How One Man Used GTD to Recover from Mental Illness - Next Action Associates

Andy Hall

Andy Hall knows first-hand how it feels to sink into severe depression, anxiety and breakdown, but he’s also learned how to fight back. Here, in light of the recent Mental Health Awareness month, he shares his experience of how GTD® has helped turn his life around.

Andy is a mental health advocate, writer and TEDx speaker who focuses on how to combat depression, anxiety and suicide without medication. Professionally, he is the mentoring specialist for Manchester’s Growth Company, has mentored hundreds of individuals and businesses and has won Manchester’s Mentor of the Year Award. In his spare time he is an ambassador for two charities and an avid runner, who went from being a non-runner in 2017 to completing 56 mass participation runs in 2018 including four half marathons in one month. Andy was coached in GTD in the Summer of 2018.

Can you paint us a picture of life before you discovered GTD?

I was heading for a breakdown, definitely. No two ways about it. I know that because I experienced a complete physical and mental breakdown in 2009 and I knew I needed to do things differently or I was going to burn myself out and go back into that cycle of self-destruction. I needed to change a lot of things in my life like healthy eating and exercising, but I also needed to feel more in control and I needed space. I was flipping between overwhelm and crisis at work on a regular basis, asking myself anything from ‘Am I doing the right thing?” to “What am I doing wrong?” to “Am I in the right job?”.

It’s been nine months since our initial GTD coaching. How’s it going?

I’ve been amazed by how much more in control I feel. GTD has helped me zoom out to get a much better sense of perspective because getting better day-to-day control has created the space to think. I generally feel very much in control. Everybody else at work is incredibly busy, but I feel that although I know I’ve got a lot of work on, I know what I’ve got to do, when I’ve got to do it and who I’m waiting for.

Now I can spend more time thinking about bigger picture stuff with a much greater feeling of control. I’m able to work in a much more agile way, wherever I am. I can open Outlook and choose the right thing to do – whenever I’m unsure I can go straight to the tasks and check what I should be working on. I can check projects and next actions and know where I’m up to. The two-minute rule works really well for me as well. I can get through email much more quickly. When it gets to empty it feels like witchcraft.

You’re an expert on mental health and you have personal experience of dealing with problems in this area. What are your thoughts on how GTD impacts mental health?

For me, GTD isn’t just a methodology for being more productive, it’s a methodology to improve mental health. In today’s climate people are talking much more openly about mental health and GTD is 100% relevant.

I’ve been thinking about mental health for years. There are three aspects that it touches on and I’m pretty sure most people have something similar. First, there’s anxiety where we’re worried about things in the future that we haven’t done or need to do. Then there’s being present in your life and enjoying things. And finally you’ve got depression – rethinking things that we’ve done – the past, basically.

When I’m mentally unwell, that middle part of being present is so thin. There’s no bandwidth there. I’m never in the present. I’m never enjoying anything. I’m feeling very unhappy and when I’ve been feeling very, very unwell it’s similar to bipolar disorder.

Can you describe those feelings?

So the bipolar part of it would be going from absolute anxiety, completely panicking all the time, then running out of energy and going into depression about the things I’ve done wrong. After that, as soon as I’ve got some energy back again I’d go back up and become manic.

In between the two, when I was first diagnosed with anxiety/depression, all I wanted was to feel alive and at no point did I feel like I was actually living. All I was doing was processing as much information as much as my brain could handle and there was no bandwidth to feel happiness whatsoever.

Anxiety creates a chemical reaction in the brain where it triggers too much adrenaline. Adrenaline stops me thinking clearly. It takes away physical and mental energy and closes down the creative part of my brain. I can’t be creative and I can’t think rationally when I’m anxious. I’m only firefighting; doing as much as I can as quickly as I can. My breathing is short. It feels very much like I’m getting ready to get into a fight. That’s not healthy and from a mental health perspective there are physical implications of that. You’re just exhausted all the time. I believe we have something like 90 minutes of adrenaline in our body every day. That’s all we can create, so if we’re running on adrenaline for so long during the day we’re eventually going to just crash and burn.

So how exactly has GTD helped?

If I were to translate all this into what GTD has helped me with, it’s that because I have a place to put things, to compartmentalise things, I don’t feel anxious about them anymore, and similarly, even if I have a million and one things to do, I don’t feel like I have a million and one things to do anymore.

When people are in a work environment, they are subject to constant distraction. They have little focus, and a very short attention span. They’re constantly in this area of anxiety and they feel overwhelmed so that presence is never really entered into that much. To me, that presence, that living, is actually enjoying what I do, including work, so as I’ve implemented GTD at work it’s allowed me to enjoy what I do more. When I’m meeting people, I’m very rarely thinking about something else, anything other than meeting that person. All that exists is enjoying the moment, enjoying the conversation I’m having right now and making the most of this opportunity. I will know that if I’m in the meeting and something pops into my head I’ll capture it and think “I’ll deal with that later” and it’s no longer in my mind. I’m no longer looking away from this person thinking “Oh, when am I going to do that” or “When do I answer that email”. I feel confident that I can enjoy work more.

You also mentioned depression. Can you say something about how that shows up and how GTD helps with it?

The third part, the depression, is a parallel part because, to me, when someone is struggling with depression they’re afraid to do things because they’re afraid they’re going to get them wrong. You think “That email I sent – did I send it right?”. I’m going to keep reading it and thinking “Oh why did I say that? I wonder if that person’s bad-mouthing me now?” I’ll read documents again that I’ve already read 30 times. If I’m looking through a to-do list over and over again, then I’m thinking about what I haven’t done. That’s a depressive thought. It’s disempowering to think about the things I haven’t done but now I’m not rethinking things anymore, not overthinking things that I’ve thought before, and I’m not holding so many things in my head consciously, so I can focus in on one thing at a time.

GTD helps because it enables me to know that everything’s got a place and it allows me time to focus. I can move my phone away, put it on silent, turn off notifications and tell myself, “For the next hour I’m going to do this and that’s all I’m going to do”.

So how would you sum up the connection between GTD and mental health?

In terms of mental health it’s almost a blueprint for a better mental health model. GTD allows me to be more present, allows me to focus more, to breathe better, to have a lunch hour and all that impacts on better physical and mental health.

GTD, for me, it is 100% about mental health. It can’t be about anything else. It’s about taking anxiety and depression, and using GTD methods to put things in the place where they belong, to use mental space better. In terms of impact and results, it’s working perfectly.

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