Tim Pychyl wrote a post an eternity ago on Depression and Procrastination.

I love his podcast, and his blog is great for going back and reviewing what he discusses in the episodes. After rereading the post I decided it would be good to expand on his point with examples from my own experience.

Depressed agents are different in important ways. We understand that their self-regulation is undermined somehow, their practical reasoning impaired, perhaps. Depression complicates our consideration of procrastination or weak-willed action. It’s not only or “just” about putting one foot in front of the other.

The thing is, a focus on simple self-regulation skills can help. The research indicates this important relation. . . . Little self-control “wins” around intentional action fuel us. It is truly “one foot in front of the other.” Just showing up.

Seems pretty obvious. I’ve known this the entire past two months when my depression was threatening to come back in full force. And yet I completely disregarded it.

When you’re depressed, you end up making a habit of disappointing yourself. “I don’t feel good, I don’t think I’m going to go to the gym.” or “Maybe I’ll just have ice cream instead of cooking dinner.” You flake on your friends and commitments, but that stems from repeatedly flaking on yourself. You stop seeing yourself as important or trustworthy.

As I mentioned in my [review of The 7 Habits]({{ site.url }}{% post_url 2015-03-02-book-review-seven-habits %}), I really like the idea of integrity: doing what you said you were gonna do when you said you were gonna do it. It’s simple and applicable to anybody and any part of your life. Building and maintaining integrity is a constant uphill battle, but after a while you’ll strengthen those calves and glutes and the climb doesn’t seem so tough any more.

Tiny self-control wins are how you build integrity with yourself. You can’t go from zero to perfect in one day, so don’t promise yourself that. Make tiny promises, especially ones that involve self-care, and keep them. Even if it’s something boring like, “I’m going to wash my hair today.” Sometimes that’s all you can manage.

With each kept promise you build self-regulatory skill, like a muscle. And like muscles, it can be depleted of energy, and it can atrophy. Don’t overdo it.

When I have a cold and I’m pretty sure I’m no longer contagious, I find that my symptoms are significantly worse when I stay home to “recover” than when I just get up and go to school/work.

It’s the same with Pychyl’s “just show up” point: it doesn’t feel good at first, but once you’re there you actually enjoy yourself more than you would have if you had stayed home.

This isn’t true 100% of the time, though, so make sure you stay aware of your mental state. For example, a lot of people say that once they’re at the gym, it’s guaranteed they’re going to exercise. Unfortunately, when you have severe anxiety about gyms there will be times when you

  • show up
  • walk around
  • go to the bathroom
  • and leave, hoping that nobody recognizes you at the check-in counter

I’ve done this at least a handful of times.

You may not be completely under the weather right now. If you’re in that middle stage where you find yourself capable of going through the motions, you’re in a good place to find ways to work that self-regulatory muscle.

You can cook a healthy dinner instead of eating a frozen burrito, or take a walk around the block instead of watching another episode of House. Get a haircut, give yourself a pedicure, pay your bills, do a load of laundry. Do things that are good for you that you used to enjoy. Or at least do things that are fairly easy to check off the list.

Here’s my point: I’m hoping you’ll find that once you check one thing off the list, the next thing will come naturally.

While picking up clothes to wash, you might find yourself throwing out the trash scattered about your room. While waiting for your pedicure to dry, you might sit on the floor and stretch to open up that lower back tightness. Cooking dinner leads to washing the dishes.

Related activities have a domino effect when you start checking them off. It won’t happen every time, and it probably won’t happen the first time when you’re the most stressed out about all this, but if you just keep showing up, keep working toward those tiny self-regulatory wins, it’ll get easier.

This is exactly Habits 1 and 3 from [The 7 Habits]({{ site.url }}{% post_url 2015-03-02-book-review-seven-habits %}). Ideally you’ll reach a point where following those two habits is natural. Do what’s in front of you, do what you said you were going to do, and don’t flake. Particularly on yourself. I’m guessing you’ll find that once it’s easy to show up, everything else doesn’t seem as distressingly hard.


I really ought to take my own advice here.