Healthy living

Behavioural activation fun and achievement

The symptoms of depression – such as tiredness, lethargy, loss of interest, loss of motivation, loss of pleasure, and indecisiveness – can lead to inactivity, and this often keeps the depression going or even makes it worse.

Also, because of the lack of motivation, a depressed person might begin to neglect everyday tasks and responsibilities at work or at home, and the list begins to pile up.

As such, when a depressed person thinks about the things they have to do, they might feel overwhelmed by the pile of things they have put off doing.

This might result in them feeling guilty or thinking that they are ineffective or seen as a failure – this will also worsen the depression.

Increasing your activity level          

One of the ways of overcoming depression is to increase your level of activity.

There is a lot of evidence that shows that the more people do, and the more pleasant activities they get involved in, the better they feel. Becoming more active has a number of advantages.

Activity helps you to feel better

At the very least, when you start engaging in some kind of activity, it gives your mind something else to think about – a different focus.

Doing things, even a little at a time, can help give you a sense that you are moving forward, taking control of your life again, and achieving something – experiencing a sense of mastery. You may even find pleasure and enjoyment in the activities you do.

Activity helps you to feel less tired

Usually, when you are physically tired, you need rest. However, when you are depressed, the opposite is true. Sleeping more and sitting around doing nothing will only cause you to feel more lethargic and tired.

Also, doing nothing leaves room for your mind to ruminate on depressive thoughts, which will make your feel even more depressed.

Activity can help you think more clearly

Once you get started, you may find that you take a different perspective on particular problems in your life. Also, because your mind takes a different focus as a result of the activity, your thoughts may become clearer.

Fun and achievement

It makes good sense to do fun and pleasurable things to make you feel better, but these are not the only sorts of activities that will help generate positive feelings.

Being depressed isn’t just about feeling sad – there are a lot of other feelings involved as well, such as hopelessness, guilt, and despair. So, it also makes sense to do things that result in other positive feelings, such as achievement and a sense of purpose.

When you are planning things to do for yourself, it is important to remember to include a mixture of activities, adding those that have the potential to give you other positive feelings.

An example of this is paying off money on your credit card, or doing the ironing. Doing these things can help you feel more in control of your life, for example, paying off your debts, and give you satisfaction that you have started doing something, such as catching up on household chores.

Doing tasks that give you a sense of achievement or mastery will help you feel like you are starting to get back on top of things again. Some activities may combine both.

For example, making your bed may give you a sense of pleasure at having a neat, tidy bed, but it may also give you a sense of achievement at having done something to improve your home environment.

This sense of achievement is just as important as getting pleasure out of something, and may indeed prompt you to do more.

Start simple

Even though there are a number of advantages in increasing your activity level, it may not be easy to get started.

Often, this is because when you are depressed, you think negative thoughts such as "I won’t enjoy doing this", or "It’s too hard" or "I’ll probably fail at this too."

These thoughts may stop you from getting started. Often the big mistake people make is trying to do too much too soon.

When you are depressed, things that you usually don’t even have to think about doing (when you are not depressed) can seem to require a huge amount of effort.

The idea is to start with small easy steps and begin with things you can do. Think of it in terms of training for a sports event.

If you hadn’t been doing any running for 6 months, would you try and run a marathon without doing any training? Of course not! You would go on a training programme that slowly builds up your fitness and endurance.

Similarly, when you are depressed, it is unreasonable to expect yourself to be able to jump out of bed and clean the house before going out to meet a friend for a late lunch.

If you set your goals too high, you might end up not doing them, become disappointed in yourself, and feel worse than ever.  Instead, plan to do things that are achievable at your current level of functioning.

Start with small steps and slowly build yourself up to the large tasks that seem unmanageable right now.

For example:

  • Aim to get out of bed for 10 minutes then slowly build up the amount of time you are out of bed for.
  • Don’t try to clean the whole kitchen – just aim to do the dishes. If this is too much, just stack all the dirty dishes in a pile. Aim to get one bench top clean, or just wash 5 plates.

Any task can be broken down into smaller and smaller steps until you find something achievable.

Sometimes it is easier to aim to do a task for a set period of time rather than trying to achieve a set amount.

Read a book for 5 minutes rather than reading a whole chapter. Say you will spend 10 minutes weeding the garden rather than aiming to weed a certain area.

This way, it will be easier for you to achieve your goal.

In the beginning, the important thing is not what you do or how much you do, but simply the fact that you are doing something. Remember action is the first step, not motivation, and you’ll soon find yourself feeling better!

Where to get help

Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)

See your doctor

Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222

Mental Health Emergency Response Line (MHERL)

  • Metro callers: 1300 55 788
  • Peel: 1800 676 822


  • Rural and remote areas 1800 552 002


  • Increasing your levels of activity can help to overcome depression.
  • Activity helps to occupy your mind.
  • Start simple – 1 step at a time. Small actions can lead to great results.

This information provided by

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Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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