Ten Tips for Handling Big Projects When You're Depressed
So you’ve got a big project at work or a paper to do for school, and you’re at your wit’s end. If you’re depressed, it’s really hard to get things done, since there are some characteristics of depression in particular that make doing a big project seem as likely as climbing Mt. Everest. For one thing, your brain and thought processes are probably a bit foggier than usual. A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but mild or moderate cognitive impairment often accompanies depression.
Then there’s the general feeling of everything being overwhelming. After all, when you’re depressed, picking your outfit for the day can be difficult. Writing your dissertation or heading a big project at work? Ha, ha (hollow laugh), yeah, that’s going to happen
Well, it just so happens that this past spring I went through a business process analysis to improve the process we used to perform my job. The volume of work has almost doubled since I had started two years before, and some problems that were minor irritations before were turning into major speed bumps. The project looked pretty daunting at the beginning, and I privately wondered if it was possible to change any process at a large university. Fortunately, my misgivings were unfounded, and I learned a lot about how to tackle a big project without losing my mind.
I’m certainly far from an expert on project management, but here are some suggestions I’d make to anyone tackling a big project:
1. Break the project down, preferably on a large piece of paper that you can bring to each meeting. If applicable, begin with mapping out the process as it stands. This will help you to pinpoint where the problems are.
2. Then break the project down into smaller goals, down to the details in some cases. This way you’ll be able to pinpoint many of the things you’ll need to complete your project right from the beginning.
These first two steps are not just make-work. Particularly for someone with depressed, this is very important. It will help bring cut the project down to size in your mind and make it less intimidating. It will give you a sense of control, which is very important.
3. If you’re working with a group, delegate the work - do not try to do everything yourself. Try to match a task with each person’s style. If you need to interview customers to get feedback, you don’t want to use the person who is shy, but the person who loves to communicate (and hopefully is a good listener.)
4. Try out some project management/problem-solving techniques like the Five Whys. Some of the techniques are overly complicated or hard to apply to all but the most arcane situations, but some of them are good common sense and remarkably effective.
5. Set specific dates for goals and tasks and try not to let them slip. If you’re working with other people, this is easier to avoid. The need for reporting progress to other people keeps you honest as far as getting your work done.
6. Meet frequently to assess progress. If your project is due in a month, you should be meeting twice a week. If the finish date is further away, once a week. Set all of the meetings up right from the beginning. If you find that you don’t need to meet one time, you can cancel it. But having them in place really helps to keep on track. By the way, even if it’s just you on this project, don’t skip this step. Set a series of appointments up for yourself. The more frequently you assess your progress formally and mindfully, the more likely it is that you will catch a problem when it’s still small, before it sidelines the project.
7. Be prepared for changes and modifications and don’t get locked into a set path. Chances are that you might need to re-evaluate and change some goals, possibly even your primary goal. Be as flexible as you can and don’t see these modifications as failure.
Just as with the project management techniques, use what works for you out of these suggestions and discard the rest. I think that the most crucial thing I’d recommend is to break the project down into manageable parts right away, to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed.
Deborah Gray wrote about depression as a Patient Expert for HealthCentral. She lived with undiagnosed clinical depression, both major episodes and dysthymia, from childhood through young adulthood. She was finally diagnosed at age 27, and since that time, her depression has been successfully managed with medication and psychotherapy.