Keeping a tidy life

[Content Warning: this post includes mentions of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders]

Last night I tweeted about how I cope with some of my mental health issues through managing my life with apps and orchestrated tasks. This post serves to be a kind of guide to how I do that. Hopefully one, or several methods I use, will be helpful to others.

Some of my mental health illnesses are prefaced with “high-functioning” however, I still suffer from depression and anxiety. To people who don’t know me, it can be difficult to tell when I’m having a hard time because I don’t show some of the telltale symptoms. I’m also a recovering bulimic which I will not really address in this post because I do whatever I can to not track my eating habits. However, it should be said that I am by nature a person who likes to control things. Bulimia was a part of that, and I suspect my detailed organization of my life is a part of that too. Though, unlike my eating disorder, organizing my life has many benefits and few negative side effects, so I consider this practice to be harmless.

By nature, I’m a creative over-achiever and work my way through tough times masking my pain through humor, helping others, and well… trying to get shit done. I didn’t really realize I was this way until I attempted to seek help from a psychiatrist during a difficult period last year. I waited over a month to get in for a consultation appointment only to be told by her that I was essentially too put together and she really only dealt with anxious and depressed housewives, not people like me. The term she used to describe me at the end of our hour long consultation was “high-functioning and accomplished businesswoman”. Her dismissal left me livid — like I was too good at life for her to help me? Simply because I don’t exhibit symptoms like the inability to get out of bed, or because I appear fine in social interactions, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my mental health issues.

I’ve grown to hate the term, “high-functioning”. It has come to imply that although there is a problem, as long as you’re getting shit done, you’re probably fine. It kind of diminishes the actual issues at hand or the other symptoms I have.

Staying on top of things is part of how I cope. Through the years I’ve come up with a system that works for me. By becoming more self-aware, understanding the things that work for me, and the nature of my personality, I’ve found a system that is (for the most part) working for me.

The Basics: daily recurring and habit forming tasks

Like many other people with depression, I struggle to maintain a routine that for other folks just comes naturally as a part of their regular day-to-day. Working from home most certainly exacerbates that problem. It’s incredibly difficult for me to remember or motivate myself to do things like brush my teeth, shower, or change clothes.

My brain tends to jump from one thing to another and quickly. Focusing on something as mundane as remembering to shower just never seems to be a priority for me, even on a weekend. Why waste time washing yesterday’s makeup off my face when I could spend that time planning that side project I’ve been dreaming of working on but never manage to fit it in? There’s a good list of reasons why; starting with basic hygiene is important to the health of your body and ending with four days without a shower can make you feel even more depressed. I don’t need more reasons to be self deprecating and being clean feels great!

To manage mundane daily activities I use an iOS app called Streaks. Streaks allows you to add up to twelve tasks and set a schedule for them. I’ve used Streaks for a variety of things over the course of having the app on my phone from personal goal challenges like reading a chapter every day, to household tasks like tracking how often I pick up dog shit in my backyard (exciting yes, I know!). Steaks’s main method of encouraging users to complete tasks is in the name — holding a streak.

I’ve learned that I respond very well to apps with gamification aspects — especially streaks — and Streaks app isn’t the only app I use to have that feature. Duolingo for Spanish which I’ve been using on and off for over 4 years (current streak 334 days) and Timehop (currently on 378 day streak) though I could get into a whole ‘nother post on this app and its problematic affect on my wellbeing but it’s currently my longest running streak to date. Responding positively to streak based apps is good news for me, as research suggests it takes 21 days to form a habit. I don’t even think about having to practice Spanish on Duolingo or check out what I was up to 4 years ago on Timehop anymore. I just do it. It’s habit.

But like all habits and goals, it’s important to be realistic and try to minimize how much you’re striving for. I’ve learned over the years that placing too many goals on one day inevitably means things don’t get done, things fall through the cracks, and that can be demoralizing. So, I’ve reduced the number of things I track in Streaks to the most important. Presently I use the app to remember to: wash my face (everyday), brush my teeth (everyday), shower (every other day), spray my houseplants (every Mon, Tue, Thur, Fri, Sat) and water my plants (every Wed and Sun).

I had a rough turn for a while (as you can see above) where I just ignored the app all together after missing a couple days — but I’m back on it, being a bit more positive, giving myself a little bit more slack, starting small and hope to build up to a point where I can add other daily goals like working out.

