Tasks, but for depressed people

I’ve had an idea knocking around in my head for a minute. Last year, being torn away from my family and friends hit me harder than I thought it would. To get personal, I’ve always suffered from a mild form of anxiety-fueled depression (therapist diagnosed). Managing it is just part of who I am, a muscle I’ve built since I was young.

There have been a few times in my life that I’ve been brought down quite low. A hard breakup, a mid-twenties existential crisis, a disjointed college career, student loan debt, a high-stress low-paying job that barely kept the collectors at bay, and finally the pandemic & tumultuous political climate. There have been days when I couldn’t accomplish a single thing because I was feeling so low. I felt like nothing could help me.

I am an obsessive list-maker. I have always made sure to write lists upon lists of things I must do, things I can’t forget, and things I need to research or think about. I use google calendar, gmail, keep, asana, and two handwritten notebooks to keep track of it all. Last year, finally decided to take a look at how I was accomplishing things and why all of these so-called productivity managers just didn’t work for me at all when I was depressed.

Let’s be real, when you’re stuck in bed feeling so low you’re actually underground, there’s no way you’re gonna open up Asana to take a look at the long list of things you haven’t yet accomplished. Shoot, there are many times my anxiety spikes just for unlocking my phone and seeing notifications.

How could I help myself accomplish small things while reducing this anxiety-fueled panic reaction?

Well, I first had to take a look at current productivity managers (we’ll include simple task lists here too). Many offer the same thing — type in your task, set a due date, put it in a category, see your entire list of tasks staring at you int he face. A visualization of the weeks upon weeks of work ahead of you.

Two words: cognitive overload.

You see, motivation is hard to come by when you’re feeling horrible. How might we remove as many barriers as possible to help someone get something, anything, done that day? Let’s take a look at how task lists might make people anxious.

  1. Being bombarded with too much information at once. Opening up that task list is like an explosion of information at your face.
  2. Seeing a task that you’ve been avoiding. Each day you see that task ratchets the anxiety level up a notch, until that singular task is the singular reason you will never go back to that task list.
  3. Seeing a list of tasks that are… mildly unpleasant to you. Different people have different tastes, so for some “clean the toilet” might not be as triggering as perhaps “eat a vegetable” or even “spend 30 minutes reading a non-fiction book”.
  4. Making a huge task list and then watching the day go by as nothing gets done or crossed off. What do you do at 10pm with a task list of 20 items and only two were crossed off? Boom: anxiety.

What kind of product could I create that would mitigate these triggers and therefore help people feeling down actually accomplish something?

What if I created a product that didn’t bombard you when you first opened it? A product that actually asked you how you were feeling, and then curated the rest of your experience based on that? A service that helped you focus not just on productive tasks, but self care or social? What if this service knew you, and could accurately predict which tasks would be hardest for you?

The product I came up with is something I call Tiny Wins. This is a service that helps people feel better about getting stuff done.

It is my theory that helping people get the small stuff done (like simply washing your face) can help them create new pathways in their brain that no longer associate tasks with anxiety.

Here are some of the features I believe would mitigate those anxious responses.

  1. The app opens up asking you how you’re feeling. Based on how you’re doing, you might be given full range of the app or a more restricted version. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, perhaps you might only get to set one task to accomplish and that would be enough for the day.
  2. The task list resets every morning. I know, you may gasp at the very idea of deleting a task list and starting fresh. This product’s aim is helping people accomplish small things while reducing the anxiety response. Use accordingly!
  3. The specific categories for each task don’t just include productivity, but also self care, reading, learning, and social. Getting up and texting a friend to say hi is something you can accomplish and can be proud of. It ain’t just about doing your taxes.
  4. The maximum amount of tasks you can add is 9. I’d like to meet the savage that can can get more than 9 tasks done during the day while also battling depression and anxiety. Each task has a specific category, encouraging you not to overwhelm yourself with multiple similar tasks at the beginning of the day.

I put together a mid-fidelity prototype to illustrate how I’m thinking about this product. As I continue to test idea this with potential users and receive feedback, I will be iterating and developing a high-fidelity prototype. This is something I feel passionate about, and I’m excited to continue to develop the concept!