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5 Tips for Staying Productive With a Chronic Illness


Chronic illness can be hard on your body, your relationships and especially your productivity level. Maybe there was a time when you could go to school all day, work part-time, go to the gym and then go home, make dinner and watch television. Now you might be lucky if you have enough spoons to just make dinner. So what can you do to boost your productivity when spoons are low and pain is high? Read on to find out what works for me. I hope these tips can help you too.

1. Get enough sleep.

This is a key spoon-saving technique for anyone with a chronic illness. If you can, let your sleep schedule develop organically. Go to bed when you start to feel tired and don’t get out of bed until you feel rested. Over time you should be able to tell how many hours of sleep your body needs and when it likes to get those hours. This involves tossing out your alarm clock and setting doctor’s appointments for later than noon if possible. If you still have a job that requires getting up early, start going to bed 15 minutes earlier each night until you get to a point where you feel well-rested when the alarm goes off. A well-rested chronic illness warrior is a productive chronic illness warrior.

2. Break large tasks down into manageable chunks.

If the goal is to declutter your entire bedroom, do not start with the “entire” bedroom. Begin with a small task like decluttering your nightstand. You can even do this from bed! Go at whatever pace makes you feel comfortable. Once that task is complete, congratulate yourself for making progress. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it took you a week to declutter a single room, all that matters is that you got it done in a way that worked for you.

You can apply this technique to any project in your life. Need to vacuum but muscle weakness and fatigue makes doing the whole house at once impossible? Set up a daily schedule of one room to vacuum, or even part of a room if things are extremely tough. Need to run errands? Do one a day, or two a day with a nap at home in between.

3. Take breaks.

This one goes hand-in-hand with suggestion number two. Most chronic illness warriors cannot just “bite the bullet” and tackle everything at once. So forget about that ableist mentality and go at your own pace. Wash the dishes at night and put them away in the morning. Exchange one chore for one episode of your favorite show, switching back and forth until all your chores are done. Put your feet up on the dash for 10 minutes before heading home from the grocery store to allow your legs to recover. Mainly, just listen to your body. If your arms are screaming for a break after eating a bowl of cereal, let them have it. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the world can eat cereal without feeling anything. If your body needs a break, give it one.

4. Ask for help.

Asking for help can be incredibly difficult. It means admitting you cannot do something yourself. However, this is not news. You know there are things your body cannot do that still have to be done. There’s no prize for wearing dirty clothes because you can’t lift the laundry and were too stubborn to ask for help. Friends can come over and help you with dishes and meal prep to make sure you are fed for the week. In exchange, you can send them home with a ready-made crock pot dinner. Family can help with your laundry (it’s not like your sister hasn’t seen your tighty whities before) and then you can watch television together while the loads are going.

You may also want to consider a non-human helper. Investigate whether you qualify for an assistance animal. Some dogs are trained to help with dishes, laundry, opening doors and many other tasks. Additionally, maybe this holiday season you could ask for a single gift from all your friends and family in the form of a Roomba or other automatic vacuum. These can be quite pricey, so multiple loved ones could chip in, and it would pay for itself several times over by keeping your home clean with little effort on your part. This also goes for food processors, quality dishwashers, slow cookers, Instant Pots, universal remotes, clap-on lights, hand-held shower heads, and anything else that can save you some spoons.

5. Remember that doing your best is always enough.

Whatever you can do is enough. You don’t need to be as productive as your Ph.D. best friend, your CEO sister, or that bikini-clad Instagram model. You don’t need to head up an international nonprofit to be a good person who makes a difference in the lives around you. What you can do matters. It is your life and your body and whatever you can or cannot do is simply a part of that package. Be grateful for what you can do and brush off the rest.

Getty image by Ralf Geithe.