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3 Pen & Paper Tricks to Motivate Yourself When You're Depressed

I am a housewife, a Christian, a worship leader, and a student. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with depression.

Some mornings, getting out of bed is the most I can manage. Even brushing my teeth or getting dressed is a chore. Unfortunately, I don't have the option of lying in bed all day, and I'm not about to give up everything I love because I'm depressed.


To-Do Lists

Making to-do lists can be frustrating and depressing. It's like looking at all of the things you can't accomplish. To-do lists make me feel bad about my lack of motivation. But, I've discovered that I can use some of the principles of writing a to-do list with some basic positive self-talk to motivate me to get things done! There are three different methods I use to accomplish this.

1. The Three's List

First, I use the "three's list." This list is especially helpful if you have a lot to accomplish that doesn't have specific appointment times (I use this for finishing big homework assignments, cleaning the house, etc.) I start by writing down three simple tasks. For example, the tasks could be:

  • Get out of bed
  • Brush teeth
  • Take medication

When I accomplish one task, I cross it off and write a new task on the list. So there are always three uncompleted tasks on my list. As I go throughout the day adding tasks, I try to only add one big task for every three tasks. So my list might look like this:

  • Write paper for PSYC 101
  • Eat lunch
  • Make tea

This way, I'm not feeling overloaded by the weight of too many large tasks. If you start to feel overwhelmed, add more little tasks to your list. It's especially helpful to add self-care tasks such as taking a shower, getting dressed, etc. These little tasks will make you feel productive, and also help you to take care of yourself!

Quick Tips

  • Don't skip around tasks. This causes anxiety and gives you permission to avoid tasks you don't want to do. In order to remain productive, do the tasks in the order you write them down.
  • Write down the first task you think of. Instead of fishing for a task you actually want to do, write down the tasks you actually think of.
  • Set a stopping point for yourself. When you're nearing the end of the day, stop adding tasks to your list. Finish the list off and then enjoy the rest of the day! Otherwise, you may feel as if you can't stop.


Whenever you feel as if you haven't accomplished anything, look back at all of things you've crossed out on your list, and remind yourself that you didn't even think you could get out of bed that morning!

Positive Self-Talk

  • "Look at how much I've accomplished today!"
  • "As soon as I finish (insert big task), I'll get to take a break by doing (insert smaller tasks here)."

2. The Short List

This list is especially helpful when you have appointments or tasks that must be completed, but you feel as if doing anything will bring you to tears. This is the list I use when work starts piling up at home or I have an immediate homework deadline.

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Start by sitting down and considering what you actually HAVE to get done. I try to limit my list to five or six items. For example, your list may look like this:

  • Pick up the kids from school
  • Meet with general manager at lunch
  • Submit final draft of project
  • Get a haircut
  • Take the dog for a walk
  • Make dinner

It may also help to consider whether or not these things truly NEED to be done. For example, maybe a friend could pick up the kids from school, or perhaps you could order takeout for dinner. Seeing all of the things you need to get done in a list can help you feel as if the list isn't really that intimidating, and it can help you consider whether or not a task truly needs to be completed.

Quick Tips

  • Consider how the things on your list may be beneficial for you. For example, taking the dog for a walk will give you a chance to exercise. Considering how a task may help you gives the task purpose and keeps it from feeling mundane.
  • Don't sweat the small stuff. Keep your list limited to the big things. There are of course, little things that must be accomplished to manage the big tasks, but thinking of all the little individual tasks you need to complete will be depressing. Instead of considering all that it will take to go to that lunch with your general manager (showering, getting dressed, doing your hair, driving to the restaurant, etc.), consider the task as a whole.


When you feel like you can't get the list done, remind yourself that it's a short list, and this is all you have to do today. If any other task pops in your mind, shut it out. Only the things that you MUST accomplish belong on your list.

Positive Self-Talk

  • "I am capable of doing a few big things. I can accomplish this list."
  • "I just need to take this list one step at a time."
  • "At the end of the day, I won't regret what I've done. I'll have worked hard and pushed myself to be productive. I'm already proud of myself."

3. The Big List

Imagine the short list, but with every little detail listed out. This is the big list. I prefer to use this list when I have nothing in particular that HAS to get done, but a lot of little tasks that I could (and should) get done soon. For example:

  • Shower (not even going to worry about shaving my legs)
  • Get dressed (I can wear lazy clothes since I'm not going anywhere)
  • Dry and style hair (not going out but it would be nice)
  • Send Father's Day cards (a week away)
  • Read some of my classwork (not due for another three days)

All of these things are important and could be done, but don't have to be. The idea with the big list is to accomplish as many tasks as possible throughout the day. When using this list, quantity trumps quality.

Quick Tips

  • Write down everything you can think of. Any time you think of something that could be accomplished, write it down. This is supposed to be a big list, remember?
  • If you don't need to do something at all, consider dropping the expectation from your life completely. For example, I get books out of the library I never read. Instead of pressuring myself to start the book two days before it's due, it's better to return the book and consider borrowing it later. Use this list to clean the clutter out of your life and re-prioritize.
  • Do something you like to do and then something you don't like to do. Rotating between the things you like and the things you don't will balance out your list of accomplishments and make you feel as if you accomplished more.


When you feel overwhelmed by the number of things on your list, remind yourself that nothing really needs to get done. The world will be the same tomorrow (for the most part), and nothing will come crashing down on you if you only get a little done.

Positive Self-Talk

  • "I'll just accomplish one little thing right now."
  • "It feels so good to cross things off my list."
  • "It doesn't matter how much I get done by the end of the day."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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