Compensating for Depression Brain

Compensating for depression brain - organization strategies to use

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.

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. 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?

Browser bookmarks

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.

Computer folders

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.

Managing notifications

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?

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, 2nd Edition, by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.

It’s available on Amazon and Google Play.

25 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. 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 the 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 🙂

  5. 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

  6. 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!)

  7. 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 🙂

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: