Last year, I decided to take a break from full-time work. My primary motivation was to reconfigure my life and career. Fortunately, I had something substantial to keep myself occupied: a book contract.
After spending the first few days of my “sabbatical” tackling questions from concerned family members (“Who stops working at 33?!”), I made the book my day job. I decided I will pour all my time into it and take on only the bare minimum amount of work needed to pay my share of the household bills. Since then, I have worked on the odd freelance assignment and taken a big bite off my rainy-day fund. (In case you are wondering – no, a book contract for a first-time author generally doesn’t pay any bills, although it does help the ego.)
It wasn’t too bad in the beginning. In fact the new arrangement worked quite well. I had planned my finances wisely, so there was little stress on that front. And after juggling a demanding job and the book and struggling at both, having all this time to myself was awesome.
The research and writing were progressing at a rapid clip – until one day, just like that, I was hit by a monstrous bout of anxiety, which soon turned into deep, dark depression. I have no idea what gave. I would like to believe that my decision to step away from active “office work” after 12 extremely hectic and absorbing years had nothing to do with it. But who knows?
Very quickly, the symptoms became bad enough that I had to go on both medication and therapy. As I write this, I continue to be under professional care. There’s now a new symptom I am dealing with. I cannot sleep. At all. I toss and turn in bed through the night and spend my day zombie-like (I have always hated that expression, but boy, does it fit my current state).
Apart from all the sundry inconvenience that depression brings (constant emo overdrive, driving the people around you nuts, expensive treatment, etc.), its biggest fallout is the erosion of productivity. Depression is the wrecker-in-chief of your best-laid plans. It’s a bit like a needy puppy that decides to wreak havoc at your work desk at the exact moment when you are most stressed about meeting a deadline or a personal work goal. Except unlike a fidgety puppy, depression doesn’t make for “how adorbzz!” videos.
For me, this has posed several practical problems:
i) It has slowed down the book.
ii) It has made me turn down freelance work with tight deadline commitments.
iii) By delaying the book, it has also delayed my eventual return to full-time work. In other words, money worries.
The good thing is, I have not become dysfunctional. I manage to get a few good hours every day, and I try to make the most of them. It is tough, because depression does not follow a schedule, neither can you put it on snooze mode. But slowly, I have managed to evolve a few rough hacks to get work done without exhausting myself.
i) I have noticed a vicious cycle with my days: depression -> leads to wasting hours brooding -> leads to panic because, “OMG I have so much to do, the world is moving on, and here I am wallowing in my pathetic shit” -> leads to wasting more hours brooding -> leads to more depression.
The trick lies in cheating my brain with little shots of accomplishment, so that it feels like the entire day has not been a complete waste.
I have made a list of small, mechanical tasks that I can easily finish without pushing myself too hard. Thank god I have hundreds of hours of interviews to transcribe for my book. Even a half an hour recording could yield 800-1,000 words: valuable work, but it does not involve using my brain, and it still feels like a very productive half an hour.
Another activity I find therapeutic is organising my freelance invoices, emailing payment reminders to clients, and keeping track of any money coming in. Basically anything that gives me the sense that I have a “professional life” which fetches money. Soothing.
ii) If I survive this without burning out, I ease my brain into more advanced work. I start with some reading. There are a lot of reference articles I have bookmarked. I pick whatever I need to read for the chapter I am currently writing. I go at it gently, simultaneously observing if I am able to break down complex themes in my mind, or make notes.
Generally, this exercise is a good test of whether I am prepared for heavier-duty work. When I am depressed, I want to run away from complexity. This is because I am involuntary inflicting difficult thoughts on myself all the time anyway. The rest of the time, I only have appetite for Calvin and Hobbes-level intellectual stimulation. But if I can get through one complete reference piece without feeling numb, I consider it a victory. Some days I might attempt to read one more. But I need to be careful not to spend all my productive time reading, so I move on to Level III.
iii) Level III is attempting to write as many words as I can on the most recent idea I have researched. Typically, I am able to reach this level on alternate days. I try not to judge the quality of the output and revisit it for edits the following day. This is critical, because depression can make me super critical of everything I do. The last thing I want is to waste time self-flagellating.
Now that I have written down this workflow, I realise it isn’t too different from what any distracted person might want to employ to get over a slump. Attack simple tasks, gradually move on to more complex tasks, and don’t be harsh on yourself. Sensible.
Except when you are distracted, you need to focus to get back to work. But when you are depressed, work is often just a means to distract yourself.
(Tanmoy Goswami is a Storytelling Consultant and the Winner, 2016 IE Business School Journalism Prize, you can follow him on LinkedIn)