Dr. Burns on DO-NOTHINGISM & how to beat it

At times my depression is paralyzing. At it’s depth, it robs me of my productivity, which only perpetuates my self-criticism and self-loathing. It’s a vicious cycle. When I have urgent tasks to complete for other people I’m usually able to spring into action and get it done, but when it comes to my never ending personal to-do list, it is overwhelming and some days remarkably little gets done. This was my first winter as a full-time freelancer and it was not easy. Having spent the last 4 winters working at Vape on the Lake, I got used to work being somewhat of an escape - it was forced social time & I could smoke all the weed I wanted while making money. Perfect. But freelancing is like a blank canvas. What I do and how I spend my time is completely up to me & there is nobody there to tell me otherwise. It’s both a blessing and a curse, and like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “with freedom comes responsibility.”

But how do I push through feeling BLAH and just get shit done?!

Because depression has been a persistently recurring issue for me, noticeably worse in the winter, I’ve gotten used to dealing with it. In some ways I had grown to accept it and be okay with it - I know it will pass, it always does - I tried to just ride my emotional waves and make extra good use of my energy when I had it. On days when I was feeling particularly rough, I would let myself rest and do things to make myself feel better; listen to music and clean the house, cook or bake, make art, have a bath, etc. All these things are useful in uplifting my mood & have a place in my self-care routine, but I’m trying to run a business here! Not every day can be a self-care day! Being aware of what I “should” be doing and still not doing it gets old pretty fast and it degrades into frustration and more self-loathing. Ugh.

Before I get into the chapter from Feeling Good that helped me break this vicious cycle, I feel like I owe you a disclaimer. The following concepts and exercises were enlightening and immediately useful in increasing my productivity, but this is still something I struggle with pretty much every day. Please don’t read this like I’m an expert who has mastered these concepts, I’m just so thrilled to have found something that has made a tangible difference in my mindset and quality of life that I would feel selfish NOT to share it! But I’m very much still working on it. As the title of my last blog post suggests, this is just the beginning of my journey with CBT.

Chapter Five is called Do-Nothingism: How To Beat It. I thought Chapters 1-4 were astonishingly relatable, but this one was uncanny. Dr. Burns explains:

“In the last chapter you learned that you can change your mood by changing how you think. There is a second major approach to mood elevation that is enormously effective. People are not only thinkers, they are doers, so it is not surprisingly that you can substantially change the way you feel by changing the way you act. There’s only one hitch - when you’re depressed, you don’t feel like doing much.

One of the most destructive aspects of depression is the way it paralyzes your willpower… Because you accomplish very little, you feel worse and worse. Not only do you cut yourself off from your normal sources of stimulation and pleasure, but your lack of productivity aggravates your self-hatred, resulting in further isolation and incapacitation… If you don’t recognize the emotional prison in which you are trapped, this situation can go on for weeks, months, or even years” (81).

 

….YESS! Nailed it on the first page of the chapter! Once again, I was sold. Dr.Burns actually has a lot of information and several worksheets about Anti-Procrastination on his website - go check it out for more details, this is just a summary of what helped me personally.

 

13 Types of Mind-Sets associated with Procrastination

 

  1. Hopelessness: In a depressed state, sometimes “any activity will seem pointless because you are absolutely certain your lack of motivation and sense of oppression are unending and irreversible” (88).

  2. Helplessness: “You can’t possibly do anything that will make yourself feel better because you are convinced that your moods are caused by factors beyond our control such as fate, hormone cycles, dietary factors, luck, and other people’s evaluations of you” (88).

  3. Overwhelming Yourself: “There are several ways you may overwhelm yourself into doing nothing. You may magnify a task to the degree that it seems impossible to tackle. You may assume you must do everything at once instead of breaking each job down into small, discrete, manageable units which you can which you can complete one step at a time. You might also inadvertently distract yourself from the task at hand by obsessing about endless other things you haven't gotten around to doing yet. To illustrate how irrational this is, imagine that every time you sat down to eat, you thought about all the food you would have to eat during your lifetime. Just imagine for a moment that all piled up in front of you are tons of meat, vegetables, ice cream, and thousands of gallons of fluid and you have to eat every bite of this food before you die! Now, suppose that before every meal you said to yourself "this meal is just a drop in the bucket! How can I ever get all that food eaten? There's just no point in eating one pitiful hamburger tonight." You'd feel so nauseated and overwhelmed, your appetite would vanish and your stomach would turn into a knot. What do you think about all the things you are putting off, you do this very same thing without being aware of it” (89).

