Getting Things Done While Depressed

In my last blog, I wrote an article about the importance of goal setting for those in the legal profession with depression.  I went looking for some nifty quotes on the topic; true nuggets of insightful wisdom. Instead, I found a lot of boorish material which just rehashed what we already know – it’s important to get your act together.

That being said, I hope to humbly offer up my own take on goal setting for those hampered by the drag of depression.

Depression is full of waffling and meandering through the wastelands of our somber thoughts.  We are, of course, seduced into all of this by such thoughts — as if this were a productive way to live one’s life.  The thoughts gather strength and become ingrained cognitive habits as we repeat them millions of times with several variations on the same theme:  “I’m no good”, “nobody cares about me,” “I can’t do anything right” or what’s wrong with me?”  Listen, thinking these thoughts occasionally are normal for anyone who has been smacked around by life’s trials and tribulations.  After all, we are all jerks at different points of our lives . . . . . speak for yourself Dan, you may retort!

The problem comes in when such thoughts aren’t a sometime-sort-of-thing, but an all-the-time-sort-of-thing.  They take up residence in our minds and make a mess of the kitchen.

Depressive thoughts become one of the reasons we avoid, forget and/or just can’t seem to set healthy goals.  It’s as if in the midst of a depression, we simply don’t care because we can’t see anything good happening in the near or far future to us whatever we do.  This self-talk is a script right out of the movie, “How Depression Took over My Life.” (Not a real movie)

There are two ways to approach this issue of goal setting for the depressed professional. Though they aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s helpful to pull them apart.

Goal Setting with Depression

There will be different things you’ll be able to realistically get done depending where you fall on the depression continuum.  However, some ideas which should help everybody:

Structure Your Day – Please.

People with depression can feel scattered and overwhelmed.  The strain of being so exacerbates their depression because of the stress chemicals released in their bodies.  As such, go through your day first thing in the morning and decide how it might play out in your mind.  Try to be constructive about it.  Watch the language you use in your self-talk.  Instead of your stated goal being, “Not to feel like crap today,” try something like, “Today, I’m going to do my best to take care of myself.”  The shift in perspective can and does make a big difference.

Keep it simple. 

I keep a stack of 3 x 5 index cards in my laptop case and use one per day.  On it, I write 3-5 things on the left that are priorities and 3-5 things on the right that I’d like to get done.  I used to have a variety of notes scattered across piles of legal pads.  You can still do that if you, like me, are a “To do” list junky.  But, try the index card approach.  It’s cheap and simple to do. Keep it in your shirt pocket with a pen so you don’t have to search for it.  Psychologists tell us it takes 21 days for a habit to stick so give it three weeks.

Goal Setting at Work

Managing and Delegating

You must corral your work.  If you don’t, it’ll sink you when you’re dealing with depression.  If you have a secretary, lean on her heavily to organize your day and your desk.  Sit with her every morning and go over the day.  Many lawyers are control freaks and aren’t good at delegating.  You have to break that habit and let go of this compulsion.


Many lawyers bring their all-or-nothing cognitive approach to the workday.  Either they have to get everything done (“Yikes!”) or nothing done (e.g. they blow the whole day because they don’t feel well at the beginning of the day).  A good cognitive tool to use is regrouping.  I would sometimes have a crappy morning and think that the day was then ruined.  I’ve since learned to regroup at different intervals of the day, take stock and tell myself that just because the morning was crummy (or even the past hour) that doesn’t mean that I can’t zoom in the afternoon.

Watch Your Depression Patterns

Learn the patterns of your depression as they relate to your work day.  If you pay attention, depression takes on a certain pattern.  For me, I felt my worst in the morning.  This was often related to trouble sleeping.  I would begin zooming around 10 in the morning.  As such, I planned my day around this.  Other lawyers find that their depression hits around 2 p.m.  Keep a journal for about a week and pay attention to when this happens to you.  A good idea is to wear a sport watch with a timer.  Then set it to beep at one or two hour intervals.  Write down your mood at that time and rate it between 1 and 10.  I think you’ll be surprised to see how your mood changes during the course of the day.

It is not impossible to set goals while depressed.  It’s important to watch yourself getting things done.  Zoom.

Another Way For Lawyers to Think About Time Management

Law students, lawyers and judges are always pursuing time.  Watches on our wrists act more like compasses than time keepers as they point us in directions we must march.  A search on Amazon for “Time Management” books resulted in 632 titles.  The wizards of time who penned these templates for success cover familiar ground: organization, prioritization and scheduling. 

Yet much about the practice of law is fear driven: dire consequences will follow should we fail to get things done.  Perhaps that’s why there are over six hundred books on the subject, many purchased by lawyers, and scores of articles on the topic for lawyers on the run. 

“That’s just the way things are” is the legal profession’s anthem to the status quo of fear driven law. Time management isn’t embraced so much as an empowering experience, but more as a life preserver. I’m not going to offer any “solutions” to time management, at least in the traditional sense.  If you need the more “how to” remedies, check out these books: “Time Management In an Instant: 60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day” and “The Time Trap: The Classic Book on Time Management.”  Here are some  helpful articles on time management for lawyers:  “How to Use Effective Time Management” and “Do You Have Time? A Few Thoughts about Time Management for Attorneys.”  There is also a website devoted to time management for lawyers called “Time Management for Lawyers.”  On the site you’ll find plenty of articles on this topic.

We often don’t think of time management as a reflection of our self-worth, but it is.  Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, M.D., author of The Road Less Travelled, once wrote: “Until you value yourself, you will not value your time.  Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”

How much, we must ask, do lawyers value themselves as they slug through the ten hours a day or more they spend at their jobs?  If it’s primarily about the money, the danger is that they can become defined by the almighty $ and all it can buy.  That’s dispiriting and depressing, yet so often a reality for lawyers.  By frittering away their days not fully and passionately engaged in what they are doing, lawyers are devaluing the totality of who they are.

