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My Tiny Task Tips for Working With a Chronic Illness

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For me, chronic illness turned me into a person who was interested in the tiny, the microscopic, even the things you can’t see. I used to be very interested in how big the world was, the universe, the immenseness of things. Everything about my life before was big, fast, cram it all in, don’t want to miss anything. Then chronic illness came along and suddenly what I had to learn was the beauty in the tiny things. Maybe that’s why, despite being terrible at math and science at school, I’m now fascinated by quantum physics, by molecules and the tiny parts that make up the world.

Before I took the small things for granted, I didn’t even count getting washed, dressed, having breakfast as part of my day – they were like the prelude to the main event. I gave little thought to the importance of a wind-down routine, time to prepare to sleep so that I had a better shot at a proper night’s sleep. These were all afterthoughts, if thought about at all. But illness now made them vital to my wellness; now those things that took no thought before sometimes took real effort, sometimes I wasn’t even capable of them.

At my worst my to-do lists went from the long A4 pages I used to make to one, two, sometimes three things. Sometimes my one item for the day was to get out of bed even just to make a cup of tea. Sometimes I would add having a wash at the sink, on my better days I increased it to changing clothes and brushing my hair. On the worst days I had no to-do list at all. My to do was to rest, close my eyes, try to sleep.

So what did those worst times teach me about managing my work days when I was well enough to work?

1. Tiny tasks, those little seemingly inconsequential actions, are in fact building blocks. They are the vital tasks that allow you to build on them. They are the preparation to do the bigger things. You wouldn’t turn up to work in your underwear, so block one is getting dressed. Block two is getting to work – you need the first block before anything else. They don’t just build physically, either; they build you mentally. When you know you’ve done that one thing, you feel more able and prepared to do the next.

Real life tip #1: In my work I like to put the little tiny things in place first – set myself a time limit to do the preparation then make a cup of tea (because everything is easier with tea!), choose one priority for the day, scan emails for vital information only and if no changes are needed write the first three tiny actions needed towards my one priority for the day. Now I have one focus and three specific tiny steps to start making it happen.

2. The tiny habits are the things that keep you functioning. Sleep, eat a healthy meal, move, wash, dress, take medication, physio exercise, time to relax or meditate, medical appointments. These are all things that keep you on top of your mental and physical health that many without an illness don’t have to think about – but those tiny little tick boxes are vital to us.

Real life tip #2: Have a system that ensures everything to do with your wellness mentally and physically is taken care of so you don’t have to remember. I have a task app on my phone that I use separate to my calendar or anything else, just for these must-do’s for things such as:

  • time to switch-off and wind-down for bed
  • write a list of all the stuff on my mind before bed – get it out of my head and onto paper
  • meditation time
  • time to take medication
  • reminders for when new medication is needed and when to pick it up
  • doctor appointments
  • put washing on (so I don’t have to worry about clean clothes)
  • reminders to get fresh air/stretch/move my body
  • reminders to drink some water
  • reminder to take break from computer screen

3. Tiny tasks aren’t just building blocks, sometimes they can be dominoes. You know when you used to set up a line of dominoes standing on their ends? You knock one and they all fall down in turn. Checking one tiny task off your list can sometimes set other things in motion and check off more than one other thing on your list. This is where choosing your priority tasks is important; sometimes you will see a task that you know might be a little bigger, take a bit more time, but will knock over a bunch of other dominoes. For example, writing that report will not only check the report box but you can re-purpose it for that update the group needs and you can use the key points in it to write that article for the website. But to know which tiny things to do you have to be able to simply see the bigger picture so you can see where those connections are.

Real life tip #3: This tip is a biggie but a goodie so bear with me. I picked-up this technique from Michael Heppell’s book “How to save an hour every day,” a book I would highly recommend. I’ve been using this idea for years now and have slightly changed it to work for me and you can alter to suit how you like to work.

Keep a list (electronic is easier and a spreadsheet is even better) of the main things you are working on and need to do. From the right-now stuff to the later down the line stuff. The idea is to remove that crap from your head so you don’t constantly feel like there is something to remember.

Have a column for: Now, Next, Later, Future

Put a bullet point for each piece of work in each column for whatever is applicable right now. Get everything you can think of, even the annoying little possibilities or stuff that’s been talked about – throw it in here. Every week have a quick scan and move stuff across if it now needs to be in a different column, delete stuff that’s no longer applicable, remove the completed tasks.

It’s up to you how far in the future you put your next, later and future tasks. I like to keep the now column for stuff this week, next for stuff in the next month, later for the next three months and in the future for anything else.

You may find it helpful to add monthly and no-date sub-headings to your later and future columns. So, for example, if you are adding this week in the now column and anything for October in the next column, then your sub-headings for the later column might be:

  • No Date
  • November
  • December
  • January 2018

And your sub-headings for Future might be:

  • No date
  • Feb 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • Later in 2018
  • 2019 onward

Remember to put the no date stuff at the top so it doesn’t get lost – those are often the on-hold ideas/projects that suddenly get resurrected all of a sudden!

Print this out weekly to see how nice it feels to tick off the stuff in the now column and feel like a total badass when you always know what’s coming up. Not only will you see connections that allow you to domino your work (more efficiently using your time), but in meetings you will be able to ask questions and plan around what you know is coming up, make sure you have enough resources and also be able to discuss with your boss which projects are to take priority.

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Thinkstock photo via ElNariz.

Originally published: October 22, 2017
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