When in the throes of a depressive episode (or on the edge of an anxiety attack or any other such motivation killer), it can be hard to maintain motivation and productivity. This can be detrimental when other people rely on you, or when you have a job to hold down.

Over the years, I’ve found a number of things that have helped keep me motivated through low times, and have decided to share them. Unlike other articles giving advice on “cheering up,” the items here may or may not actually lift your mood. That’s not the point of them, and anyone who’s dealt with depression will tell you that most of the time, things designed to “cheer you up” don’t really work. If it does lift your mood, then that’s a positive side effect, but as Winston Churchill put it, “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” These items are intended to do that – help you keep going.

Eat… 

Dysfunctional mental states, be it depression or mania, tend to screw with our eating patterns. It’s important during these times more than ever to make sure we keep good habits.

…The Right Amount 

Depression, especially, does one of two things to the appetite. It either kills it, or makes the person want to eat everything. For various other reasons, other mental illnesses often have similar effects. Both of these things have their own problems.

Eating too much food, especially the usual comfort foods of sugars and refined carbohydrates, is bad for the obvious reason that it will likely lead to weight gain, especially if it happens on a regular basis. Weight gain itself is often a self-esteem killer, and can result in a negative feedback loop, which most people already know.

However, the obvious “too much food, not enough movement” aside, dysfunctional eating can have more short-term effects on your mood and motivation, especially if you swing the other way and don’t eat enough. By not eating enough, you deprive your body of the energy it needs to keep you going. This can start slowing you down as your body tries to conserve energy for vital uses. This state of lethargy can bring the mood down, as well as keep you from being motivated to do things. Again, a feedback loop ensues.

…At Regular Intervals 

Like making sure to eat enough, eating at regular intervals is also important, I’ve found. I’m not a fan of the whole “eat six small meals” thing, but going half a day without food? Not necessarily a good idea. Even if you don’t feel terribly hungry, it’s a good idea to eat at least a little bit of food, or eat once you get hungry, even if it’s starting to get close to the next meal time. I’ve personally found that both my motivation and my mood start going down the farther apart my meals are. So, try to keep your regular eating schedule.

…Wholesome, Whole Foods… 

I’ve found that my overall mood and motivation have largely stabilized (and at a higher base level) since switching to a whole foods-based diet. The better I eat, the less of a rollercoaster I have going on in my head.

A lot of the diseases of civilization can be traced back to malnourishment, at least in part. Yeah, we have no shortage of food in our Western society, but look at the quality of the vast majority of it. Frankly, it sucks, and is largely devoid of nutrients. Get back to the basics – meat, fruits, vegetables, etc. – and odds are very good that you’ll start to see major improvements in all areas of your physical health, as your vitamin stores start actually filling back up. Deficiencies in things like folate, B-12, and magnesium can do a number on the brain and exacerbate depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety, among others. Eating whole foods provides your body with the most bioavailable forms of these nutrients.

…Including Healthy Fats 

I am a big fan of the low carb, high fat (LCHF) way of eating. The ketogenic diet (an “extreme” form of LCHF, where fat intake is upwards of 80-90% of total calories) was originally created for epilepsy, but has since been studied (or slated for study) for other neurological issues, including such things as depression, migraines, and more. I had switched to it for other reasons, but found positive effects in this area, as well.

One of the big things that a LCHF diet teaches you is that the conventional wisdom that has been burned into our brains is wrong (which is now starting to come back to mainstream media). Where conventional wisdom lauds polyunsaturated fats and vilifies saturated fats, LCHF shows how important naturally occurring saturated fats really are, and that polyunsaturated fats should be consumed only in moderation (and certainly not in the heavily-refined, Omega-6-heavy oils that conventional wisdom have on a pedestal). So, when I say “include healthy fats,” I also mean saturated fats, as well as monounsaturated fats, and, more sparingly, polyunsaturated fats. The only fat to really avoid is trans fat.

You don’t have to switch to a LCHF diet to benefit from including good fats, but a good grass-fed butter and some virgin coconut oil are manna from the gods, let me tell you.

(I’m not going to go into all the nitty-gritty details of the research regarding fat in this post, or even on this blog. I have a more health/fitness/diet related blog and will write about it in the future. When that happens, I’ll link to it for the research details. In the meantime, I welcome you to check out the recent meta-analysis of a few dozen studies regarding saturated fats and heart disease, and Dr. Peter Attia’s talk on the history of the anti-fat conventional wisdom.)

