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How Do You Manage Your Time When You're Sick and Life Is Unpredictable?

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The irony that I’m writing this story after testing positive for COVID-19 and being in isolation for three days is not lost on me. That wasn’t quite the angle of the story to begin with, but my current state of health has reinforced the underlying points I had intended to make about maximizing good days in anticipation of the inevitable and unpredictable arrival of those days where doing anything seems impossible.

Whether because of chronic illness or mental health, some days you just can’t do life. Managing your time wisely on good days can help you optimize output while alleviating the stress of knowing that tomorrow you might wake up unable to tackle any tasks. With that in mind, I do have some actionable tips for making the most of your time on good days.

1. Write notes and set alarms on your phone.

If I didn’t have notes and alarms on my phone, I would be lost. I still keep an old-fashioned written calendar too, but if I’m honest, I forget to check it. I program every deadline, appointment, or important event into my calendar on my phone and set an alarm with a reminder for it. And I keep everything in my notes as a backup with details. It sounds like overkill, but I feel better about not missing anything if I know it’s all there for me to reference, and if worse comes to worst, my phone will buzz at me to make sure I don’t forget. This helps to soothe my overthinking perfectionist mind so that I’m not wasting time worrying about missing something and actually doing said thing.

2. Block out unnecessary distractions.

I find that often I have to either go to another room to get work accomplished or put my headphones on and listen to a podcast to focus enough to complete a task. Particularly if others are trying to talk to me or are watching TV (I’m talking to you, my dear husband). I almost have to create a zone of productivity, a bubble of sorts, where my brain doesn’t feel compelled to drift to whatever other stimuli might be attempting to hold its attention. The right environment is particularly important when we work from home and there’s no distinction between where we live and where we produce.

3. Brainstorm in the middle of the night.

I’m an insomniac. I’ve written about my troubles with autonomic hyperarousal before. It’s an acute part of my PTSD diagnosis which for the most part is a curse. But… there is one tiny plus to being wide awake in the middle of the night when nobody else is. My brain tends to enter a kind of creative and super thoughtful phase, and that’s when some of my best ideas occur. If I can quiet my superfluous brain chatter enough to tap into that moment of peak creativity and thought, it can be an incredibly prolific opportunity for me. I sometimes will go hide in the bathroom for a bit and jot down notes from these kinds of sessions to revisit in the morning. Your moment of creative thinking may occur at a different time of the day. Whenever that is, remember to take a pause and jot down those ideas. Don’t let them dissipate!

4. Take advantage of bursts of energy.

I tend to get these intense bursts of energy on my good days that can last from just a few minutes to hours. I take these as a golden opportunity to complete as many tasks as I can. If I’ve procrastinated doing something, this is the time to seize the moment and do it while I still feel energized and motivated.   Sometimes I end up tiring myself out, but to me, it’s a good kind of tired. I get an overwhelming sense of accomplishment which releases those feel-good hormones like dopamine and reinforce that joy of completing a task, making me want to do it again the next time I get that burst of energy.

5. Reward yourself.

Sure, work can be its own reward, but sometimes promising myself some kind of reward for completing a tedious task is motivation enough for me to just get it over with. Chores like cleaning the bathroom or laundry come to mind. I will plan something special like watching a movie or show I love, ordering a pizza for dinner, taking a walk outside, or taking a nap as an incentive to do the thing even if I really don’t want to. Use whatever motivates you the most. No judgment here. Particularly on those hard days where your body and mind scream “no” but life has to move forward and others are relying on you to finish certain tasks to live their lives, give yourself whatever you want!

6. Ask for help.

Speaking of others, don’t forget to ask for help. Life isn’t meant to be lived in hyper self-reliance or isolation (unless you have COVID, which is a different story and not permanent, even if it feels like an eternity). We have to learn to delegate the things we can to others and to ask for help when we need it so that we can reserve our energy for those tasks that only we can do. So many of us feel shame for relying on anyone else to meet our needs or do anything for us. I get it. I’m one of the most hyper-independent to a fault humans on this planet. But if I want to write as well as possible, create delicious meals, and attend to guests of my bed and breakfast, I’m going to have to allow others to pitch in and give me the extra time and space I need for those things to happen.

Honestly, this forced break has helped me realize how important all of these tips are to me on a regular basis, particularly now that I’m feeling lousy and my brain isn’t functioning at its best. I hope you can refer to these tips and implement them into your own unpredictable daily lives. And remember, listen to your body and mind. If they are telling you to take a break, do it. Recognizing our limitations is as crucial as any tips I can give. Forced productivity isn’t helpful for anyone. You will always be more efficient and effective if you are in alignment with your own needs. Time management is at its most fruitful when we attune to our internal clocks.

Getty image by Alexey Yaremenko.

Originally published: July 11, 2022
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