The Mighty Logo

The Two List Coping Strategy for Managing Life With an Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

The Two List Strategy starts with an explanation of Good Days and Bad Days. With either chronic mental health issues like depression or chronic physical health issues, like lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, you have Good Days and Bad Days, because the conditions flare up, and on a good day, some things are easier, and on a bad day, some things are harder, as the conditions wax and wane. Lots of things factor in to whether or not a day turns out “Bad” or “Good,” including stress, sleep, what you eat, how you eat, your coping mechanisms, your environment and many other factors as well.

Sometimes, when you are feeling ill (physically or mentally), you can’t get yourself to get anything done or to complete everything that you want to because of how you are feeling that day. This happens to everyone, whether or not they have an illness, on Good Days and Bad Days, but this is usually worse for people with illness, so applying a Two List strategy may be helpful (it is for me) in getting through the Bad Days and the cycle of flare and wellness to make managing your life easier when your energy feels taken away from you by illness at times, something that can be out of your control, is unpredictable, and isn’t your fault.

This may sound like an understatement, if you are sitting at home, trying to figure out a way to go brush your hair or find a pair of jeans that don’t hurt because you have a mental health or physical health issue, which could vary from depression, to fFibromyalgia, fibromyalgia being why you wouldn’t choose jeans, because they may hurt your skin, or have any variety of health issues that could impact your functioning, despite your best intentions and wishes to go about your day on either a Good Day or a Bad Day.

There is a way to cope with this! With both Good Days and Bad Days, particularly Bad Days, at the most very basic level, and it is a trick that I used to use when I was first diagnosed with all of my illnesses, and it was by was by cutting tasks down to the most basic list of things, so that getting through each day was extremely easy. This meant paring my day down to the minimal list of things that had to be done every day to get through the day, and making these lists can be done either formally or informally, either by making a list of things you have to do in written form, so that you can see it on a  list in front of you, or by doing that in your head, and reminding yourself of it every day, no matter how hard it gets.

This helps to cut down in the mental overload of what you have to do every day when you are going through a tough time and need to focus on yourself, and by breaking tasks down into “what is essential that I do today,” and then you can build up your day from there. This is especially good if you have depression, and are stuck on the couch, and don’t want to do anything else. The first step is making a small list in your head of  “What are the essentials that I do every day, even if I don’t feel up to it, like brushing my teeth.” This applies to what you would do every day, regardless of whether or not it is a Good Day or a Bad day, these are your daily essential activities that you have to have in the back of your head as a “I do this every day, no matter how bad I’m feeling” activity.

Then think about things that you can do on your bad days that aren’t essentials, but that you can still manage to do and that build up on your list of very basic activities and that may make you feel a bit better, or that you can take on at this present time. They can be self-care activities, they can be work, or anything that you feel you can achieve on a Bad Day without overloading yourself, and that you add on to the basic essentials on a Bad Day if you are feeling up to it, or you can choose from the essentials you set aside when you weren’t feeling up to them, like Dishes, lists of things that may have piled up because you have ignored them or not been up to doing them.”

Then, on your Good Days, take more on, and think about “What are the essentials that I can do today, because I’m feeling better, and what can I achieve today with this energy, and what should I do today do or or take on that maybe I set aside when I wasn’t feeling up to doing them on my worst days, or on bad days, things like laundry, or catching up on work.

Maybe planning a rest day is part of a Bad Day and part of self-care for you, and just doing the “very basic,” sometimes, during a flare, and maybe doing  a lot more during another period is what’s best for you when you feel up to it. You have to listen to your body.

And listening to your body in order to be successful over time and learning to take Good Days and Bad Days as they come involves paring your daily routine down to its most basic, and attacking each day as it comes, in small bites.

Remind yourself that, it’s not your fault that you don’t always get all the things those things done that you want to. I have to remind myself of this often, because I feel badly when I am not able to get all the things done that I wanted to some days, because I feel badly that I didn’t get to get “everything done,” like a person with a healthy body would with ease and without all the thinking and all the effort that it takes me to go about my day because of the health issues that I have.