Do An Intense Workout At Least Once A Week 

There’s just something about doing something so intense that you can’t help but focus on it and be in the moment, and, after you’re done, want little more than a hot shower and comfy bed, that helps relieve the latent, low-level anxiety and stress that seems to kill productivity. I’ve found that I’m a giant ball of nerves by Wednesday afternoon, but after my evening boxing class, it’s like night and day, and that carries me through the remainder of the week.

The important thing for this is to find something that forces you to focus on the moment, and wear you out. Things like martial arts or cardio boxing/kickboxing are good options, because you have to concentrate on your form, posture, moves, etc. Some martial arts also teach you various meditation/focusing techniques that can carry over to the rest of your life. It doesn’t have to be these things, though. If you enjoy running, for example, then do sprints, or check out Parkour. What matters is forcing you into the moment and, to a lesser extent, getting the endorphine rush that comes with a strenuous workout.

Get Outside And Go For A Walk 

This isn’t so much about fitness (the walk), but more about getting outside. Most people, and especially those with depression, are deficient in Vitamin D. The best way to get Vitamin D is from spending some time out in the sun, without sunscreen (Vitamin D synthesis is triggered by UV exposure, which is blocked by sunscreen). The walk is an added bonus to get the blood flowing, loosen stiff joints, and help build and maintain a base level of fitness, and just getting away from the computer helps your mind take a break and subconsciously mull over that problem you’ve been dealing with all morning. I personally enjoy tossing on a Podcast and walking for about an hour at an easy pace (shout out to Shawn McCool and his Laravel.io podcast, which are pretty consistently about an hour). If you want a virtual walking buddy, feel free to hit me up on RunKeeper (great app to track your routes and distances, by the way).

Take A Spa Day Once In A While 

Seriously, it seems really girly to have a spa day once in a while, but it’s astounding how good it can be at relaxing you (and there are places that will give men massages and facials, too). Like the intense workout, it helps prompt you to be in the moment, and it feels extraordinarily good to get a nice massage (I’m a fan of deep tissue massages, myself) and release that pent up tension in your shoulders and back.

If you really don’t like the idea of a spa day (or can’t afford it), do something similarly relaxing, even if it’s just a hot bath or meditation. Being able to physically relax your body for a time can help relieve low-level psychological stress, which can, in turn, increase your motivation to get things done. Some type of “me” day also gives you something to look forward to, if you need something to get you through the day.

Create A Todo List 

It feels good to me to check off an item on a list. At the very least, though, I’ve found it helps get that list out of my head and off-load it from my memory, so that I can use those cognitive resources for actually getting that shit done. This has proven to be a huge benefit to my productivity – particularly for my side projects – as I find myself glancing at the list and going “I want to work on that tonight.” Even if I don’t finish the task in question, I don’t have to worry about keeping it on my mental list, because it’s on a physical/digital one. It actually allows me to juggle the few dozen ideas and side projects I have bouncing around my head, without feeling overwhelmed by them (which is good, because they’re all freakin' time-consuming as hell, and I can’t generally just knock two or three out in an evening).

I’ve become a fan of Any.do, because I can set recurrances (like doing Yoga each day), or set some tasks to “Someday,” which keeps them separate from the stuff to do “Today.” I also love the integration it has with my Android phone, including a calendar app (it’s got a slick interface).

I also enjoy Workflowy, and used it for a short time as a Todo list, as well. It’s become more of a shopping list for me when I do use it, but I know a few people who prefer it over other things for any kind of list making. There are many others to choose from, too, so it doesn’t really matter what tool you use, as long as it works for you.

Keep A Clean Working Area 

Clutter is often a trigger for stress. It can add cognitive overhead and lower your stress tolerance or threshold for getting overwhelmed. So, while it may not seem like it’s adding stress or exacerbating depression symptoms, it might still be affecting you. Keep your work area (and, ideally, any area you spend a fair amount of time in) clutter free. In practice, this works best if you keep it clean, instead of trying to clean it while in a low state (though if it’s mild enough, or if the clutter is light enough, cleaning it up might serve as a motivation booster).

Final Thoughts 

Hopefully, one or more of these suggestions will help. I’ve found, too, that a lot of these work best when you make a habit out of them. A single walk is pretty good, by itself, but making it a daily (or nearly so) habit helps keep your body increase its energy levels over time, giving you a higher base level of energy, which makes getting things done just a little bit easier. So, give one or two (or three) a shot for a couple of weeks and see how they work for you.