12 Ways to Be More Productive When You Have Bipolar Disorder

by Julie A. Fast Patient Advocate

Bipolar has a way of stealing our productivity. Getting things done while you ride the rollercoaster of ups and downs is possible. It requires strategy, discipline, and lots of creativity. But as an author, speaker, and mental health trainer living with bipolar, I’m proof that you can reach your goals even on the toughest days and despite debilitating symptoms. Start today and make one change, no matter how small. Then add another and you will see real progress. Start with these 12 ideas.

Setting deadlines.
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Create a deadline with someone you trust and respect.

If I’m writing for myself, I float. If I have a deadline where I want to impress the person who asked for the work, it helps me focus. You don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, as this can cause more symptoms. But working with someone you trust and respect who knows you struggle allows you to work even if you’re in a mood swing.

woman just doing the work
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Understand that feelings do not predict results.

My brain often lies and tells me that a project is impossible or too hard. If I listen to it, my body will shut down and I won’t get things done. I have taught myself to think like an athlete: to turn off my brain and focus on going through the motions. Remember that the feelings you have around a project might not be how you really feel about the project. It might feel impossible to exercise, but your body can do it anyway. Think like an athlete: turn off the feelings and just do the work.

Tying shoes
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Small actions create a chain of events result.

Inertia is a stuck point that many of us with bipolar experience regularly. We can sit and think and stare and get up and try to work, only to sit right back down on the couch and turn on the TV. You can break this cycle. A body in motion has a much better chance of getting something done than a body on a couch. Make movement your goal. Big goals don’t work when you’re sick. Small movements strung together are the answer, even if it’s tying your shoes.

Productive work space
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Put yourself in a place you can work.

I move constantly in order to find a place where I can function. Restlessness is such a big part of bipolar but it’s rarely discussed. It’s what makes us get in a car and drive for hours. We will go to one room, but it doesn’t feel right, so we move to another. The answer? Look over your life and figure out where you do your best work. Where are you the most productive? When you have a rough day, say to yourself as you would a child, “You are staying here until the project is done.”

Manic work
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Get real about mania.

It’s so easy to court mania, especially if your bipolar has a lot of depression. But using mania to work is like using cocaine to work. Mania is not productivity. Mania is illness. There is no situation where you can only use mania to work and it doesn’t also spill into your regular life. If I let my mania rage so that I can get things done, my sleep suffers, my relationships suffer, and ultimately I crash. It’s not worth it to me anymore. I court stability.

Working in spurts
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Work in small bursts.

With bipolar, our energy comes and goes. It’s often difficult to just sit down and do a project from start to finish. My goal is to finish a project. It doesn’t matter how. On some days, my brain lets me sit and work like a regular brain. On other days, I cry when I open my computer. The answer is to work in small bursts on the rough days. Employ extra management techniques during those times and know it will take longer. When you can work well, take advantage of it.

Happy doing work she loves
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Do what you love.

Sayings become clichés for a reason. It can be so hard to work on projects you actually enjoy when you have bipolar. Working on things you don’t love makes it that much more difficult. I find it interesting that when I have to market myself, my brain is cloudy and I have trouble focusing. When it’s work I enjoy, my brain is remarkably focused. It’s not always possible to only do work we love. However, when there is a choice, choose work that brings joy. This helps with focus.

working in library
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Try something completely different.

On some days, my bipolar is raging and yet I have a work deadline. I’m willing to try anything to make my brain function. For example, since I am a “noise worker,” I concentrate better in loud environments. So I sit in the back of a movie theatre or in busy restaurants and crank out blogs. You can do the same. If you need quiet, find a private room in a library. Call around and find what is available. Do something so different that your brain is tricked into working.

Hard working office workers
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Copy the habits of stable people.

We are often a product of the people we hang out with. I can’t work with others who can’t work. It creates too much confusion. Instead, I work with people who are stable. This makes sense. If you work with someone who can focus, he or she will give you the energy to do the same. Watch how they make small lists and then slowly go through each item on that list. It’s like seeing a unicorn in real life. Copy them. Ask for advice and fake it until you make it.

stimulant pills
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Accept that stimulant medications aren’t an option.

How I wish we could use the medications on the market that help with focus. The problem is that they can make us manic. Stimulants that calm the brains of people with ADHD or ADD can be used by those who are depressed only, but they create mania in people with bipolar disorder. Other stimulants that can lead to mania include energy drinks that have amino acids such as taurine along with caffeine, and over-the-counter memory and focus supplements that can affect sleep.

Getting advice
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Ask for help from the right people.

Start now to assemble a care team around you who help instead of making you feel guilty about productivity symptoms that most people with bipolar share. We need health care professionals who know what they are doing. We need therapists who use behavioral therapy, occupational therapists who can help us use our bodies in a way that leads to better production, prescribers who know what meds are safe, and friends and family who try to learn about bipolar.

Balance
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Be honest with yourself and aim for balance.

I constantly overwork or can’t work at all. It’s feast or famine with this bipolar brain. Finding balance is a daily task. If I make myself rest when I’m manic, I miss out on valuable work time. But if I don’t take that break, I’ll get too sick to work at all. I push myself on the depressed days, but if I push too hard, I’ll go into a panic and the depression worsens. The balanced approach allows me to finish products such as writing this piece. Life with bipolar is about balance.

Julie A. Fast
Meet Our Writer
Julie A. Fast

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get it Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards. Julie won the Mental Health America Journalism Award for the best mental health column in the U.S. and was the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners on bipolar disorder and mental health management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show "Homeland" and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine. She is a sought-after coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder.