2018.08.13

Depression is not a game with an end. You just have to keep playing. If you’re lucky, depression is seasonal, coming and going with the natural changes of life. But for some of us, depression is always there. It’s not something we can put away with the boots and sweaters.

My particular depression is dysthymia, a Greek word meaning “a bad state of mind.” It’s also called persistent depressive disorder. I live with low-level depression for long periods of time. Sometimes I sink into deeper episodes, which can last weeks or months. And while I don’t always live down where it’s darkest, I never feel like my depression gets better. Sometimes, it gets a little lighter.

Over the last three years, I’ve learned a handful of techniques to help me lighten that load. Recovery is not a cure; it’s maintenance. And it can be an interminable slog some days, doing the things you know are good for you. So I turned my good things into a game.

This game is inspired by SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal and shares aspects with Adam Dixon’s 40 Small Plans for Harder Days. Though I discovered 40 Small Plans after I had been playing my game for weeks, it was an important reminder that these things must work if other people do them, too.

Find or make some cards small enough you will carry them with you. I used 4x6 index cards (because that’s what I had) cut in quarters. A small bulldog clip (I use a purple one, so I can always find them) holds the cards together.

Choose a few colours of markers. I recommend at least two colours: one for the group of actions you need to do, another for the actions you want to do. I also have one colour for the bad habits I am working on. Choose colours that make you happy.

Pick a not-overwhelming number of cards. I have 50 cards: 6 are bad habits, 22 are self-care actions, and 22 are chores. Habits are hard to break, so keep this number low. Two months into my own game, I’m realising 6 is too many for me. 2 is better.

The key to these cards is keeping the actions small, focusing on positive action, and always starting with a verb. My bad habit cards used to read, “Don’t bite your nails.” Now they read, “I didn’t bite my nails.” This turns it into a conscious action rather than an anonymous command.

Breaking a habit is as much about doing something else as not doing the thing you don’t want to do. It’s easy to stop watching TV if you focus on reading instead. Find the action you would rather be doing.

My action cards all start with a verb: do dishes, put things back where they belong, sit outside. Choose actions which are important to you, but also easy to accomplish. This is a game of achievement. Break big tasks into smaller direct actions.

I want to do yoga every day. But a card that reads, “Do yoga” is far too intimidating. I have 8 separate cards that read:

All of these cards can be done separately or together, but any one of them accomplishes the goal: do yoga.

Colour one edge of each card. This helps me keep track of how many actions I’ve accomplished each day. As I complete a card, I turn it upside down and collect them at the back of the deck. With a glance at the edge of the deck, you can see how many have been completed or not.

Shuffle the cards throughout your day. When you find a few minutes, pick out one or two cards you know you can accomplish in the next little while. Keep an easy action as the top card when you put the cards away to motivate you the next time you pick them up.

Everything counts if you decide it counts. I have a card that reads, “Set a timer and write.” That counts if I set a timer for 5 minutes or 15. If I wash one pot so I can make dinner, that counts for “Do dishes,” even if the sink is still full. “Do laundry” is done if I put a load in the wash, move the wash to the dryer, fold towels, or hang something up. All of them or one of them; it all counts because I decide it does.

This is a game of gentle motivation. Start easy on yourself. Make a card you know you can complete every day. On a good day, I can do half my cards. Another day, just a few. You cannot lose this game. If you discover one night that you haven’t completed a single card, make a new one, and do it right away. The game keeps going because you want it to.

You can download a PDF with a list of example cards.