Yanawut Suntornkij/Shutterstock.com

A Therapist’s Guide to Staying Productive When You’re Depressed or Heartbroken

"Adjust your expectations for your performance."

“We entrepreneurs can’t afford to date,” I half-joked to a friend the other day. “We can’t take sick days when we get our hearts smashed.”

I’m a therapist who helps people learn to be resilient in the face of life’s uncertainties. But even I catch myself feeling anxious about how to stay motivated when I’m feeling down.

All of us will experience grief and sadness—whether due to heartbreak, bereavement, or some other loss—over the course of our professional lives. And roughly 300 million people worldwide deal with depression, the most common cause of disability. Both grief and depression are no joke when it comes to affecting our productivity. While some people may dive into their work as a much-needed distraction, most experience a nosedive in basic functioning. Our motivation gets shot; we lose focus and concentration; our sleep and appetite get totally messed. On good days, we might be able to meet a deadline despite feeling like a shell of a human being. On bad days, just getting dressed is daunting.

Though it’s been a few years since I experienced crippling heartbreak, depression likes to make me a biannual visit. Inconvenient as it is, I’ve come to see it as an opportunity for “research” into an incredibly frustrating, painful, anxiety-provoking experience that a lot of people go through. I’ve compiled the following tips for anyone who’s going through a hard time—while doing their best to still get stuff done.

1. Get out of your apartment

Depression loves to lie to us. It says things like, “You’re a downer. Nobody wants to be around you” and “Stalk your ex’s new fiance’s Instagram!” and “Save energy and work from home today.” When it comes to productivity, working from home can be a challenge under prime circumstances. Throw a little heartbreak or shame in there, and next thing you know, the only things you’ve crossed off your to-do list are opening the door for Seamless and clicking “Next episode” fourteen times. Despite what depression tells you, get yourself to a coffee shop, library, or co-working space. Shower optional.

2. Adjust your expectations for your performance

Think of your mental health like a computer operating system. When all is well, you’re operating like a brand-new Mac that has one program open: Completing a task within your scope is a breeze. When you’re depressed or grieving, however, the pinwheel of anxiety’s spinning constantly. You’re basically “force-quitting” life.

Of course, given that depression is fueled by perfectionism for so many of us, this experience can cause another layer of shame, frustration, and anxiety. High achievers take pride in their ability to get the job done, and are used to meeting expectations. Alas, when we’re in a compromised emotional state, we have to learn to not to expect as much from ourselves.

So lower your expectations for performance: if you’re functioning at 30% of your usual state, expect 30% of what you would normally achieve. Then set SMART goals: goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented. For example, instead of “I’m going to make a pitch deck tomorrow” (which is vague and possibly unrealistic) write, “From 12-2pm, I’m going to go to a coffee shop and create an outline for what my pitch deck will include.” This will mitigate unnecessary anxiety and help you feel less overwhelmed. And hitting realistic goals will enhance your confidence—which in turn increases your motivation.

3. Create accountability

Holding ourselves accountable to self-imposed deadlines is a challenge at the best of times. Holding ourselves accountable to self-imposed deadlines when you’re in the pit of despair is nearly impossible (pdf).Give yourself a leg up by making a work date with a friend, goal-setting with your therapist or coach, hiring an intern, or promising a (realistic) delivery time to someone via email. This isn’t the time for beating yourself up over a lack of intrinsic motivation. Ask for help, and maybe even experience some bonus healing-connection along the way.

4. Ramp up the self-care and connect with others

People who are going through a hard time often have the impulse to isolate themselves. But even though it feels counterintuitive, it’s absolutely essential to spend time with others—so long as they’re people who care about you, around whom you can allow yourself to be a total mess. Let go of expectations for being the life of the party. Watching Netflix side-by-side with a bowl of popcorn is enough.

In addition, make time for self-care. There are two types of self-care when we’re feeling broken inside: the kind that distracts, like rock-climbing, jewelry-making, and other activities that demand full concentration; and the kind that helps us process our emotions, like journaling or making art. Some activities provide us a little of both: yoga, for example. (Bonus: exercise helps with mood, processing pain and trauma, and cultivating focus).

Ensure you’re doing something kind for yourself every day, and trust this is necessary not only for healing and mood, but for your productivity as well. Beating yourself up for being unproductive isn’t going to inspire motivation, so you may as well surrender to the fact that you need healing time and work it into your schedule. Finally, be mindful of your relationship with substances like alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and even caffeine. Though tempting as aides or numbing agents, they can worsen our depressive symptoms.

5. Connect with a therapist

Therapists aren’t just for people who have a mental illness. We’re here as informed, confidential, nonjudgmental supports for anyone who is going through a dark period. Many revered entrepreneurs have been vocal about the value of therapy in their success. Worried about the investment? Many therapists work to accommodate clients with sliding scales. And studies show that when we invest in something, we’re more likely to value it. That suggests we may be more likely to commit to improving our well-being when we’re making a financial investment in therapy sessions.

6. Learn the language of self-compassion

Being tough on yourself will totally motivate you to get stuff done, right? Wrong. More and more research is emerging to suggest self-criticism actually has a demotivating effect. The far better alternative is self-compassion, which is basically perfectionism’s kryptonite. It’s all about understanding that you’re an imperfect human being like everyone else, and setting realistically high but flexible expectations. When we’re self-compassionate, we treat ourselves with care as we would a friend, making space for error and thus allowing ourselves to take risks, grow, and meet our expectations along the way.

7. Find the gifts in your pain, past and present

Though recent studies contradict the notion that creativity is directly correlated with mental illness, our creativity and appetite for success is often birthed from the same original pain as our neuroses. For example, the same relational trauma that can cause a person to develop artistic talent or a wicked sense of humor (#coping) can also lead to overwhelming internal shame that perpetuates depression and anxiety. So acknowledge that many of your strengths wouldn’t be present without those same seeds that birthed your battles. Moreover, as renowned social researcher Brené Brown so eloquently says, “Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful.” Finding meaning in suffering is necessary. So turning your “mess” into a mission, whether that’s a blog post or a nonprofit, may be the most productive move of all.

Megan Bruneau is a therapist, executive coach, writer, speaker, and host of The Failure Factor podcast.