The Important: daily medication

Remembering to take their pills at the same time everyday is something everyone manages in different ways. For people like me, who take an oral hormone medication to manage their periods, taking it at the same time everyday is essential to its effectiveness. Some folks use apps like Clue others simply set an alarm. There are some pretty hilarious alarms people have set to remember to take their pill.

I also fall into the alarm group of people and use the Reminders app that’s pre-installed on iOS. Instead of simply using an actual alarm clock, I use Reminders app because I take the pill at different times depending on where I am. 19:00 Central US isn’t 19:00 Central European time. Reminders app adapts to the timezone you’re in which means no timezone math for me!

Reminders app for iOS

In the past Reminders app was used for more than just remembering to take the pill. When I was living in Germany I used this app to remind me to text my parents throughout the day. Last year I experimented with regulating my work from home schedule to be more akin to an office schedule. I had reminders set to “08:15 — Get ready for the day” “09:00 — Start work” and “17:00 — End work”. Ultimately that schedule didn’t work, but it was fairly successful when I was committed to the idea.

The Megalist: a list for everything and everything in its list

Lists are something people either love or hate. I am a lover of lists, and I might even go so far as to say, an EvangeList. (I will not apologize for that joke!) That said, there is a time and a place for lists and while other things I mention in this post could have been managed with lists, they’re not for certain reasons. I find lists helpful for two main needs: recurring household and financial tasks with set due dates, and simply writing down things I want to remember in future.

We all lead busy lives. Managing to organize and remember everything is something I just cannot do without a little help from a list. My list-making goes further than what to pick up from the grocer — I have a list for just about everything.

I’ve been using paper lists forever. My foray into electronic lists started when my partner and I began to share a household. We developed a method of dealing with joint expenses from the start. We have a joint bank account and set up an agreement on fair contribution based on our individual incomes. From there we set up a recurring task schedule to remind and manage things like “Pay the rent”, “Deposit $xxx into joint account” and “Pay cell phone bill”. Each task is assigned to one of us so there’s no ambiguity on who own’s what and when it’s due. As a side note for those of you with domestic partners: I’d absolutely recommend having a joint account and working together to form a budget and allotted contribution. The days of, “You owe me $20 for the electric bill” are gone my friends.

We maintain this schedule in an app called Todoist. We had for many years been using Wunderlist, but moved over to Todoist recently due to Wunderlist’s stagnant product and lack of an “Archive List” feature. Todoist also has smarter due dates (e.g., the first Sunday of every month).

Working from home and being someone who doesn’t regularly leave the house puts a lot of emphasis on my home as a space that serves multiple purposes and encounters a lot of use. When I started working from home it felt like I could do anything at any time. Stairs need sweeping? I’ll do that now! Bathroom countertop needs a wipe down? I’ll do that now! There came a point where I realized I was misusing my work-time which lead to working later hours or working on weekends, two things I try to avoid to prevent burnout. I realized I needed a schedule. Additionally, I wanted to combat the concern of the majority of domestic labor falling on my shoulders. My partner is a pretty tidy person but I’ll usually get to chore-like things first simply because they bother me more. I also wanted to set boundaries for myself. Managing one big house is tough for the two of us, trying to manage it myself with my day job is just asking for a meltdown.

To manage our household chores, we have… you guessed it, a list! This list is shared between my partner and myself, with each task assigned to one of us, and are scheduled based on how frequently they need to happen. Most of them are due on Sunday, giving a firm deadline before the work-week starts which effectively eliminated house work being completed while we should be working. The majority of our household chores are weekly recurring items like cleaning the kitchen sink, or mopping the downstairs floor. A few tasks really only need to be done once a month like changing the kitchen sponge (this is where Todoist beat out Wunderlist — because I try to avoid being pinged for a house chore on a work-day, I can set this to occur the first Sunday of every month).

Lists separated by category (left) — Chore housetasks list items (right)

The household chores list evolves over time. Some tasks get shuffled to a different app (like watering the plants did) and new tasks come in as necessary. As I’m writing this I have noticed that the baseboards in my house are rather dusty and I’m about to put them on the schedule and assign them to me. Personal chores that don’t need to be shared are in a separate, private list. Those things include tasks such as: “Pay student loans” and “Give Roscoe heart worm pill”.

The list making doesn’t stop there — at least not for me. Memory is something I struggle with for important things, let alone the things that don’t really matter. Writing things down so I don’t feel I’ve forgotten anything is really helpful for managing some of my anxiety. Even if it’s never really useful, at least I have it stored somewhere. For example, I have a list called “Couch Life” which houses every TV show, miniseries, and movie that I’ve said to myself, “Oh! I should watch that!”. I also have a list of karaoke songs I’d like to sing in future because it always seems I’m at a bar with a giant book in front of me and can’t think of anything to sing other than “Love Shack” (which I’m very good at btw and don’t mind humble bragging about it either). These things seem silly writing them down, but it really helps.

