5 Tips to Stay Productive With Bipolar Disorder

Do you have bipolar disorder and struggle to consistently maintain a high level of productivity?  This is a common problem for people like you and I who suffer from bipolar disorder.

While manic or hypomanic, your mind is racing, and you struggle to focus on just one damn thing!  Or you can focus on one thing, but you can only focus on the one thing; you become obsessed with YouTube stardom, or baking cakes, or brewing beer… whatever!  But this obsession comes at the expense of everything else.

Then depression returns and kills whatever drive you had to do anything.  It’s hard enough just getting out of bed, you want me to go to work too?

Thankfully, over the past 15 years or so, I’ve discovered a few tricks to keep my productivity up while experiencing the waxing and waning moods of bipolar disorder.

1) Plan the Work.  Work the Plan.

This is about as simple as it gets.  Take a minute and evaluate what really needs to be done that day.  Don’t spend more than a couple minutes doing this.  Try to limit yourself to a few items that you can reasonably get done that will have the most value-added contribution to your day; Then focus on those things!

Making a list might not seem like the world’s biggest breakthrough in productivity, but I’ve found this is critical when experiencing a hypomanic episode.  Too often I set out to complete some task and then before I know it I’ve got 15 internet tabs open and I’m trying to write 5 emails simultaneously.  Next thing I know I’ve completely forgotten what the hell I was trying to do in the first place!

 

Why can’t I get anything done?!

I write a list for what I want to accomplish the next day before I leave work.  Then when I come in, I see the list and I start hitting those items.  Yes, life is crazy, and the circumstances of your job often make you have to change the list or throw it out entirely, but at least it’s a place to start.

The list helps you keep it simple, and boil things down to what really needs to get done that day.  It’s a good tool for holding yourself accountable too.  I need to get these things done before I can go home today.  You’ll also feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment as you cross things off.

2) Depressed? Slow Down but Don’t Stop.

Depression can make even the simplest things difficult.  It’s hard to be successful at work when you can’t even make yourself a sandwich.

If you can, it’s OK to slow down while you work through your depression symptoms; but don’t stop completely!  You’ll regret stopping.

One of my favorite non-work related projects I’ve ever done is make a YouTube channel.  I had fun doing it, I learned a lot of great things, and I even made a little bit of money.  Then my depression returned and I let it die.  I deeply regret that now.

I could have made 1 or 2 videos a week instead of 3 or 4.  Or even just made a video every other week.  Anything would have been better than letting it die completely.  Eventually the depression will pass, and you can kick it back into high gear.

Here’s another example: say you’re on a diet.  You go to a birthday party and allow yourself to eat a piece of cake.  You think, well I already blew it, so who cares if I eat a little bit more.  Then you eat the whole cake.  Then you eat like crap again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.  Next thing you know you’ve gained 20 lbs and you’re filled with regret; eating cake is fine, slowing down is fine – just don’t quit!  Put the cake away tomorrow!

3) Keep Learning.

I’ve said before that mania or hypomania can be a kind of superpower.  Take your increased energy and invest in yourself.  Learn something!

It’s the 21st century.  You have YouTube.  You have sites like Lynda.com and Wikipedia.  You can learn anything.  Challenge yourself to take 1 hour every day and teach yourself something you’re interested in.  It might not be immediately clear that it could be useful, but you never know.

I taught myself how to do basic computer programming in a couple languages; years later I distinguished myself by making a simple software solution that’s been implemented throughout the company I work for.  I taught myself about business management principles, and rose into a management position well before I “should” have.  By teaching myself at least an hour a day I’ve essentially given myself the experience of someone at least 10 years my senior.

This also has the benefit of making your work and life more interesting.  Hypomania or mania has the tendency to make people feel bored with just doing the status quo.  So learn something and switch things up a bit!

4) Set Meaningful Goals for Yourself.

If tip 1 on this list is about making a list to accomplish things short-term, than this tip is about making a list to accomplish things long-term.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of how to set meaningful goals since many other people have already done it better than I could.  I personally like this article.  Instead I want to talk about the specifics of how setting meaningful goals is important to people with bipolar disorder.

It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you have bipolar disorder.  Your priorities change drastically when moving from manic or hypomanic states to depression and then back again.

Goals while manic.
Goals while depressed.

If you want to maintain some stability and forward momentum in your life, it’s critical to define what’s important to you, define where you want to go, and then set goals to get you there.  This will help keep your life on the rails and moving in the right direction when your mood fluctuates.

Oh, and about that list from tip 1: You should have at least one item on that list that helps you get to your goal(s).  “Becoming a computer programmer” is a big goal, and it can seem impossible to ever get there.  Break it down; put “Take one online course on programming – watch for one hour today” on your list and get it done today.  Complete goals like that 100 times and you’ll be shocked to discover that you’re on your way to becoming a programmer!  Big transformations are hard but they happen through that 1 hour you spend today, and tomorrow, and the next day hitting that list that supports your goal.

Lebron James does not have be the best basketball player alive on his to-do list.  He has “Wake up at 3am, go to the gym, eat, practice, eat, practice, go to the gym, eat, play game, workout, sleep” on his list.  Do that enough times and you might become the world’s best basket player.

Start young and practice on your brother.
Had to shoehorn in this classic; if you can name this movie you’re awesome.

5) Forgive Yourself. 

Lastly, know that sometimes you will fail.  Sometimes the depression is too much.  Sometimes the list, the slowing down, the goal making… sometimes it’s just not enough.  You will fail, but when you do, I hope you will forgive yourself.

I hated myself for letting the YouTube channel go.  It contributed to my alcoholism at the time.  It made the depression worse, it made everything worse.  My productivity went straight to hell.  I didn’t fail with grace.

It’s OK to fail.  Your life is difficult – it’s harder than most if you suffer from bipolar disorder.  But you know what?  You’re a badass!  You’re going to battle with your own mind each and every day.  I think you’re awesome and I hope you do too!  Take it easy on yourself, dust yourself off, tomorrow’s another day.

I hope these tips help you.  Let me know if you’d like to see more posts like this!

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The Artist in the Field – A Sonnet

If truth be told I don’t much care for art.

Perhaps not art, but artists I despise.

They’ll claim their work’s a calling of the heart,

But I can see the truth behind their lies.

Pretentious men whose minds will falsely claim,

to have some noble beauty that we lack.

They’ve no real use and yet they still earn fame,

While you and I must work and break our backs.

I am a man whose labor you’ll not note –

just one of many men who feed mankind.

Unlike your art, my art keeps life afloat,

But my reward’s not fame, just this sick mind.

But I’ve no will to make it through this harvest!

Kill me!  Resurrect me as an artist!