to press on the gas to get things done, our brains are running on vapors.

Well Done

Lawyers feel desperate to become unstuck – to get traction and get back on the path of productivity.  In the insightful book Get It Done When You’re Depressed, the authors are dead-on about the types of things depressives tell themselves when trying to get things done – and how this actually leads to things not getting done: (1) You have decided that there’s no use in starting if you don’t have the desire for the project, (2) you search for the feeling of wanting to get something done even when you know that lack of motivation is a normal symptom of depression and (3) you wait so long to get a good feeling about what you need to do that you never even get started.

Given this, how can we possibly get things done when depressed?  Is it even possible? The three points I took away from the book are:

  1. Keep working until you do feel even a small sense of accomplishment, and hold on to that as you finish a project.
  2. Work no matter what so you can go to bed with a sense of accomplishment.
  3. As you start to implement these ideas, remember to take it slow and have realistic expectations.
  4. Remember, depression doesn’t want to do anything and never will.  It’s an inert illness, not an active illness.  If you wait until you ‘feel like it’ to start something, you’ll wait forever.

Lawyers are perfectionist and set high expectations on themselves.  But that doesn’t work with depression; it only serves to fuel the illness because you cannot get everything done that you customarily had gotten done when not depressed.  So, be kind to yourself.

In a past blog, My Desk, My Enemy: 6 Helpful Ways to Get Organized, I wrote further about the nuts-and-bolt of how to get things done when depressed.  Check out the blog for practical things you can put to use in your law practice and life.






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2 thoughts on “How Lawyers Can Get Things Done When Depressed

  1. How can reading a book fix being sick of your work? It’s like reading about how to eat more hotdogs when you’ve spent years in a daily hotdog eating contest, and would rather be shot in the face than eat another one?

    Oh, and your reward – the great motivation to force yourself to cram one down – is more hotdogs.

    1. Bob, the issue is not being sick of your work. That’s unhappiness or dissatisfaction. I am writing about depression, which is an illness. Certainly, there are plenty of lawyers that are unhappy at their jobs and struggling with depression. But they still have to make a living and get things done, even if they struggle with depression. Thanks for your input. Dan

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