I find from my own experience, I feel really guilty when I am ill and can’t accomplish what I am supposed to, or want to. With some illnesses, like a lupus flare for example, you can’t find the strength to even brush your hair, or teeth, or shower, or change pyjamas, and making food is hard, because you may be too tired, and sometimes, leaving the house is hard. Let alone work, or any of the more important things that sit there waiting for you to get to them. And it doesn’t help that you feel badly about all of this and wish you could get it all done.

That’s where this Two-List Coping Strategy comes in: This strategy helps you to navigate the Bad Days and the Good Days that so often come with chronic illness, both mental health and physical health issues, and it shows you how to find a balance between the two, and how to navigate the ebb and flow of illness, by placing the easy tasks you have to do every day, the most basic tasks you have each day that you can do every day, on either a mental list or a written list, whichever you desire, and then the harder tasks or self-care tasks on a list that you can add to and take on as you feel ready to. Then add tasks on a list made specifically for your harder days — things that you weren’t able to take on on your Bad Days, things that you can do when you have more energy and that you feel up to doing when you feel better.

This is how I have learned to live my life, over the past 10 or so years of having chronic illness and mental health issues. I do it mentally, in my head. And I have multiple health issues, quite a few in fact. I make a mental list of the most basic tasks that can get me through the day, and then I do that every day, and I add to it as I’m feeling up to it. I do the basic list every day, and on my Good Days I address the harder things and catch up on what I’ve missed out and am behind on. This takes away the stress of how much you have to do but that you feel you can’t get done.

I have found by using this strategy that I am also better able to balance my energy and care for myself better when the good and bad days come. I can better accomplish the things I need to — in so many words, I can also plan my rest days, or better prepare for my off days because this has taught me not to take on too much, and to take care of myself and be kinder to myself when I am feeling down. I also don’t feel badly when I have a Bad Day anymore, because I can plan and know that I’ll be able to make up for it when the next good one will come and I can plan and set aside tasks for when I feel better by setting aside tasks I’ll do for when I feel better, and then I take it by the horns. I have tried many things that have not worked for managing my illness, one thing, was the almighty Calendar, because the Calendar rules illness, I learned, and chronic illness almost always won out over all the plans that I wrote down, until I really truly found a balance with my health.

The best thing I think that I have done for myself thus far in learning to live with my illnesses was to find a way to manage my energy and my time, and to find a way to learn to balance with Good Days and Bad Days, and how to set aside tasks and to manage my energy wisely, and how to use my energy efficiently, because I have no control over the fact that I’m sick, or that some days, I just won’t feel well, and I won’t be able to work, and I’ll have to rest, and won’t be able to do as much, so by learning to step back, and wait until later, because illness changes day to day, this strategy has helped me immensely.

Learning to work with my illness instead of against it, has taught me a lot, and it’s helped me get far and still achieve what I want with my illnesses. I have learned a sense of balance, and can say with firmness that I am able to cope under great stress, by using this strategy, because I know how to pair things down, and care for myself with just the basic essentials, and then pile on the tasks when needed, or as needed. This works for all health issues.  

I use this strategy — The Two List Coping Strategy, of paring down tasks, to set things aside for later, but to still get through each day, particularly the Bad Days, and to care for myself when I need it, and I add on tasks as I’m able. I find that I get a lot more done that way with less stress than looking at a big list of “what I should do each day,” and then feeling bad about what I haven’t necessarily achieved, because I take things on based upon my energy and abilities, and over time, over the last 10 or so years of living with chronic illness, I’ve learned to plan around my illness, using Good Days and Bad Days to my advantage, and get things done when I can, and rest when I need to, by having the lists of what I need to get done and catch up on ready in my head, ie: after my flare ends, I’ll do all this work that I missed out on, so I don’t need to beat myself up for being in bed today, I can take that time to rest today, and I’ll catch up when I feel better. I add on tasks as I’m able to take them on, rather than looking at it as a whole bunch of things that I haven’t achieved.

Sometimes, I find that I achieve a lot in one day, and I catch up on everything, and make up for next day even, and it’s a Great Day, even better than a Good Day. And sometimes, it’s a not so good day, it’s a Bad Day, and I hate that, and I don’t get much done at all. It all depends on the day, really. But having my lists helps me a lot to maintain peace with my illness when they create havoc in my life.

Whether it’s done in written form, or mentally done, this really works for me, and I hope it helps you too.

Follow this journey on Twenty Something and Sick.

Originally published: February 12, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home