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How You Can Make Realistic To-Do Lists When You're Chronically Sick

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How many times have you written a to-do list this week?

How many times have you looked at this list and felt like it’s an impossible dream?

How many times have you felt useless because you’ve only ticked off a few items?

How many times have you looked at the list and felt like it’s been taunting you and trying to coax you into doing more than you’re physically able?

How many times has the list been thrown in the rubbish in disgust and despair?

Enough questions. Let’s face this head on.

Firstly, I do need to ask one more question. Sorry about that.

Why? Why do we do this to ourselves?

We all know when we live with chronic illness, pacing should be our greatest priority. It’s one of our key chronic illness and pain management tools.

As soon as we add item after item to a to-do list, we start placing undue pressure on ourselves. We can so easily set ourselves up for failure.

I love a good list, and I’m a bit of a “professional” list maker. I always have been since I was a primary school student. My management career did nothing to break my list-making passion. In fact, it was one of the keys to my success and my list making behavior has been endorsed.

Imagine the difficulty I faced when I suddenly found myself being diagnosed with a rare disease — a disease that was to become as unpredictable as the weather. Even more unpredictable (if that’s possible) is I can’t tell from one day to the next if I’ll be able to sit up for two hours straight, let alone achieve a list with three items on it. Something I love to do and is considered a good life discipline, is now something that can so quickly become my undoing.

So, should I even think about writing a list?

Despite the risk of failure, I still think lists serve an important purpose for those of us with chronic illness. A list helps you keep tasks on track and is a good organizational tool. There is a big “however” coming now.

We need to be realistic about our capabilities. We need to ensure that we don’t do anything that will further compromise our health.

This is where a to-do list has advantages for us if we use it correctly. So here’s a few of my tips for making a list work with your chronic illness, rather than against it:

  1. It doesn’t have to be huge. It can have only one item on it per day. Make it something you really want to achieve. If at the end of the day you can cross off that one item, you will get a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
  2. Use your phone calendar. My to-do list is on the agenda display in my phone calendar. It makes it easy to juggle tasks around, and I can quickly see each morning what I want to achieve and what I need to achieve.
  3. Needs versus wants. I like to itemize the things I really need to do (appointments, cleaning tasks, online food shopping, rest time) versus what I want to do (writing for my blog, sorting out my wardrobe). This way, I can ensure I’m prioritizing my pacing for the important tasks. If I find I’m having a better health day, I can go ahead and do a “want” task.

Note: I included rest time as a “need to do.” This is so important to physically add to your to-do list daily. Self-care is essential if you want to have a hope of achieving anything else.

“Want to do” list days are so important. It can’t all be about what you have to do. Some days just need to be about fun, and doing things you love. For me, writing, going for a drive with my husband, getting out to a cafe on a good day, and coloring my hair are all on my want to do list. Sometimes I’ll schedule these activities in my diary, otherwise they won’t happen. Even these fun items need careful planning and pacing so I can only attempt one “fun” item per day. Or, I’ll just have a “free day” with no agenda. Complete freedom to do whatever I feel like doing on those days, which is a treat in itself.

Remember, you’re the to-do list author.

At the end of the day, this is your personal list. You can add and delete items as you like.

You are the author. No one else can add to it, apart from maybe your medical team dictating appointment times.

If you decide to change the story for the day because the “plot” needs a re-think, go right ahead. Don’t feel guilty about it either. Listen to your body. Be guided by it.

We need to make life as pleasant and as easy as possible for ourselves. Let’s face it, most days are a physical battle with pain and fatigue and a myriad of other symptoms.

Why on earth would we choose to make it any harder with impossible lists?

Make a list. Make it short, make it fun, and take great glee in ticking off an item. Remember to celebrate each time you strike an item off a list. Even if the list only had one item, you should still throw a little party.

You did it! What an achievement.

Lists can have a positive role to play in our chronic illness lives.

Just remember, it’s your list. It’s your rules, you’re the author.

Originally published: September 17, 2020
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