  4. Jumping to Conclusions: “You sense that it's not within your power to take effective action that will result in satisfaction because you are in the habit of saying "I can't" or "I would but…” (89).

  5. Self-Labeling: "the more you procrastinate, the more you condemn yourself as inferior. This saps your self-confidence further. The problem is compounded when you label yourself a procrastinator or a lazy person. This causes you to see your lack of effective action as the "real you" so that you automatically expect little or nothing from yourself” (89-90).

  6. Undervaluing the Rewards: "When you are depressed you may fail to initiate any meaningful activity, not only because you conceive of any task as terribly difficult, but also because you feel the reward simply wouldn't be worth the effort. Anhedonia is the technical name for a diminished ability to experience satisfaction and pleasure” (90).

  7. Perfectionism: "You defeat yourself with inappropriate goals and standards. You will settle for nothing short of a magnificent performance in anything you do, so you frequently end up having to settle for just that - nothing.” (90).

  8. Fear of Failure: "Another mindset which paralyzes you is the fear of failure. Because you imagine that putting in the effort and not succeeding would be an overwhelming personal defeat, you refuse to try it all. Several thinking errors are involved in the fear of failure. One of the most common is overgeneralization. You reason "if I fail at this, it means I will fail at anything." That, of course, is impossible. Nobody can fail at everything. We all have our shares of victories and defeats” (91).

  9. Fear of Success: “Because of your lack of confidence, success may seem even more risky than failure because you are certain it is based on chance. Therefore, you are convinced you couldn't keep it up, and you feel your accomplishments will falsely raise the expectations of others. Then when the Awful Truth that you are basically a loser ultimately comes out, the disappointment, Because of your lack of confidence, success may seem even more risky than failure because you are. Therefore, you are convinced you couldn't keep it up, and you feel your accomplishments will falsely raise the expectations of others. Then when the Awful Truth that you are basically a loser ultimately comes out, the disappointment, rejection, and pain will be all the more bitter. Since you feel sure you will be eventually fall off the cliff, it seems safer not to go mountain climbing at all. You may also fear success because you anticipate that people will make even greater demands on you because you are convinced you must and can't meet their expectations, success would put you into a dangerous and impossible situation therefore you try to maintain control by avoiding any commitment or involvement” (91-91).

  10. Fear of Disapproval or Criticism: “You imagine that if you try something new any mistake or flub will be met with strong disapproval and criticism... The risk of rejection seems so dangerous that to protect yourself you adopt as low a profile as possible. If you don't make any effort, you can't goof up” (92).

  11. Coercion and Resentment: “A deadly enemy of motivation is a sense of coercion. You feel under intense pressure to perform, generated from within and without. This happens when you try to motivate yourself with moralistic "should's" and "ought's". You tell yourself, I should do this and I have to do that. Then you feel obliged, burdened, tense, resentful, and guilty. You feel like a delinquent child under the discipline of a tyrannical probation officer. Every task becomes coloured with such unpleasantness that you can't stand to face it. Then as you procrastinate you condemn yourself as a lazy, no good bum. This further dreams your energies” (92).

  12. Low Frustration Tolerance: “You assume that you should be able to solve your problems and reach your goals rapidly and easily, so you go into a frenzied state of panic and rage when life presents you with obstacles. Rather than persist patiently over a period of time you may retaliate against the unfairness of it all when things get tough, so you give up completely. I also call this the "entitlement syndrome" because you feel and act as if you were entitled to success, love, approval, perfect health, happiness, etc. Your frustration results from your habit of comparing reality with an ideal in your head. When the two don't match, you condemn reality. It doesn't occur to you that it might be infinitely easier simply to change your expectations than to bend and twist reality” (92-93).

  13. Guilt and Self-Blame “If you are frozen in the conviction you are bad or have let others down, you will naturally feel unmotivated to pursue your daily life” (93).

