Transitioning to Unstructured Days

Any sort of change is difficult for anyone, as humans instinctually crave routine. I think transitions are even harder for those of us with depression, as sometimes day-to-day life exists completely on autopilot. It’s okay if this transition is hard for you.

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As I write this, I am sitting in my campus library at two in the morning, for the third night in a row. I am in the hell that could be referred to as the storm before the even greater storm, otherwise known as pre-finals weeks. This is the time when everything is busy—papers are due, exams are coming up, activities are wrapping up for the semester. Every single minute of my remaining days on campus are rigidly structured so I can fit twenty-eight hours of work into twenty-four hour days.

In this chaos, I am earnestly looking forward to the transition into summer.

A time when there are no more late nights in the library, no more papers to write, no more finals to cram for. In the summer, I can choose my own schedule. I can sleep until noon, stay in my pajamas all day, and read for fun. I have more unstructured time than I know what to do with.

For most college students, this is a blessing.

But for those of us living with depression, unstructured time can come as a curse.

When I have unstructured time, it can either go one of two ways. In the first scenario, my depression can completely take over my life. I will spend days in my pajamas lying in bed on an endless Netflix binge.

The second scenario looks vastly different. I make a massive, unmanageable to-do list. In doing so, I overestimate my human capabilities, become overwhelmed, and then spend weeks beating myself up for failing. Scenario number two leads back to scenario number one.

I crave the structure and busyness of college life, and when it doesn’t exist for me, I am overcome either by my depression or by my impossible expectations of myself.

It is difficult to find a compromise between depression and grandiose, unrealistic expectations. However, as I have moved forward in my recovery, I have begun to learn how to best deal with unstructured time.

First, it’s helpful to establish a consistent sleep cycle.

We all have a good idea of how much sleep we need to feel well-rested. Now that there are few obligations preventing you from that amount of sleep, plan those eight hours (or however much you need) into every day. Pick a bedtime, set an alarm for the morning, and stick to it. This is a great way to put structure in for yourself, as well as to keep you from over or under sleeping, as all of us are prone to do.

Second, plan when you are going to eat.

This is another simple way to structure your days. For me, a consistent meal schedule goes out the window when I have too much free time. Setting alarms to remind myself to turn off Netflix and eat lunch/get a snack helps to add more structure to my days. This is especially helpful for those who are also recovering from an eating disorder.

Third, I have found it helpful is to plan regular outings.

This can be anything from going to church every Sunday morning, writing at Starbucks on Wednesday afternoons, going to the grocery store on Friday evenings, whatever is important to you. I have a tendency to sit at home when I don’t have a commitment to attend to, so planning to get out of the house is important. Activating yourself to get out and about will help improve your mood (even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time).

Fourth, make sure to have conversations with a friend or family member regularly.

This is particularly important for those who are living on their own, as social isolation is a tendency for all of us with depression. These conversations can take many forms, from a phone call to a coffee date, from running errands together to going to the movies. Make these a regular thing, and try to meet with someone weekly to catch up. If meeting someone face-to-face or talking on the phone is too much, send a text message or an email. Reach out and let someone know how you’re doing.

There are many more ways to help ease the transition from structured time into unstructured time, and these are only some of the things that have been helpful to me.

Other things such as taking up a new hobby, setting small and obtainable goals, and focusing on self-care have also worked for me. Remember to treat yourself with grace and compassion when adjusting to a new routine.

Any sort of change is difficult for anyone, as humans instinctually crave routine. I think transitions are even harder for those of us with depression, as sometimes day-to-day life exists completely on autopilot. It’s okay if this transition is hard for you.

The most important thing with any transition is to listen to your wise-minded self.

What do you need to be successful and keep on with your recovery? For some, it could be structuring the unstructured time that comes with summer. For others, it can be leaving it alone and having unstructured time. It can even be a combination of both. Find what works for you in these moments, and keep on keeping on in recovery, even though your day-to-day life may look very different.

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