Compensating for Depression Brain

Compensating for depression brain: routines, to-do lists, and step-by-step task breakdowns

In my depression-free days, my brain felt like a finely tuned machine.  I could handle multiple tasks efficiently and effectively.  I’ve always been organized, but when I was well it was helpful rather than necessary.  I performed better when I was organized, but it wasn’t a crutch.

If non-depressed brain was skiing black diamond runs, depression brain is flailing around on the bunny hill.  And if I’m not careful, trying to take the T-bar back up to the top of the bunny will result in me on my ass with my skis stuck in the snow a little way up the hill from where my ass wound up.

To avoid this scenario, there are organization strategies that I’m very reliant on to function given the ongoing cognitive symptoms I experience with my illness.  Kacha of Food.for.thoughts was curious about what they are, hence this post.


If we think in terms of spoon theory, if I can cut down on the cognitive effort required for routine tasks, I have more spoons left over for other things.  My guinea pigs love routine too, although they do try to push celery time earlier if they can.

Some of my routine happens in terms of timing, but it also happens in terms of space.  When I open up my laptop each morning, the same windows and tabs are always open and in the same order.  It may seem like a minor detail, but it’s increasingly important the more impaired I am any given time.

To do lists

I’ve always loved lists, and it’s hugely satisfying to be able to cross items off when they’re completed.  Now, though, lists aren’t so much a want as a need.

My lists live in a couple of different places.  Some of them are on the Notes app that I can access on my laptop and my iPhone.  I have a “to do today” list, and I prepare this each afternoon for the following day.  Then there’s a “tasks in progress” list, a list of tasks I want to get to soon, a to do list for blog promotion on Pinterest, and several other lists focused on specific things.

I also use Google Keep for my grocery shopping list, miscellaneous shopping list, recurring tasks each month, and a list of things that are due in the next year or two, like my next dental checkup or pap smear.

This may sound like a lot of lists, but I get easily overwhelmed by long lists, so multiple short, focused lists works better for me.  Because I use them mostly as a memory tool, I don’t have a sense of unfinished business hanging over me even though I’ve got multiple items on multiple lists.  Most of the things on my lists aren’t time-limited, so it’s more about remembering that I want to do things at some point rather than pushing myself to get them done soon.

Step-by-step task breakdowns

These are a cross between a list and little “for dummies” (aka me) instruction manual.  Let’s say I’ve published an article somewhere other than my blog – there’s a list to tell me what I want to remember to do with that.  Every weekend, I have some housekeeping-type tasks I do for my blog, and there’s a step-by-step list for that.

Where I run into trouble is when a step-by-step list starts to feel too familiar. My mind starts to think hey, I can do this without looking at the list.  Inevitably, though, my mind is wrong.  Once I’m reminded that yeah, I do need to follow that step-by-step list after all, I’ll move the list to a different place, make it a different colour, or do something else so that it’s more likely to catch my attention.

Coping with depression brain

While this may sound like a lot going on and a lot of effort, it actually makes my life a lot easier, I would most certainly have a harder time functioning if I didn’t have my system to offset some of the effects of depression brain.

Do you have systems in place that help you to compensate for the effects of illness?

Every so often the system needs an overhaul; there’s a newer post on Refreshing My Depression Organization System.

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic, everything up to and including the kitchen sink look at how to put together the pieces of your unique depression puzzle. It’s available on Amazon and other online retailers, as well as the MH@H Store.

This post contains affiliate links that let you support MH@H at no extra cost to you.

31 thoughts on “Compensating for Depression Brain”

  1. I agree that to-do lists are a great help. Short ones to allow you to cross off the list as you go and longer term ones to keep focus on the big picture. I am a fan of re-writing a list once I get several items crossed off and other items transfer to the new list.

  2. I’m so glad you’ve come up with this brilliant system for organization! Great job!! I admire your intelligent/logical approach!

    I think what I have in place is my dad, who’s always onhand to listen to whatever’s upset me at the moment. Yesterday, it was the grocery store’s security guard lady (yet again). I was re-entering the store to find my dad, who hadn’t yet bought his bananas. And this woman accosted a young woman who was approaching the store with her dog on the leash. The security guard said, “You aren’t panhandling, are you?”

    And the woman with the dog said, “What does that mean?”


    “What does that mean?”

    And I’ve seen this security lady accost other people before over EVERYTHING, and this just stressed me out so much that I had no social energy (paranoia attack) to, like, wait for my dad to light his freakin’ cigar; and I took off for home, and after he got home too, he had to listen me go on and on about it. So I would probably say he’s the main “system” I have in place to deal with my issues!

  3. To do lists and my diary in my journal.
    To do lists I cross. I don’t do every day, but I do most days since last year.
    Then there is my diary. My diary looks clourful, but it helps me to break things down, otherwise it looks all jumbled up. Only colour I use of importance is a highlighter in yellow, other colours don’t mean any than just to break tje day down, if there is a lot of writing. The planner is also monthy, that I print off. A monthly display works better for me and I have been doing it this way for over 2 years. Although I have a pocket diary for work, that isn’t laid out like that and nearly mirrors my journal one.

      1. The highlighting thing I have done since my teens. But it wasn’t until I had support around the time I was reattempting GCSE English as an, or just before that, (I can’t remember now,) that I realised why I broke things down. Well, understanding it better.

  4. I just find a lot more downtime…not necessarily sleep, but just lethargic resting. Having the TV on but only being 40% there mentally helps. There’s just so much brain power I have in a day, so I have to run on Airplane Mode a lot of the time.

  5. Thank you for posting this! I’ve learned a lot and am going to try to make short lists; I just love the idea. I used to work with one list per day and that gets overwhelming now.
    I use to have different lists but they got lost somewhere. The first step is to remember where the list is; I’ll try Google Keep.
    As for the laptop, I do the same thing, always the same tabs are open in the same order.
    I also like the idea of not forgetting the things you want to do instead of having some ‘deadlines’ every day. If I can achieve that way of looking at it, it will be a huge step forward as it will give me a sense of ‘control’ (for lack of a better word). I mean that I can be in a more active (I want to) rather than in a passive (I need to) position.
    So a lot of great tips I’ve found here 🙂

  6. Lists don’t work for DID. It’s very common. That we write them, lose them, forget them, think they are for someone else.

    We tried to drive to the doctor in February without GPS. Oh, we know how to get there. Been going for 10 years. Got lost. Pulled over on highway to GPS it.

    We can’t remember being without PTSD and OCD. That is painful to acknowledge. Makes our me’s emotional: sad, angry, lost, hopeless.

    T-3, says to try to convert it all to compassion, to Love. Take our time. practice

    Your system sounds like someone else we know. Works for that person, too. Lots is instructions. Step by step

  7. I already do to-do lists, but I love the idea of breaking down tasks into sub-tasks! Sometimes I put off tasks because they seem to require too much effort, so breaking them into smaller component steps might be helpful for getting started on mentally daunting things (which are never actually that bad once I fight the inertia to get started!)

  8. I’m with you on making lists Ashley. I couldn’t function effectively without them. Hubby drives me nuts when he’s trying to remember things – I’ve told him to do lists but he’s a stubborn old fool. I laughed at your skiing analogies – hilarious 🙂

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