It's rare to open a self-help book and to know, from page one, that you're in a better state of mind than its author. Of course, it's not uncommon to suspect this might be the case - that people who write books on how to be happy might secretly be empty inside, or that self-styled gurus of wellbeing, preaching calm amid urban chaos, might occasionally be found bawling out the staff at Tesco, veins popping. ("What the hell do you mean you've run out of Celestial Seasonings camomile and ginseng serenity blend? I want to see your supervisor!") But early in her new book, Julie Fast comes clean: she's sometimes so paralysed by depression, she can barely leave her bed. Her book is called Get It Done When You're Depressed, but since I've never experienced the debilitating extremes she describes, I can't say whether it's useful if you're suffering from depression. What's striking is how useful it is even if you aren't.
Fast's starting assumption is that, like her, her readers are depressed and aren't about to stop being so any time soon - but that, in the meantime, there are a few things they'd like to be getting on with. She thus largely sidesteps the perfectionism implicit in much pop psychology: boundless joy and unlimited achievement are off the table at the start, so the familiar destructive cycle of self-improvement (resolve to become amazing, fail, feel worse, resolve to try harder, fail worse) is less of an issue. Fast offers ways to work around and alongside depression, rather than attacking it directly. Handily, her strategies also work if the mental obstacle you need to work around isn't depression, but an even more commonplace barrier to action: not really feeling like it.
"Don't wait until you want to do something," Fast writes, in possibly the single most useful productivity tip ever (it's a close cousin of "motivation follows action", mentioned here previously.) "Many people equate depression with the inability to work. In reality, the problem is often the inability to feel like working." But it's not just the depressed who fall for the notion that feeling motivated is a crucial precursor to doing something. To some degree, most of us believe this, and an entire industry - motivational books, speakers, articles - encourages the delusion. The "motivation" message is more insidious for being, in the short term, somewhat effective: right after reading a go-get-'em book or watching some high-octane speaker, you really might feel "pumped". But the long-term effect is to reinforce the idea that you need to be in this mood to take action.
Change your thoughts, we're told, and you'll change your emotions and thereby your life. Fast's advice is just to act, without first demanding that your thoughts and feelings change. (Hint: do this and they probably soon will.) One of her downbeat but brilliant mantras for living is, "This will feel all wrong." Someone should put that on a fridge magnet.