 

Relatable? Me too. Here’s one way how to beat it.

Dr. Burns suggests creating a Daily Activity Schedule (94). It’s essentially a to-do list, but you break down each task and schedule them throughout the day. Sounds simple? It is, but there’s a little more to it.

  1. Create a daily schedule, starting with two columns: Prospective Tasks and Retrospective Tasks. Click here to see Dr. Burns' version of this chart.

  2. Create a row for every hour.

  3. Fill in the Prospective Tasks column with tasks you plan to accomplish each day - try to keep them as simple and concrete as possible. Include basic things like “eat breakfast” or “have a shower” if for no other reason than for the satisfaction of crossing them off the list. Break down more complex or tasks into simpler chunks - for example, instead of writing “get a job” it is less overwhelming to schedule time to write a cover letter, edit your resume, search job listings, & email potential employers.

  4. Be sure to schedule time for activities that are JUST for pleasure. Even if you have an insanely busy day and can’t set aside much time just for yourself, schedule something simple like having ice cream, reading a book before bed, or just sitting in a park for 5 minutes. Just for the sake of it! Not only is it good to have things to break up productive tasks, it feels good to have something to look forward to. See next section for more reasons why I think this step is important!

  5. You are going to rate each activity. Productive tasks, which Dr. Burns labels as “Mastery Tasks,” will be rated from 0-5 based on perceived difficulty & perceived satisfaction. For example, having a shower is a 0 for difficulty and only a 2 for satisfaction, but job-search related tasks may be perceived as being both highly difficult and highly satisfying. Pleasure Tasks should also be rated 0-5 on their perceived satisfaction.

  6. Now go do the things!

  7. Fill in the Retrospective Tasks column with how you actually spent each hour. Dr. Burns suggests doing this at the end of the day, but as a stoner I find it difficult to remember exactly what I did each hour once it’s all over.. lol! I tend to just get in the zone and DO! I prefer to fill out the Retrospective column as I complete tasks.

  8. Don’t stress if you don’t complete everything according to the schedule. It is inevitable that unexpected things will come up in the day, some tasks may take longer than expected, etc. All of that is okay. Just go with it! The point is to get more done then had you not made the schedule, so any productivity is a win!

  9. Reassess your perceived difficulty and satisfaction ratings. Were the tasks you thought were extremely difficult actually that hard? Were some of the basic things more satisfying than you anticipated? Did any of this surprise you?

What do you think? I had an exceptionally productive day the first time I tried this, but after a few days, I noticed that there was one task I kept avoiding and just pushing to the next day. If you’re struggling to get started with something, put the situation through the Dysfunctional Thought Analysis from my last blog post. It is a powerful tool that helps shed light on challenging situations.

I also wanted to say a little more about scheduling “tasks” that are purely for enjoyment. It may seem trivial, but for me it’s one of the best parts of making this type of schedule. As I explained, when I’m in a funk & trying to work on an unstructured to-do list and struggling to be productive, I’ll often do things just for pleasure to uplift my mood.. And while sometimes it does help my mood, usually I don’t actually get as much pleasure out of it as I could because I am feeling guilty and self-critical about not being more productive. My pleasure activities end up being a distraction or a time filler, but not something I thoroughly or actively ENJOY. My depressed thought patterns can be persistent AF! If I schedule time even just to sit in the sun and smoke a joint, I enjoy it SO much more than if I had done the same while still beating myself up about what I “should” be doing! Not only because I am feeling good about being productive which alleviates the guilt, but the distinct separation of Mastery and Pleasure tasks allows me to be more present in what I’m doing. I can feel good about relaxing instead of feeling guilty that I “should” be doing something else. I’m not sure where this internal pressure to be productive comes from, but it’s a double edged sword! I’m working on embracing it and letting it drive me forward instead of drive me nuts!

I think that’s all for now. I’m very curious to hear what you think about these ideas and techniques - let me know if you give it a try! As always, I’m happy to chat if you have any questions, but if you want more from Dr. Burns I highly recommend picking up “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” or checking out his website. They are both incredible resources for all things Cognitive Behavioural Therapy!