Dealing with anxiety and depression in product design

Dealing with anxiety and depression in product design
Photo by Anthony Tran

Wednesday, 12:00 am. You open your eyes after hearing the loud sound of your alarm clock. You snooze the alarm and start to think about how you feel right now. Even though it's just the beginning of your day, you already feel exhausted. Your energy level is almost zero, so you go to the kitchen and prepare yourself a cup of coffee. It doesn't give you enough energy, so you drink another cup.

The project you're working on needs to be finished by this Friday. You gather yourself together and open your Mac. Shortly after that, you start working on the first task, and you realize that you cannot do it. It's simply impossible for you to focus on the task. You need to get the energy boost, so you open Instagram and start to scroll feed to get some inspiration and… end up in an even worse state than you were before. You spend the whole day attempting to get something done, and it's almost midnight. Despite sitting in front of a computer for eight hours straight, you didn't make any significant progress in your tasks; you performed barely for an hour. You start to doubt your design skills. A few hours later, long past midnight, you've somehow managed to complete a few tasks and go to sleep. You can't stop thinking about your work, so you finally fall asleep only at 5:00 am.

Thursday, 12:00 am. You open your eyes after hearing the loud sound of your alarm clock. This day feels like "Groundhog Day" with the only exception, the due date for the project is tomorrow, and the moment you realize that your stress level goes all-time high.

Groundhog Day

This is a terrible situation, right? But it's a pretty typical situation that many seasoned designers face today.

In this article, I want to discuss why depression is so common among designers and how we can deal with it. But before that, I want to discuss two things that make us so concerned about our work.

Cult of productivity

A cult of productivity is something that we hear about almost everywhere. Dozens of articles were written about “How to be more productive.” YouTube and Instagram are full of short videos that claim that productivity is the new gold. As The Guardian states,

A public display of productivity is the new symbol of class power.

Technological leaders like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook demonstrate that they can do many things and be full of energy and enthusiasm. We buy this idea, and it has a massive impact on our lives. We start to think that we need to be better, faster, stronger to become successful in whatever we do.

We start to work harder than ever. At first, this approach works for us—we notice that our performance improved, and we demonstrate better results. But after months (or years) of work under pressure, we start to notice the degradation of our results. At that moment, we start to believe that we're lazy and need to push even harder. As a result, we typically end up in a burnout state and, what makes things worse, medium or severe depression. At the end of the day, we feel dissatisfied with our own achievements.

Fear of vulnerability

Most of the time, when someone discusses product design, they share success stories. Someone from your circle created an app worth 1 billion, and another one just got a Red Dot Award. We portray a picture of a perfect designer, a person who can conquer the world, but we rarely hear about the problems that this person faces along the way. People who overcome severe depression rarely share their experiences with the public because of the fear of vulnerability. As a result, we believe that depression only happens to weak people. That's not true. It happens to almost anyone in product design. That's why I firmly believe that it's important to share success stories and stories of failure; otherwise, people who follow us won't have a complete picture.

Factors that increase the risk of anxiety and depression

Okay, before we discuss the cure for the disease, we need to understand the factors that cause it. It's important to realize that reaching the state of depression doesn't happen overnight; it takes months or years to get to the severe form of depression. And here are a few dangerous habits that will increase the risk of facing depression:

Irregular work hours

It's quite a typical situation for a creative person to avoid a specific schedule. You start work late in the day (afternoon) and finish working late after midnight, and follow this approach day by day, month by month. Irregular work is associated with higher work stress simply because our brain cannot understand when it should be working and when relaxing. As a result, we blur the boundaries between work and leisure.

Strict deadlines

Complicated projects with strict deadlines can put a lot of pressure on designers. You have to work hard to meet deadlines, and you put yourself in a state of stress to demonstrate solid results. You believe that you will feel a sense of relief once you finish a project, but it doesn't happen mainly because the stress is very high.

Need to analyze large amounts of information regularly

Going through many project details is a part of the design routine. Every day, we process a lot of information to find a needle in a haystack. The vast majority of this information doesn't make much sense for us, yet, we have to analyze it to create a solid design. When you overload your brain with information, it plunges into a negative state.

