"Top of the Cliff" Problem Solving as a Mastery Activity for When You Feel Depressed

When you’re feeling depressed or overwhelmed, try doing some “top of the cliff” problem solving. By “top of the cliff” I mean problem solving that involves putting a structure in place that will ease your future burden.

Aim for something incredibly simple and impossible to fail at.

It could be

– setting up an automatic payment for a bill you normally pay manually (easing the burden of remembering and time)

– making a regular date to see a sibling or friend e.g. the 2nd Tues of the month (reducing the burden of planning, and also reducing “mood-dependence” meaning only doing mood-enhancing activities when you are already in a good mood).

– hiring a regular babysitter for every second Saturday night so that you and your partner can go on date night.

– each time you get library books out, put the due date in Google Calendar so that you get an email reminder of when they’re due.

– something I did this week… put a plastic bag inside my purse so that I put payments from clients straight in the plastic bag and don’t need to empty out my whole bag.

– assign a home to something you own that ends up as clutter or getting lost because it doesn’t currently have a home.

Why this is useful for mood

I’ve written before about how two kinds of activities are useful for lifting your mood:

– activities that give you pleasure
– activities that give you a sense of mastery.

This obviously falls in the mastery category.


“Planning” and “Doing” are both cognitively intensive. If you do you planning at a separate time from when you do your doing, you reduce your mental load.

When you’re depressed you’re likely to feel more tired than usual and feel exhausted more easily.

If you separate your planning from your doing, you won’t be so mentally exhausted from the planning that you’re too exhausted to do the doing.

Having something pre-planned reduces the barriers to doing, and when you’re depressed you’re likely to invent barriers to doing due to your depression.

Top of the cliff problem solving is a bit like exercise in that…

Top of the cliff problem solving is a useful way to jolt your mood when you are already stressed or depressed, but ideally you also do it on regular basis. For example, you put aside a couple of hours of your work week to look at a problem in your life from a bird’s eye perspective and plan some alternative coping.