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The 'Rule of 3' That Helps Me Live With Chronic Pain and Fatigue

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Like many others, being diagnosed with a chronic illness rocked my world sideways.

The impact of living with a chronic illness sent me off in yet another direction, leaving me to wonder how I would manage. A hundred and one questions surfaced unable to be answered during those early first few months, adding to an already overstressed body and racing mind.

I now realize that this, like tens of thousands of others around the world, rendered me useless – in a world of unthinkable pain every day and unable to think clearly or plan at all.

My to-do lists sat on the table every morning for some months as a reminder of what I was planning to do. My diary scheduled months ahead with projects, events and holidays. The calendar with birthdays, anniversaries and weddings all clearly marked, all stark reminders of the business of my life and a time frame showing where it all turned hazy.

I was forced to take care of the basics. My mind couldn’t hold a thought, let alone an entire project.

I couldn’t comprehend processes. Everything had to be broken down, simplified and documented so I could refer back to it.

Right from the beginning I set some healthy ground rules for myself:

  • If I could get up – I would get dressed, eat on rising and put some makeup on, even if it was just foundation to cover the bags under my eyes and paleness of my face, as well as some lipstick.
  • If I couldn’t manage a day out of bed – at least have a fresh bottle of water to sip on and make contact with the outside world, even if it’s briefly.

There were days when I didn’t achieve this, and that was OK, too.

With my memory going and brain fog creeping in on a daily basis, on good days I kept my mind active by listening to podcasts on all manner of topics. Usually it would be just the one, before the brain turned off and I starting fighting the fatigue.

It was one of these podcasts I heard mention of the concept of prioritizing the top the things as an effective tool to manage your working business day. A concept highly relevant to my past, but here I was, wondering if I could simplify it to fit with my new life. I figured I had nothing to lose.

I took this concept and adapted it. I’ve never been one to micromanage, believing that some things are better left to fate and some are naturally left better off unmanaged to allow space – but here I was starting to micromanage my days.

What emerged was a rule of three. Firstly, I managed a list of three things as “tasks accomplished” then as “tasks to achieve.” I started my day with three tasks mapped out to complete at some stage during each day.

Initially on days when I could get out of bed they might have included, having a shower, getting outside for some fresh air and journaling.

I was trying to be realistic in realizing that doing three things a day would eventually tire and become dreadfully mundane – so I allowed some days where I would simply “freestyle” it. On these days I would note down when I had done something, limiting myself to three things and then stopping and resting for the remainder of the day.

Over time this developed a sense of achievement and degree of satisfaction, even though I hadn’t planned anything on these days, as I still got things done. It also made me realize just how much I thought I could do. In reality, limiting my efforts was proving over time to be a win-win for me.

“Freestyling” my day without the limit of three also proved to be an effective way of learning the hard way of how much I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. There were days where I learned the hard way that overdoing it was stepping over an invisible line.

As time carried on and I emerged from the house for special occasions, I added the rule of three to these also.

First, they were outings of no more than three hours in duration, including travel time. Any more than this and I would be so fatigued, that driving back was a risk to me and everyone else on the road. Not to mentioned paying the consequences later that day, the next day or the following week.

Second, at least three days in between each planned outing. Any more than this and my energy reserves depleted at an extremely fast rate, rendering me useless for just about anything.

Over a period of 18 months, by using my rule of three, I returned to a life that felt almost normal (perhaps a new form of “normal”) and manageable again. It got me through some tough times by keeping me focused, keeping life realistic and keeping my energy and pain levels in check and manageable.

My mind was also in a better space. Having achieved something every day I felt I wasn’t wasting away. I didn’t feel entirely useless or unproductive and this boosted my moral.

I’ve often found myself sharing this technique with friends, both well and those affected by myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) who are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by having too much on their plates.

Today I still use the same technique as a method to monitor and maintain my health within healthy boundaries and limits. If I don’t do this, I find I burn myself out and pay the price pretty quickly.

With ME/CFS and fibromyalgia and all its related pain and fatigue, sometimes we have to let go of some pretty big life goals. Life is ever changing – it reshapes with reality, but it’s how we manage it all that matters the most, when you have a chronic illness.

I hope you find some inspiration in the rule of three. Let me know if you adopt it and how it works out for you. I wish you all the best and wellness.

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Thinkstock Image By: coffeekai

Originally published: February 27, 2017
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