A brief summary: I’ve built a web application to help me stay on top of my depression. Every day I track a number of indicators — when I get up, how much work I do, whether I see friends, a variety of good and bad habits, etc. Using this data, if there is a suggestion that I am acting destructively my inner circle of family and friends is alerted so they can help me re-find my way.
This solution is great for me and I am interested in whether it would be helpful for other people. If you don’t care about my story, skip down to ‘The App’.
I’ve suffered with depression pretty much all of my adult life. I’m now 30 and after a recent break-up, in which depression played no small part, I am determined to banish it from my life.
For me, depression is caused by, and results in, a lack of productivity. When I’m low, I procrastinate over all kinds of jobs from the most basic domestic tasks to the really important stuff including things I love doing. It’s a vicious cycle where the less I do, the worse I feel and the worse I feel, the less I do.
I do know the solution. And many of you healthy thinkers will be way ahead of me on this. In its simplest form the solution is to do stuff. Do the basic stuff like getting up, cleaned and dressed promptly at a sensible time, keeping on top of my laundry etc. Do the professional stuff like developing relationships and returning calls and emails without delay (I’m a freelance web developer). And do the fun stuff like spending time with friends and working on pet projects — I’m currently making a 3D game.
The flip side of feeling awful when I don’t do these things is that I feel incredible when I do. And when I feel good, I get loads done. I’m well versed in many of the techniques to both deal with depression and increase productivity; I deliberately get more exercise and sunlight; I’m taking regular medication and speaking to professionals; I’ve improved my diet; I use the Pomodoro technique; I write lists and record my progress and more. And when I tie all of these things together, when I get up early and immediately start with the good habits, I’m unstoppable. I feel on top of the world and on top of my issues.
The problem is, and I’m sure this will ring true for most people in all walks of life, getting started is hard!
Everyday I wake up and I feel like I’m near the bottom of a mountain looking up. Because no matter what I achieved yesterday, there are always loads of new tasks and life goals take a lot of persistance. The longer I have to rely on will power to get myself working, the more likely it is that at some point, I will fail and head into a downward cycle of feeling bad and achieving less.
I’m very lucky to have a fantastic family and a some seriously good friends despite the fact that I have neglected our relationships at times. They are, without exception, highly emotionally intelligent and can empathise with my current situation.
And that makes it all the more strange that I’ve never really reached out to them. I don’t find it easy to ask for help outright and I’m very good at hiding my mood.
The key thing that I am doing differently right now is talking to those around me. I am trying to maintain a constant dialogue about my progress so that I cannot simply slip off the radar and assume the bad habits I desperately want to avoid. But like I say, I’m not great at asking for help so even though I know how approachable my circle is, that’s no guarantee that I’ll vocalise it when I begin to slip.
With all of this in mind, the following seemed a great solution to me:
Currently, I am filling in a form each day which asks about indicators, both postive and negative, of my current state. Indicators like when I’m getting up, whether I’m sticking to healthy eating, getting exercise, making to-do lists, ticking things off and how much I’m socialising.
This data is then processed daily and quite simply if I’m scoring badly, certain people will be alerted. This allows them to intervene and encourage me to get back on track, whether that be forcing me to exercise, taking me out for a drink or possibly helping me to overcome a task that is causing some anxiety. The people alerted depend on what the problem is, for example I want my friends to know if I’m not getting out enough whilst I want my family to know if I’m not being productive.
At the moment the app is pretty crude — it’s not really more than a web form and a daily report that fires off an email. There are a couple of improvements I have already identified that will make a big difference though. Most importantly, I want to have shorter deadlines throughout the day instead of just one at the end of the day. I have found that I can currently waste half the day but recover enough to avoid triggering an alert which is not healthy. This will also help me be aware of what is important at any given time — for example making a to-do list very early in the day or taking my medication at the same time each day.
The main issue with this system is that it depends entirely on me filling in the form accurately. I personally haven’t had any issue with this so far because when I am down, I really do want to reach out for help. This way of working allows me to ask without actually doing anything. It actually communicates a really blunt honesty about the situation that may be lost in conversation; instead of me setting out with the best intentions to ask for help but just admitting “I’m a bit down”, this very clearly states that “Pete is struggling with X, Y and Z and needs your attention”. That is never something I could say so concisely.
I am fearful, however, that down the line I may not want to fill the form in accurately. My solution to this would be to gradually take away questions and replace them with things that cannot be faked. For example, my smartphone knows if I have left the house so I would prefer to use that data. I can imagine a whole host of other metrics like this that do not rely on my honesty, often by tapping in to third party services. It would be possible to detect programatically whether I had used Wunderlist to make my to-do list each morning and whether I have been logging food on myfitnesspal.
The other stand out issue is that this system relies on you having someone who is prepared to be there for you and help you up when you’re down. I am lucky that I have multiple people I can turn to for this but I appreciate that not everyone does. When I ask the question of “whether this system would work for you?” below, I understand that this could be a huge blocker for many. I would still love to hear your thoughts though.
I would say that this approach could still be useful for people who don’t want to alert others or have no-one to alert, just as a tool to monitor your own mental state and increase awareness. It could even be used by people who have no issue with depression but simply like it as a productivity app.
There are two reasons I have written this post. Firstly, I want to talk more about depression because I think it will help me. But, more importantly, I want to know if there is a wider community who can imagine themselves using this approach?
Almost everyone I have discussed this with has suggested that this would be useful to others. I know depression is an issue that affects a huge amount of people and so I wanted to put feelers out there.
I’d love to read your comments, or alternatively if you don’t want to discuss your personal business in public, you can drop me an email to [email protected].
Finally, I would just like to acknowledge that what I am describing is not actually an approach to dealing with depression but a way to help your stick to your plan more reliably. That is an important distinction. Your own approach should be determined with the help of a medical professional whenever possible. If you feel you may be depressed, you should see your doctor (but feel free to get in touch all the same).
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