This is going to be a practical exercise. A meta post if you will. Because I wrote this while I was in a very negative emotional place. (I edited it and wrote this intro in a much better mindset.)
This isn’t the time or place to get into any great detail about my personal experience with depression. It exists. And it tends to creep in every once in a while. It can last a day or two, or it can last over a week. I retreat inwards, shutting out much of the world, and I feel lethargic. I get overly self-reflective and dwell in negativity. When that happens I don’t want to work. I don’t want to be productive. I don’t want to write or create art. And then, one day, I wake up and it’s better.
While this is my personal experience, everyone experiences this in some way. Everyone has bad days. That is what this post is about. We’ll call these bad places slumps. (“Slumps” sounds reductive towards clinical depression and severe mental health issues, but this post isn’t about that — it’s for everybody. And everybody has slumps.)
When my mood takes a dip (or a full-blown nosedive), I don’t want to wait to get better. I have enough going on in my life (both personally and professionally) where I can seldom afford to wait for a depressive mood to pass. Therefore, I’ve come up with a few ways to keep going. They may not pull me fully out of the slump, but they will at least pull me off the couch.
Don’t worry, this post gets a lot more upbeat, complete with GIFs from The Departed that I deemed appropriate. Why The Departed? Aside from the fact that it’s one of the greatest movies ever made… I have no idea. But if you’re in a slump, they can’t hurt in pulling you out, right?
1. Make a to-do list
The feeling of being overwhelmed almost always accompanies a slump. For some people, feeling overwhelmed causes them to shut down completely, which just exacerbates the problem. Organization is the enemy of inundation.
For others, including myself, a slump is exacerbated by a lack of immediate action items — work is slow, no deadlines are imminent, no meetings have been set. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re lazy, just unmotivated. Happens to the best of us.
A to-do list helps. It will give you an action plan and organize your life all at once.
I make lists to keep my anxiety level down. If I write down fifteen things to be done, I lose that vague, nagging sense that there are an overwhelming number of things to be done, all of which are on the brink of being forgotten.
— Mary Roach
Focus on one item at a time.
A negative aspect of to-do lists can be that they remind us just how much shit we need to get done. You look down and see those fifteen problems that need solving and think, “Damnit, I have fifteen problems to solve!” Start with one. Knocking out one item creates a domino effect, and gives you a feeling of accomplishment right away.
Start with small tasks.
This serves two purposes: First, the aforementioned domino effect. When one thing gets knocked off the list you feel empowered and ready to do more. Second, if you undertake a large task and it takes longer than you expect (because it definitely will), the smaller, easy task may not get done at all.
Aside: Does anyone else write something on their to-do list that you’ve already done just so you can cross it off and feel good about it? No shame in that. Do it!
I’ve taken to reading in the mornings. Sometimes I’m on a good non-fiction book that inspires me. (I just finished The War of Art — and during that same time I was inspired enough to outline a new feature film script.) Sometimes it’s a Medium article or two. Sometimes it’s a simple tweet.
I find that my mind is wild in the morning. That’s why I can’t (personally) meditate first thing. That’s also why my fiancé thinks I’m a dick before 9 a.m. I’m not trying to be, I’m just way up in my head. And if I’m in a slump, that head space is like the ocean in The Perfect Storm.
Reading focuses me. I let it inspire me. Just try to read The War of Art or Big Magic and then go back to bed sad. It won’t work.
3. Focus on self care
Often a slump is the result of a lack of self care. I hit them after party weekends, when I’m struggling to get enough sleep, or when I’ve slacked on the gym for a week (or two… or a month). Your body wants to be healthy and well taken care of, and it will let you know when it isn’t.
There are a myriad of studies both on the benefits of sleep and the perils of sleep deprivation. The difference between being well-rested and not are frequently the difference between a good day and a bad day (however you want to define “good” and “bad” days). When you’re in a slump, don’t set an alarm (to the extent you can get away with it). Allow your body the rest it needs.