The Big Picture: scheduling at scale

Calendars aren’t a unique method of organizing one’s life, so I really won’t spend a lot of time on this topic. Needless to say if you’ve made it this far, you know I have a task or to-do for just about everything. It’s probably no surprise to you that I used calendars rigidly.

Personal and work calendars are something most people have. Like most calendar-oriented folks I have everything from planning meetings to hair appointments represented on my calendar (with cute emoji if I can help it). I manage several different calendars and calendar subscriptions all fed into my Apple Calendar app. The beauty of this is that I have the ability to see the big picture of everything, notice when a day is getting over-scheduled (keeping in mind that I have more than just work to deal with daily). But I can also focus on what matters by turning off, or “hiding” certain calendars for focus.

If I had all my calendars turned on, I’d probably just give up on everything because it looks like this for the month of September.

When all my calendars are turned on it’s a good global view but not easy to use.

But usually I only turn on certain calendars when I need to check something leaving a more reasonable calendar view like this.

Filtering my calendars based on current area of focus.

One calendar I have that is incredibly useful is the one I share with my partner. He’s a developer working from home with me and travels just as often as I do. Although we use TripIt, which automatically shares and alerts one another to planned travel, that doesn’t visualize tentatively planned trips or include local events or plans. To ensure our travel plans don’t overlap and keep track of times when say, friends are visiting, we set up a shared calendar to house all that information. This calendar is basically as essential as our household budget and unlike the calendar you have on your refrigerator, it’s available on all devices. The only short coming we’ve found is that it’s kind of not big-picture-y enough. In order to see events, you’re still limited to viewing by month which doesn’t fully visualize the year as a whole. We haven’t found a good solution to yearly planning yet.

The Struggle: real talk schedules, tasks, and habits

For the most part, I have a tidy home and scheduled life, which may not be exciting but it certainly helps reduce a lot of stress and anxiety which if left unattended will both in turn trigger my depression and eating disorder. I’ve put a lot of time into working out the best ways to go about these things, it’s not perfect but it kind of works.

I say “it kind of works” because the reality is, I still suffer from mental illness and I have good days and bad days. Hell, I have good months and bad months. Just because the schedule is perfectly orchestrated doesn’t mean things get done. There are weekends where I’m too exhausted to get chores done, or streaks I break because things didn’t seem important or manageable that day. What I’ve taken away from the times where it doesn’t work is that there’s either a flaw in the system or give myself some slack that sometimes you just don’t get everything done. I try to accept when things don’t get done and push forward to try again. When it’s a repeated problem, that’s generally a sign that the system is broken for one reason or another.

Setting realistic goals is something I really struggle with and the only way you can gauge what’s realistic is by trial and error. Looking at the errors is how you decide what went wrong and why. Did you set yourself up to fail by attempting to take on too much? Did you actually stick to the goals you set out to do, or did you get distracted by putting your energy into doing something else? I’d absolutely be lying to you if I said writing this over 3,000 character post was what I was supposed to be doing. This was not on my list for today — but here we are. It’s natural. It happens. What seemed important yesterday may not be what’s important to you today. Build in time for that and expect things will change.

You have to become pretty self-aware to develop the kind of schedule that works for you. I, for example, have learned that I’m a morning person. My highest level of energy and creativity, and more importantly, the time of day when I’ll follow-through the most, is all before 14:00. For all this scheduling I still don’t have something that translates into my work-life. I’m still brainstorming the best methods to manage my day-to-day with my energy and performance levels in mind. Likely it will result in mornings where I place all my important and actionable tasks, with the afternoons left for more passive to-dos.

Some people may question why I have so many apps to take care of things in my life. The answer is pretty simple. Over the years I’ve realize I have two different types of tasks in my life: those that I’m working to make habitual and those that simply need to be tracked and get done. What I’ve written in this post are the ways that work for me. I’d love to hear what works for you! Writing this conclusion reminded me of a joke I have with a colleague, and really it’s a reference to an episode of The Office (US), where we say, “Somehow I manage”. This post really is a comprehensive guide to how I manage almost everything in my life. What seems like micromanaging is really just allowing my mind the space to focus on things that really matter on a personal level instead of worrying about when was the last time I showered, or when does that bill have to get paid.

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