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The Power of Declaring a 'Day of Low Expectations' in My Life With Chronic Pain

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I had such high hopes for today.

The week had been good overall. My pain levels were low, I felt energetic, and so I assumed Saturday would be just like the rest of the days. I had a few important tasks I wanted to do, all of which I categorized as “high brainpower tasks,” a category I use for things I know will be mentally demanding and I can’t just squeeze them in when I’m tired.

Turns out there’s research backing up my category of high brainpower tasks: when mentally exerting yourself, the brain uses up oxygen and energy, and you feel tired. Ever felt exhausted after a long day of final exams? That’s why.

On a normal day, I know I need to do my high brainpower tasks in the morning, which is when I’m most alert. Not everyone is most alert in the morning, but I am, so that’s how I structure my day. I expected this Saturday to be just like most Saturdays. Unfortunately, when you have a chronic illness that can vary from day to day, you can’t always count on that. That’s why I always give myself permission to declare some days a “day of low expectations.”

What actually happened on Saturday: I woke up more tired than normal, which isn’t automatically a dealbreaker for high brainpower tasks, but pain levels were higher as well. Not a good combination. On top of that, the first task I decided to tackle ended up being way harder than I expected. The info I needed was hard-to-find, it took longer than I planned, and was much more emotionally draining. By the end of it, I was wiped out, and it wasn’t even 11 a.m.

So, I did what most people would do: I complained about it and got mad. Reality is hard to argue with, and as much as I try, I’ve never won. Letting go of plans is hard for me to do, especially when those plans are related to productivity, but this is why I do my most important tasks first, just in case those are the only things I’m able to do that day.

So, I declared it a “day of low expectations” and told myself I didn’t have to finish anything I originally planned. As a recovering perfectionist, I know I have to give myself that permission. At that point, I figured I might as well nap. If I already woke up tired, and if mental fatigue was setting in, and it sounds like I need to make an appointment with my pillow. Best decision of the day.

Not only did I wake up feeling more energized, but my pain levels were also lower because I had an hour of not using any of the body parts that hurt. I found myself able to tackle the other two tasks I had put off, which wasn’t what I was expecting, but was a nice surprise. And best of all, it led me here, to write this for you. I knew I didn’t have to do either of those things, a day of low expectations means I don’t have to, but I can if I want.

Perhaps you had high hopes for today, just like I did, and while your day might be different than you wanted it to be, different doesn’t have to be bad (though of course, it can be). Perhaps today is a day where you only got the first thing on your list on and not all of them. Perhaps today isn’t going as planned and you’re more exhausted than you wanted, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. Perhaps today is one of those bad symptoms days for you and you might need to declare it a day of low expectations.

If that’s you today, do it. Today isn’t all there is. Rest up, and remember that like many video game characters and superheroes, sometimes you have to recharge before you can unleash your power move.

Getty image by PCH Vector.

Originally published: May 23, 2021
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