There’s a deadline looming, and instead of being fueled by the time crunch as usual, I’m staring at a blank Google Doc. I can’t formulate the words for a topic I was excited about just a few days prior. My chest hurts, and all I can think about is changing all 231 of my passwords because if I don’t, something bad will happen.
I’m aware of the irony. I write articles on how to use Zapier to automate work and improve your productivity. I experiment and test out many of the solutions I recommend. But I’ve also had anxiety and depression for 13 years, so I know when I’m in the sunken place, very few strategies help me get by.
All the productivity tricks in the world can’t help when your brain is fighting your best instincts. Instead of fighting your brain, here are some tips you can try to be kinder to yourself and get at least one thing done.
1. Do less
There are all sorts of systems for prioritizing your work. However, the number of tasks you can juggle decreases significantly when you’re burned out, depressed, or stressed. How do you fight this?
You don’t. You do less.
Or at the very least, you commit to less. Whenever we do quarterly planning at Zapier, our managers emphasize committing to fewer things if it means we’ll accomplish more of what we set out to do. If you think of it from a percentages perspective, completing two of 10 tasks is a 20 percent completion rate. But knocking out two out of three tasks is a 66 percent completion rate.
Of course, sometimes you won’t even get those two things done. That’s ok. For me, I’m lucky if I manage to shower, eat something, and show up at work when my anxiety is high or depression slows me down. So that’s what I do: I shower. I eat. I show up at work. Everything else I need to do is optional, even if it means the dishes will pile up.
2. Simplify your priorities
In the same vein, how do you prioritize the tasks you’ve decided on when your brain is fighting yourself? Keep it simple. You don’t need a complicated prioritization strategy.
Personally, I use a prioritization framework from the book Making Ideas Happen. The book specifically targets creatives who generate great ideas but are a hot mess when they try to execute. I’m a hot mess, so I figure it could work for me.
Essentially, you sort your tasks into three buckets:
Action steps are the tasks you have to do to move something forward. If you don’t do these, you’re holding things up.
Back-burner items are those to-dos that are important but don’t necessarily block the work you’re doing.
References are supplementary stuff that might inform your tasks, such as project documents, internal blogs, or anything that requires you to take time to read.
On a good day, action steps are tackled first, then you go through the backburner items if you have time, and you can mostly ignore the references unless you decide to block out time once a week to read them.
When I’m anxious or depressed, I only focus on action steps with a deadline. If there’s no due date, it can wait. I’ve found this system helpful for me because my anxiety brain often can’t prioritize anything that’s not explicitly defined. I even have a filter in my to-do app called “things I need to get done right meow” so I can keep track.
If you’re feeling burned out, now’s not the time to get ahead. It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver when your brain has checked out.
3. Limit the number of apps you check
We like to think we’re good at multitasking, but we’re not. And from personal experience, my ability to context-switch from a conversation in my team chat app to writing an article is abysmal when my brain is fried.
It’s likely that you use more than one app for your day job, such as a project management system for tasks, team chat with your coworkers, or email for people outside your organization. While you can’t just quit using those apps, you can route a lot of that information into one place, so you don’t have to remember to check everything.
You can use a Zap—what we call the automated workflows you create with Zapier—to streamline your tasks into your app of choice. For example, I send all of my blog article assignments to my to-do app. If something isn’t there, I don’t do it.
4. Turn things off
Information overload is real in normal circumstances. (See the notifications on your phone.) When you’re not feeling your best mentally, you can’t process the same amount of information as you would normally.
One time, my spouse was giving me several options to choose from regarding our weekend plans with his family. I couldn’t focus on the basic information he was giving me because my anxiety was clouding my brain.
When there’s a firehose of information coming your way, you need to turn down the faucet to a trickle. Turn off as many distractions as you can in order to focus.
I know that’s easier said than done. I have no self-control, so I use an app called Focus (one of many apps to block distractions). When I turn it on, it’ll close all of my distracting apps on my computer, such as Slack, so I can focus on the task at hand. And Android and Apple smartphones have focus modes that allow you to control alerts and notifications for specific apps, so you only see the ones you deem important.
If there’s tech that’s stressing you out needlessly, shut it off. Find the thing that will calm you down, so you can focus on one task at a time.
5. Ask for help
What’s worse than feeling like crap? Feeling like crap and having to act like everything is fine. So don’t.
Your first instinct may be to hide how you’re feeling because you’re not coughing sick, or you may not want people to think you can’t handle things. I used to fake sick instead of admitting I needed a mental health day. But if your manager and coworkers don’t know what’s going on, they have no context for your decreased productivity and mood.
Faking it until you make it is also dangerous when you’re in a low place because you’ll end up on the fast track to a nervous breakdown. I speak from experience.
Folks are more understanding about personal or mental health issues than we think. So tell your manager what’s going on. They can help you reprioritize your work to focus on fewer tasks, offer assistance when you need it, and even suggest time off.
I know this is hard. No one likes admitting when they need help. But it’s not a sign of weakness. Instead, think of it as giving your manager a nice heads-up that you’re not at your best right now. It’s better that they hear it from you than find out through a missed deadline.
If you’re comfortable and have a trusted relationship with a few coworkers, let them know too. They can help you when you’re feeling overwhelmed, whether it’s pitching in or just lending an encouraging ear. For example, my friends Justin and Hannah help me think of how to phrase ideas when I can’t write.
Don’t just ask for help at work either. Ask your loved ones for help at home. Seek professional help from doctors too, if it gets to that place.
6. Know when to walk away
But what if work isn’t accommodating? If it’s too much, consider whether you need to stay in your current position or walk away.
I realize that it’s a privilege not everyone has. I’m lucky to be in a place where I can be honest with my managers. And personally, I’ve never been in a place where I could just leave a job without worrying about the financial impact. I completely empathize with anyone in that place.
However, I’ve made the mistake many times in my career of prioritizing work over my own mental health. I hid in bathroom stalls in previous jobs to wait out my anxiety attacks. Through several traumatic work experiences, I’ve learned that the only one who can and will take care of me is me—and my mental health team.
Be kind to yourself
Ultimately, if you’re feeling burned out, anxious, or struggling with your mental health, give yourself a little kindness. We’re all trying to do our best, but we can’t be productive all the time—and that’s not the point. You only have one brain, and no job is more valuable than your mental wellness.