Getting going

Depressed thinking and behaviour leads to withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities and interactions. Getting going with small goals for increasing pleasurable or purposeful activities is one of the quickest ways to make a difference to depression.

Regaining pleasure and purpose

Lethargy and lack of energy are one of the most common warning signs that depression is affecting your life.

The idea of engaging in ‘activity’ can sound very daunting when you feel this way – but this does not mean punishing exercise schedules or unpleasant exertion. It means anything that engages your mind or body in a pleasurable or purposeful way!

Don’t wait to feel like it! Activity (and the lack of it) has a direct effect on the brain chemicals affecting mood, so you can alter your mood by doing something rather than waiting for it to work the other way around.

Assess how depression has deprived your life of pleasurable activities – from reading the paper to going for a walk – and start reintroducing them in small manageable steps.

Use the following step-by-step strategy to help you:

Step 1: Fill in an activity record for a week

Note what you were doing for each hour, or group of hours, after you wake up. Give each section two ratings from 1 (low) to 10 (high). The first rating is for the level of pleasure or enjoyment you had during that period of the day. The second rating is for your sense of achievement during that time. The two ratings might be very different, because some activities might not be enjoyable but might nevertheless give you a sense of achievement.

Step 2: Notice the link between activity and mood

The partially completed example below shows an activity record for a generally low day for Ben. Notice how the pleasure and/or achievement levels tend to rise when he is more active.

A low day for Ben

Activity                                                                         Pleasure rating    Achievement rating

Wake up and stay in bed                                                      1                                  1
Get up and sit in kitchen with housemate                       3                                 4
Go back to bed                                                                         2                                  1
Get up and shower                                                                  3                                 5
Go to campus and chat in student union                          4                                 3
Return overdue library book and check emails               2                                 6
Come home and watch TV                                                    3                                 3

Once you have completed activity records for a week, look for the patterns and notice which activities have had the highest pleasure or achievement ratings. Think about how you felt at different points in the day.

Step 3: Make realistic goals for introducing more activity

Think about how to take small steps to build more activity into each day. Start with very small goals, like getting up out of bed and taking a few deep breaths before deciding whether or not to go back to bed (if you usually wake up and find it hard to get out of bed). Choose activities which are mainly pleasurable or likely to give you a sense of achievement.

Step 4: Don’t wait to feel motivated

Make a rule that you will ‘have a go’ for a certain amount of time before you give up on a planned activity, even if it’s just 5 minutes, but after that you can give up because you’ll have achieved what you set out to do. If you want to carry on with the task though, of course you can.

Step 5: Chart your progress

Keep filling in activity records, so you can see the difference you’re making.

Step 6: Check depressed thinking

You can keep up the momentum of this strategy by checking for any depressed thinking habits. Where you notice patterns of low scores, try to work out what thoughts or beliefs you have in relation to what you were doing. For example, if getting out of bed has a low score you may find you have an all-or-nothing thinking habit: “I’ve woken up feeling low again, so the whole day will be bad.” See the ‘Changing attitudes’ section for more about how to identify and challenge depressed thinking.

Ideas for activities

If depression has made you very lethargic, getting up and dressed as soon as you wake up might give a good sense of achievement.

If you’ve been getting more socially isolated, make a date with a friend to watch a favourite TV show. If you’ve not been getting out much, try to take a short walk around the block or down to the shops.

See ‘Focusing outward’ and ‘Taking care of yourself’ for other constructive ideas for activities.

You can also use the framework described in ‘Understanding your depression’ to tailor your strategies based on how depression has been affecting you.


Building on this strategy

Once your general activity levels are higher, or if depression has not yet affected your activity levels too badly, there are several ways you can consolidate this powerful strategy against depression:

  • Develop healthier daily routines for sleep, eating, exercise, relaxation and socialising. In particular, think about developing an enjoyable exercise routine as a further proven strategy to defeat depression.
  • Learn how to challenge the depressed thinking habits and attitudes which may be reducing the benefit from your increased activity. In particularly, learning greater self compassion can improve your motivation for self-caring and other constructive activities.
  • Gradually build up your skills for living well, including mindfulness, assertiveness and emotional literacy, and provide yourself with a powerful compass for the way forward by identifying your life values.

 Next: Healthier daily routines

Take Action

Activity planner


Increasing exercise
Modifying stress levels
Depression biology