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I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder — Here’s How I Get Through My To-Do List Every Day

Young woman working at home, typing on laptop

If less daylight and colder weather seems to steal your energy and passion, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While it’s often dismissed as somehow being less consequential than other mental health conditions, it’s estimated that SAD affects up to 3 percent of the population.

As someone who has struggled with seasonal affective disorder since high school, I know all too well the toll that SAD can take, especially if you’re an ambitious, creative person who still has to get things done. And as a parent? Let’s just say there are no days off with a toddler running around. I don’t know that I’ll ever be entirely free of seasonal affective disorder, but I’m also not interested in letting it stop my life completely. If you’re craving meaningful work and want to make an impact — even when you don’t feel your best — try these tips for staying on task, in spite of your symptoms.

1. Break down your to-do list into micro-tasks.

SAD can feel overwhelming — the emotional equivalent of a too-heavy weighted blanket that lures you back to bed and won’t let you start your day. One of the first things I do when I feel seasonal depression coming on (usually around mid-November) is make a list of everything that’s on my plate. Then I break down everything on that to-do list into micro-tasks.

This helps me to see, step by step, how I’m going to get everything done and that it doesn’t all need to happen at once. When I break things into their smallest pieces, I feel less overwhelmed at the giant task and can see, bit by bit, how it can happen. This makes things feel doable and lets you rack up some easy wins rather than avoiding the tasks that feel too monumental to start.

2. Focus on doing just three things a day.

On the days when my energy is especially low, I need to prioritize ruthlessly. It’s usually not realistic to expect myself to accomplish more than three important tasks a day. If all three of those happen, I call it a win. If they don’t? I examine how I can better support myself in accomplishing what’s truly necessary.

For me, three things a day feels realistic: I don’t have to be superhuman to get it all done. The three things lets me prioritize what really needs to happen and then cut myself some slack. At first, only doing three things a day might seem unproductive, but prioritizing this way always gives me a sense of perspective. What am I really spending my time on, and is it really essential? How much of what I call “busy” is made up of things I don’t really need to be doing?

3. Plan your year around seasonal depression.

I plan fewer projects for myself in the winter months because I know I’m less likely to have the energy to pull it all off. I keep my holiday plans as simple as I can, and I schedule more downtime for myself between December and February. As an introvert, I guard my time jealously during the weeks and months when I know I won’t have extra energy.

Knowing what gives you energy and what takes it away can help you to plan on a larger scale. How should your winter months look if you have SAD? And how can you schedule your year to take this into account? Really give those questions some thought, and plan accordingly.

4. Take some things off your plate.

This isn’t about giving up. It’s about knowing yourself deeply and prioritizing your wellbeing over an artificial ideal of “productivity.” Clearing your plate will look different for everyone, but the basic premise asks: How can you make your life as simple as possible?

This could mean asking for more help, delegating tasks, outsourcing chores, or hiring someone who can take something off your plate. But it might also mean crossing things off your to-do list that don’t truly belong there — or don’t need to be done by you.

Look, getting more done probably won’t make your seasonal affective disorder disappear, and being productive is not a marker of your worth. But if you’re feeling low and still need to take care of business, trying some of these tricks may just help you make it through to longer, sunnier days.

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