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Time Management Skills for Bipolar People


Time management is already a challenge for most people. However, for those of us with bipolar disorder, time management can become especially difficult. Our mood episodes can undermine our ability to get a handle on our schedule, and this can make it very difficult for us to use our time effectively.

Until recently, I was a graduate student, so I had a lot of time to, erm, work on my time management skills. Over time, I became gradually better at using my time well, and setting out the tasks that I needed to do. In this article, I will set out some of the things that I learned through this process, and I hope that it will be helpful to others.

The Problem

Aristotle

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As I see it, the primary problem with time management for those of us with bipolar disorder is that time management is, at the end of the day, a habit. That is, it is something that people become better at over time because they do it over and over again. With time, we get practice at doing it properly, and start to enjoy it (or at least dislike it less).

This is a problem for those of us with bipolar disorder because the instability of our mood episodes can wreak havoc on the stability of our activities. However, without stable activities, it is very difficult to form any habits at all. After all, stable activities is exactly where habits come from.

The threat to our time management activities actually comes from both depression and from mania or hypomania. Depression is in many ways the worst threat to our ability to manage our time. When we are depressed, it is very difficult to do anything. Even formed habits can quickly fall by the wayside and habits that we are currently forming fare even worse. As a result, a depressive episode can damage the progress that we are currently making on a habit and even damage the ones we already have.

However, hypomania is also a threat to our time management habits. At first, it might not seem that way. After all, many of us have the experience of accomplishing a great deal more when we are hypomanic than even euthymic (emotionally stable) periods. So, since time management makes us more productive, and we are more productive during hypomanic periods, doesn’t that imply that we have good time management skills when hypomanic?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The work we get done in hypomanic episodes often is accomplished despite our poor time management. In hypomanic episodes, we will tend to focus on projects almost at random. True, we will get a lot of work done on what we focus on, but that doesn’t imply that we’re actually managing our time. In fact, we often have so much energy that we don’t need to manage our time. As a result, our time management skills can be damaged during these periods.

Habits of Effort and Habits of Action

In order to explain the methods that I have used in developing my time management skills, I need to make a distinction between what I think are two different types of habits. These two types I call “habits of effort” and “habits of action”. Most habits include both of these components.

A habit of effort is the habit of trying to do something on a regular basis. So, for instance, let’s say that I’m trying to develop the habit of going to sleep at a regular time. For the first little while, I might not actually fall asleep, and just lie there in bed. So, I’m not actually going to sleep at a regular time, am I? What I’m developing is the habit of trying to do something, not actually the habit of doing it.

A habit of action is the habit of actually doing something on a regular basis. Once I start going to bed at a regular time, my body will start to get tired at that time as well. At that point, I start actually doing what I set out to do. I can say that it is something I do habitually because it is something that I actually do on a regular basis.

As time goes on, habits of action will replace habits of effort. It becomes easier and easier to do something, so I need less of the habit of effort, and what will keep me going is the habit of actually performing the activity.

Fortunately, each of our mood episodes only attack one of these types of habit with respect to time management. Depression attacks our habits of effort, while hypomania attacks our habits of action. By noticing this, we can make sure to keep at least half of our habits of time management during each period.

Habits of Effort and Depression

Depression brings with it the symptom of “psychomotor retardation”. Psychomotor retardation makes everything feel like more of an effort than it otherwise might. As a result, people in depressed periods will find that it can feel like overwhelming effort even to walk up a set of stairs or get dressed. Because of this, any time management can fall completely by the wayside.

However, there is a way to maintain habits of effort even during a depressive period. In this case, the goal is to do something on a regular basis or at a particular time. This can be something incredibly simple, like setting specific times to eat or praying the Angelus at noon. It may not be realistic to expect a full schedule while depressed, but it is still possible to do something.

The problem is that our activities take a lot more effort while depressed than when not depressed. The goal, then, is to pick activities to schedule that don’t seem as overwhelming. If the activity itself doesn’t feel as overwhelming, then doing it won’t seem as overwhelming. This allows us to continue our habits of effort during the depressive episode.

Once the episode is over, we will still have the habit of trying to schedule our lives. In other words, we will have the habit of trying to do something every day at a set time. It doesn’t even matter if we succeed. What matters is that we try, as this is what keeps in place the habit of reflection and effort on how we schedule our days.

Habits of Action and Hypomania

On the other hand, hypomania attacks our habits of action. Since we don’t feel like we need a schedule (and in some sense we don’t), our schedules can very quickly fall away. We can get a lot accomplished, but we don’t do it in an organized way. Then, once the hypomanic episode ends, we lose that burst of focusing energy and the habits of time management to boot. As a result, our time management skills can be completely disrupted.

However, there’s no reason why we can’t still schedule our activities while hypomanic, so long as we realise that the point of doing so isn’t so much to get more done but to maintain our habits of action. We can still set our certain tasks for certain times, take breaks at certain times (in my experience, it is breaks that I need to schedule when hypomanic) and organize our days.

In fact, in my experience, setting a schedule is something I find fun when hypomanic. It’s one of those fiddly little organizing activities that appeal to my fastidious nature when in those states. It gives me a chance to look over all the exciting things I plan to do that week, which is exactly the kind of thinking that can be very exciting.

By keeping hypomanic periods scheduled, it makes sure that, when the episodes end, I haven’t damaged my overall habits of managing my time. I didn’t maintain the habits of effort really (after all, little effort is needed), but I did maintain the habits of action, which enabled me to carry through to the next period (which in my case is usually depressive, as I have a hypomanic-depressive-euthymic cycle).

Conclusion

Bipolar disorder can make it very difficult to maintain habit of time management (or habits at all). However, we still are able to maintain at least half of our habits in each state.

  • While we may not be able to get very much done in a depressive state, we can still maintain a habit of effort by trying to manage some little things that don’t seem like a lot of effort even with psychomotor retardation.
  • While we may not need to put in much effort in a hypomanic state, we can still maintain a habit of action by managing our schedules even when we fell that we don’t need to.

By taking these steps, we can maintain and build habits of time management over time that are at least partially inoculated against our bipolar disorder.

4 Responses to Time Management Skills for Bipolar People

  • Thanks for this article. I was diagnosed with bipolar 10 years ago. Am also a rapid cycler. It’s difficult to explain my different mood states as they happen. This article really helps me articulate what’s happening as i swing from mood to mood. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome, Linda. I’m a rapid cycler, too, and I’m glad to hear that it was helpful.

  • Thanks Daniel, really interesting. I have Bipolar I which means I tend to be more hyper than err to the depressive state. However, my time management skills are not good. I know that as an active volunteer in the mental health field that I do tend to do a lot and not make enough “me” time – I’m always being told that. I also am a carer for my husband who has a combination of social anxiety and agraphobia. We actually met in a psychiatric ward 30 yrs ago and have been married for 28 yrs now. Must be doing something right!! I became a carer 5 yrs ago when he had a complete breakdown with the business he ran. You can find more about me on Facebook & LinkedIn.

    • Congratulations on such a successful marriage! It’s quite an inspiration for the rest of us.

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Psychotherapy from Daniel

Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RP (Qualifying), CCC

Daniel Bader, Ph.D., is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) and Canadian Certified Counsellor specializing in bipolar disorder, offering in-person psychotherapy in Kitchener, Ontario, and online and telephone psychotherapy within Canada.

To book an appointment with Daniel, please visit his Psychology Today profile.