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. Compensation strategies for ongoing cognitive symptoms help me to avoid ending up on my ass with my skis stuck in the snow a little way up the hill from where my ass wound up.
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 my laptop each morning, the same windows and tabs are always open in the same order. It may seem like a minor detail, but it’s increasingly important the more impaired I am at any given time.
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. 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.
I’ve always been organized, but depression has turned organization into a key way of shifting complexity away from my brain and onto my organization system. To be able to handle multiple things going on in my world, I need my system to compensate for what my brain can’t handle on its own.
There’s more on organization in the post Does Being Organized Make Life Easier or Create More Work?
Some things also get added into the system in a disorganized manner. If I find a new tool that’s useful, I’ll bookmark the site in the appropriate bookmark folder, but I won’t go in and alphabetize it. That’s not because I care about order for the sake of order.
I have a problem remembering that things exist if they’re not in front of me. Browser bookmarks are often less about needing to recall the URL, and more about just wanting to remember that the site exists. If they’re not alphabetized, then it takes more cognitive effort to find something, and I don’t have a lot of that to spare.
This week I did some tidying within my bookmark folders, alphabetizing, shortening labels, and weeding out sites I don’t use. The general structure remained the same, though.
I don’t remember where to find files on my laptop, and I get extra-overwhelmed when there are too many things in front of me. To compensate, I have very clear folder pathways so my head can follow along. I do this for blogging-related items, book stuff, tax info, etc.
When I start feeling overwhelm, I start to create subfolders to try to diminish the overwhelm factor. That might sound like it makes things more complex, but the more I can shift the complexity to my system, the fewer cognitive resources I need to put in to get to where I want to go.
I have a blogging spreadsheet that contains lists of everything I’ve posted and when, as well as my idea farm, which is organized by topic. My post list chugs along quite nicely and helps me keep track of my scheduling.
A different spreadsheet is devoted to income. I have bits of income coming in from several different sources, and at the beginning of every month, I update my spreadsheet. That task tends to be overwhelming, so my system is a work in progress as I try reformatting it to make it easier for my brain.
Step-by-step task breakdowns
These task breakdowns are a cross between a list and a 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.
If it’s not in front of me, it doesn’t exist
Since I have a hard time fishing things out of my brain, it helps to have concrete cues. In my kitchen, that means that food lives on the counter rather than in the cupboards. If I can’t see it in front of me, I won’t remember that it’s there. If I have to take something with me the next time I leave home, I stick it in front of the front door so I can’t not notice it on my way out.
I use a dosette to help me manage my medications, but that needs to be in front of me to remember it exists. I’ve built it into my routine that when I first get up, I stick my dosette and my bullet journal on my bed so I don’t forget them.
I need things to be in front of me to know they exist, but if there’s too much information coming in, I get overwhelmed. I’ve turned off push notifications for just about everything so I don’t have things trying to jump in my face the moment something happens. With social media apps, I only fetch my notifications when I’m actually using the app.
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. Every so often, my brain gets too used to the current system, so it needs a refresh to remain effective.
Do you have systems in place that help you to compensate for the effects of illness?