Did you know… exercise is good for you? While I know this is a novel and mind-blowing concept, I’m pretty sure the science is solid on this one. Just going for a walk is a great way to release stress. As Ingmar Berman said, “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”
Look good, feel good
Upon waking up, I like to wash my face, brush my teeth, and put on moisturizer. Then I drink warm lemon water with a couple dashes of cayenne.
This is a relatively easy routine, but when I’m slumping, even going through these motions is difficult. However, if I force myself through them, I at least feel like I got a good start, which can go a long way to climbing out of slumpsville.
Some of you may be thinking, “Does his morning routine come from Jennifer Aniston beauty tips?”
I have a draft of an article titled “Ways Meditation Can Transform Your Life” that I may or may not finish. One reason I may not (aside from the fact that I’m pretty far removed from being a guru on the subject) is because it’s pretty self-explanatory. It clears your mind, it helps you focus, it keeps you centered… When I’m in a slump, however, it’s just relaxing. It’s a simple way to get out of my head, sit there in silence, and just be without whatever slumpiness is surrounding me.
When you’re in a slump, you let things go. Your desk, your kitchen and, as mentioned, even yourself. Cleaning up not only gives you something to do, it makes you feel better for doing it. Some people don’t mind mess; others like an “organized disaster;” and others still can’t get to work if a speck of dust touches their computer screen. No matter which category you fall under, doesn’t it just feel great to have a nice, clean space?
And hey, even if a slump has you slouched at your desk aimlessly going down a YouTube rabbit hole… at least your desk will be tidy and your face will be moisturized.
5. Just get to work
This doesn’t sound like the best advice, but it works, especially if you’re a creative and/or freelancer. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint. If you want to start a business, sit down and start hashing out the beginnings of a business plan. It can all be garbage and thrown in the trash tomorrow, but start.
The most difficult part of doing anything when you’re in a bad place is actually doing it. It’s starting. It’s staring down a blank canvas. An incredible thing happens when you do: The demons preventing you — causing you to slump — go away. Your mind frees up. Inspiration hits. As I said, this article was primarily written when all I wanted to do was lie down on my couch. But I pulled up a blank page, having no idea how to start or what I was going to say, and just started writing.
A caveat: If you truly love what you are doing, major slumps won’t occur. When I’m waste deep in a screenplay I can’t get out of my head, you can’t keep me in bed. When I’m in the middle of building a cool brand I care about, there isn’t enough time in the day. Small slumps still occur — those moments of writers block or waiting on notes from a client are torturous — but know that an inspired mind is an incredibly active mind.
6. Have some fun
I don’t know why I don’t see this on more self-help articles. (Probably because I read so few of them.) Sometimes when you’re in a shitty place, you just need to hit ctrl + alt + delete and reboot.
Two things: First, you should try to have fun every day. If you’re lucky, you think of your work as fun. (In good times, I’m lucky enough to say that.) Second, when you’re in a really bad place, this isn’t easy. This may sound weird, but your brain tries to keep you in negative places. Why? Who knows, but your brain loves it. Some people call this the “lower brain;” some call this phenomenon “Resistance;” Others even look at it as a metaphysical “demon” character. However you want to describe it, it’s not easy to overcome. But if you do, you’ve conquered the Slumpy Lower Brain Resistance Demon!
Go out and get drunk on a Wednesday. Go on a shopping spree. Catch a show. Host a game night. Laugh. Fun and laughter (and sometimes alcohol) has an amazing tendency to kick a slump in the ass.
7. Call yo momma
Or whomever. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Catching up with people makes us feel good. An unexpected call just to say, “Hey I was thinking about you” makes them feel good. And it feels good to make other people feel good. Or maybe they’re in a shitty place too and you can chitchat about your respective shitty places and what to do about it.
I don’t have a good ending for this… but it has to be better than zooming in on that stupid rat, right?
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