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Depression Tip: Chore Lottery

Adding a bit of chaos makes doing the dishes or folding laundry more palatable, especially when I'm sinking in the blues.

I took a boxing class once in an all-female gym, and while I was holding on for dear life in a side plank position, the trainer told us, "Just 30 seconds. You can do anything for 30 seconds." Her proclamation never left me.

One of the worst symptoms of depression is exhaustion. Everything feels like it takes twice the effort, and often my way of dealing with this is to do half as much. However, living alone, I still have to get a lot of shit done - if I don't do it, nobody will. I have to do the dishes. I have to do the laundry. I have to text my friends. (Oddly, that last one is sometimes the hardest of all.)

Luckily, I discovered some time ago that there are two things I can do to make it more likely I'll get things done when I feel terrible and nothing matters:

  1. Do the unpleasant things for shorter periods of time.

  2. Randomize the order in which I do them.

Ultimately, two of the things that make tasks suck is they take too long and they're boring. Times two when you're depressed.

This system only demands that I do chores for between two and 20 minutes at a time (depending how much it sucks and how long it takes), and it allows me to do them in a different order every day. The combination of flexibility and randomness is extremely powerful - at least it has been in my life for the past few years.

How It Works

First, I write a numbered list of all of the things I want and need to get done in a day. I say "want" and "need" because both are important. If all that's on my list is horrific tasks like cleaning the bathroom, my list will be over before it's started.

Second, I decide on a method for randomly choosing a number. The two I've used most often are online number randomizers and numbered slips of paper in a small container. I prefer the latter, partly because it's one less reason I have to look at a screen.

Third, I randomly choose a number (i.e., pull a strip of paper from the container or get one from the online number randomizer). The chore corresponding to that number is the thing I have to do. Sort of.

Doing the Thing

Let's say I have 30 things on my list and I get number 21, which is clean the bathroom. But that might feel too daunting to do right out of the gate. Simple: Roll again. It isn't set in cement that I have to do what I draw right away. I think of it as a helpful suggestion, offering myself the concessions of breaking it up into manageable chunks.

If I decide not to do number 21, I might "roll the dice" again and get number 3, which might be brush my teeth. It makes more sense to do that first anyway, plus it takes way less time and effort. So I'm more likely to run with that.

By the way, there's a bit of reverse psychology at play here. It goes something like this:

Me: "I don't want to clean the bathroom."

Also Me: "Fine. Don't."

Me: "Really?"

Also Me: "Yeah, cleaning the bathroom sucks. Just brush your teeth instead."

Me: "Okay, sweet."

Ta-da: You just got yourself to brush your teeth.

Alternatively, I might have the energy to go ahead and clean the bathroom - or at least start. There are a couple of ways I break chores like this down:

  • I set a timer and just do the cleaning in two- or five-minute increments until I'm done, maybe interspersed with a few minutes of YouTube videos in between.

  • If I'm really low on energy, I do some of the chore today and the rest of it tomorrow - cleaning the bathroom is a great example of when this works well.

Strategies like these are much easier than attempting to do a task for 30 minutes all at once.

And it's really as simple as that: finding a balance between flexibility and self-discipline. Some tasks I skip completely if they feel out of my reach that day. Sometimes I select three or four numbers at once, choose one, and put the other ones back in the pot for later; or I keep choosing numbers until I get to one of the few that I know I can manage that day. I made the game so I can change the rules as needed!

Why It Works

The beauty of playing this "chore lottery" game with myself is this: it reduces the amount of decision-making required on cloudy days when my brain feels ambivalent. It makes a game out of the stuff I need to do.

I mentioned that I also include things I want to do on the list of tasks. That's important. I'm more motivated to pick a number to see if I have to clean the bathroom first or brush my teeth first if I know there's a chance I'll get "eat a snack" or "dance to a song" instead!

The chore lottery game is no panacea. But it's become a critical part of how I get through the day when I'm tired and sad. I know it helps me get things done that I wouldn't have otherwise. And, against all odds, even have some fun in the process.

I better get going: writing a blog post is only one thing on my list of 40 today. Curious to see what I get to do next.

- M.B.

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