Lack of live communication

At the pandemic's beginning, work from home seemed like a good option. Today it becomes evident that remote communication is not nearly close to in-person contact. When you meet in person with other people, we experience an energy exchange. But Zoom meetings rarely give us the same level of energy boost. That's why working alone increases our feeling of loneliness. Suddenly you start to release that you’re the main character of the ‘Don’t leave your room’ poem by Joseph Brodsky:

Don’t leave your room. This is better left undone.
You’ve got cheap smokes, so why should you need the sun?
Nothing makes sense outside, happiness least of all.
You may go to the loo but avoid the hall.

Toxic people around

When you surround yourself with toxic people, you put yourself at high risk. Toxic people are energy vampires—people who, sometimes intentionally, drain your emotional energy. And the more you interact with them, the more exhausted you will feel. Ideally, you should avoid communicating with them, but if you have to do it, try to minimize the time you spend with them.

Six things you need to do to overcome the anxiety and depression

The first thing you need to do is admit that you have a problem. If you're a seasoned designer, chances are you already suffer from some level of depression. And the more years you dedicate to design, the higher the risk of having a severe level of depression.

1. Avoid alcohol/drugs

Drinking alcohol or taking drugs is the worst way to deal with depression. In the beginning, you will start to believe that this approach works for you. You will feel a little bit better after drinking, but it won't last long. Alcohol acts similar to a quick-sugar food. It will give you a short energy boost but will suck twice as much energy and life force from you.

2. Fixed working hours

"We work from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm" sounds very outdated, right? Tech companies and creative agencies are proud that they give you a flexible schedule— you can work whenever you like; the only thing that matters is your results. However, fixed working hours bring a significant benefit—they make you more organized. When you know that you work 9 to 5, you program your brain that you should complete all your tasks in this part of the day, and you can relax after 5:00 pm and deal with your home business. In other words, you stop thinking about work after 5:00 pm.

3. Say "No" to late-at-night work

"Working late at night is so amazing. I like that I can focus on my design and nobody interrupts me." I hear this all the time. When after-midnight work becomes a part of your daily routine, you break your circadian rhythms and increase the risk of health problems. The night is the time when we should sleep. Fix your sleep schedule, and you start to feel better.

4. Regular sport exercises

When was the last time you were in a gym? Pandemic changed our perception of public places, so many people were afraid of visiting the gym. But do you really need to go to the gym to do sports? No. Doing sport is not about becoming a professional athlete, it's about having a healthy body.

“But I don’t have energy for basic things, how am I supposed to do sport?” is another argument I hear quite often. The thing is—sport doesn't take energy, it gives you energy. Start simple—do 30 min of slow jogging in the morning.

Healthy body, healthy mind

5. Minimize time spend on social networks

Many people compare social networks to drugs and alcohol. But I think that social networks are much worse than alcohol and drugs. They take our time and fill us with fear and sadness. No wonder many famous artists don't use social networks themselves and hire people to deal with social activities. For example, in one interview, Ed Sheeran mentioned that he hasn't carried a phone since 2015 due to mental health reasons. He said, "I got really, really overwhelmed and sad with the phone."

Less digital, more offline.

6. See psychiatrist

"I'm strong enough. I can deal with anxiety and depression myself." Yes, you probably can deal with low-grade depression, but mild- and major depression is required to see a specialist. People who experience major depression or bipolar disorder should always seek help because they battle for their lives. But the problem is that we often realize that they have these disorders only when they start visiting a psychiatrist.

Remember, it's absolutely fine to feel vulnerable. Being vulnerable means being human. So don’t be afraid to seek professional help.

Never measure a man's success by the size of his wallet

It is a quote from the 1987 movie "Wall Street."

We tend to think that success equals money or awards that we receive. It is not. True success is being happy about your life. If you feel good about yourself and your family—congratulations; you're much ahead of many people.

When it comes to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Tim Cook, we tend to see only a facade of success. We don't really know what happens behind the scenes. How do those people really feel? Are they really happy with their life? We will probably never find the truth.

“Okay, I already know that”

Yes, the points provided in this article aren't new. I didn't invent any specific magical technique that will be a universal cure to the state of anxiety and depression. The thing is —you already knew the tips, but do you practice them? Believe me, as soon as you start practicing them, you will notice changes in your body, and after physical changes, you will see changes in your mental health.

🎶 Joe Hisaishi Painters