Lawyers lose the perspective that all of us only have 1440 minutes in a day and when they’re gone, baby they’re really gone.  As the novelist Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” We all have financial obligations of one sort of another.  But if we funnel all of our energy and time into meeting this one aspect of reality, sorrow will surely follow.  At the end of our lives, do we want to look back and think that our lives have been spent managing our time to gain more status, power and money?  To do so doesn’t necessarily make us “bad” people. I would suggest that it reflects a lifetime of little awareness; an inability or difficulty to separate the trivial from the truly important events of our lives.  Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

Getting things done moves us through our days. But, we have to make time to savor these experiences both large and small. Making the resolution to do so is a noble. But the degree to which we adhere to this goal often waxes and wanes – as do our earnest plans to watch less T.V., eat better and exercise after our morning coffee.  The waning could because we are discouraged, tell ourselves that we’re not particularly well disciplined or some other plausible excuse.

I have come to believe that the reason we don’t savor our legal experiences is because we have defined success too narrowly. We tend to buy into the clearly defined and conventional ideas of success offered up by the legal establishment.  For too many lawyers this involves waiting for successful moments to happen and trudging through their days.  As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes warned, “Many people die with the music still in them.  Why is this so?  Too often it is because they are getting ready to live.  Before they know it, time runs out.”

Living the music in you involves learning to be more process than product driven; as equally concerned with the journey as the destination.

We shouldn’t think of time management as just a good skill to develop, but also as something we are going to do because we value ourselves. Many “how to” books on time management fail to make us better at managing our affairs because some lawyers don’t like what they’re required to do to keep their jobs. How then do you “manage” work that you’re not crazy about doing in the first place? 

To be honest, I don’t think you can over the long haul.  Whether we recognize it or not, there will be a steep price for us to pay if we go down this path.  We can’t keep doing things over a long period of time driven by fear and anxiety with impunity.  The bill always comes due.  Our bodies and minds keep a tally of how we have treated them.  If we have ignored their carnal needs for love, affection, rest, exercise and purpose, in a sense we have betrayed them.  The result is often exhaustion, stress related illnesses, anxiety disorders and depression.

Let’s begin anew.  A New Year is around the corner.  Let’s start to think of time management as not just something to make us more productive, but as a way to learn to take care of ourselves.  Built into our time management must be time for ourselves.  I created my own personalized “Self-Care Tool Kit”.  Each of you should have one of these in your emotional garage.  When I felt helpless in my depression, I would pull out my lists of things I could act on to help me feel better.   Acting on these things was also a way to demonstrate to myself that I wasn’t helpless, a common cognitive distortion with depression. 

Try not to think about time management as getting things done so much as getting you going.  It can be enormously difficult for people with depression to finish projects.  In my experience, however, it is even more difficult for them to begin.  They often have a sense of being lost and not knowing how to start a task.  I would sit at my desk and look out the window waiting for the angels to move my fingers on my keyboard.   I viewed all tasks as an all or nothing proposition – another cognitive whammy that depression throws at us.  Against the steep benchmark of getting everything done during a depression, I would do nothing.

I learned to retool my approach.  The only thing that worked was to become very concrete and deliberate about work.  I began to pay attention and make an inventory of what did and didn’t help me get things done.  Sitting at my desk pounding out a brief for three hours didn’t work when I first experienced depression.  Working on the same brief for a half hour, stopping to return two phone calls and then a 10 minute coffee break did.  This sounds simplistic, but it’s a testament to how small changes in our behavior can change the character of our days.

Make a list of ways in which you currently work.  What are the obstacles?  Some of those problems are pragmatic; some of them are more existential. See time management as another way to value yourself.  You’re going to manage your time because you need to practice valuing yourself.

“Time” Management


Graduates of law school shouldn’t be given diplomas – they should be handed crash helmets.  Our lives as lawyers can be bruising indeed.  It’s not only the emotional charge of situations that we are asked to face; it’s the sheer volume of them.  We are always running – running to beat time.  The humorist Will Rogers captured the irony of this approach to time when he wrote: “Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with time we have rushed through life trying to save.”

As a profession, we are obsessed with the slicing, dicing and crunching of the seconds, minutes and hours were allotted in this life.  In a recent search on Amazon, I found 26,864 books on time management alone.  Yes, it is true that our working moments as lawyers have a monetary dimension.  That’s just a fact of the profession.  But for us to have fulfilling lives, time must mean more than that.

We have impoverished ourselves by seeing time only as a commodity to be used and profited from.  There is a deep sadness in many lawyers over the use and quality of their time.  They resent that their jobs take too much of their time, that they can’t spend more of it with their families and things they enjoy doing. One survey asked lawyers to, “List the most significant fears you have about your practice as a lawyer.  Sixty-four percent said they fear spending too much time practicing law and not enough time living.

Too often there is a mindless, driven quality to our lives. Such a way of being is nothing short of deadening.  The great psychologist, Rollo May put it succinctly when he wrote:

“The more a person is able to direct his life consciously, the more he can use time for constructive benefits.  The more, however, he is conformist, unfree, undifferentiated, the more, that is, he works not by choice but by compulsion, the more he is then the object of quantitative time. . . .  The less alive a person is – “alive” here defined as having conscious direction of his life – the more is time for him the time of the clock.  The more alive he is, the more he lives by qualitative time.”

Try this day not to work so compulsively – to chase time.  Value it not just as a day of work to be endured, but for the qualitiy of the moments that you have been given to live.  Be humble and mindful of the love you bring to your work and how you use it.  As Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Built by Staple Creative