When Productivity Tips Don’t Work for You {encouragement for the chronically ill}

I don’t know about you, but I love to get things done and feel “accomplished.” One of my favorite things is checking items off a list. When I write out a list of tasks that need to be accomplished in a day, I even draw little boxes next to them, where I’ll happily place an “X” after completing each assignment. There’s something lovely about starting something and then seeing it come to completion.

Because of my liking for accomplishment, I adore productivity tips. Articles known as Listicles with headlines like 10 Tips For Better Sleep or 15 Ways to Get More Done Today not only catch my attention, but spur me on to plan out my life even more so that I can finally, just finally, get things together.

But, what happens when productivity tips don’t work?

Maybe the tips are good and, in theory, they should work. But, what if there’s something that’s standing in your way of those good intentions that you have little to no control over?

For me, and for thousands of other people, a chronic illness is standing in the way of being able to strategically plan for a more productive life.

Self-help materials and productivity hack articles are generally written for average, healthy individuals who have some power over how they spend their time. Yes, we all have things to do — jobs, families, responsibilities — but the argument is that each person has the same 24 hours in a day, so it’s your responsibility to make choices about how you spend that time.

Since my health took a major decline, I’ve realized that those articles, as well-meaning as they may be, just don’t work for me. I can glean from some of the principles, but I can’t hold myself to the same standard. In the end, I’ll never be able to measure up because right now my body just won’t let me. And that’s okay.

For me, it’s not a matter of saying “no” to the good things so that I can say “yes” to the great things. When I have my priorities in order, I am generally able to focus on what’s important. But, what happens when I can’t even fulfill the things I’ve said “yes” to because my health is too unpredictable?

Life with a chronic illness is taking each day one step at a time, always unsure of how you’ll feel. You can’t even make predictions based on how you were yesterday because that may have been the only bright spot in the week, and it came and went in a flash.

Some days, I do really well at work, so I think that by the time I get home that I’ll have energy to get groceries, go visit my nieces, have dinner with my boyfriend, or maybe tackle the laundry piles that have been staring at me for weeks, just begging to be washed… but 15 minutes into the evening, I’m completely wiped out and have to lay on the couch for the rest of the night.

Other days, I can’t even make it in to work because I’m in too much pain or I was up all night with unrelenting insomnia. There are times I still pull myself out of bed but then get dizzy and eventually have a panic attack in the shower. I always have good intentions and desires for how my days will go, but quite often I find that things don’t go as planned. Many in the chronic illness community can relate.

So, what can we do? How can those of us with chronic illnesses make plans and set goals for the things we feel called to do?

1. Remember that you are living in a completely different world than the average healthy person.

Because I like to get a lot done, I can come down pretty hard on myself when my health fails me (which I seriously need to work on because the added pressure and stress is not doing me any favors!). We all need to give ourselves more grace and remember that if we have illnesses that are unpredictable, we can’t expect ourselves to keep up with those who are healthy.

I know that we often just want to be “normal,” but if we’re in the deep of chronic health issues, we have to remember that right now things aren’t going to be “normal,” and that’s okay.

2. Understand that taking care of your health is already significant and meaningful work.

I’m trying to figure out why this is, but it seems that our society doesn’t value self-care and appropriate health treatment. This contributes to the shame we have in taking care of our health stuff and not being able to do much else. A lot of it stems from a lack of understanding. Especially if you’re younger, people who don’t understand your health issues may think you’re lazy, when in reality you work incredibly hard just to live.

For those of us who are on strict schedules for medications, supplements, food, detoxing, doctors appointments, tests, etc., keeping up with our health alone is practically a full-time job.

We usually look at caretakers of those who are really sick as people doing meaningful work (especially when they are caring for the elderly) — and they are, but what about the individual chronically ill people who, without much help, care for their own needs every single day? They, too, are doing something of value.

We, the chronically ill who are caring for ourselves, are waking up each day and choosing to keep up with treatment even when it’s hard — even when it feels pointless because we still feel miserable — even when we feel worthless — and even when we wonder why we’re even still alive. We are doing something meaningful in caring for ourselves and stewarding the bodies that we have been given.

3. Celebrate the small moments.

What went well this week? What made you smile? What were you able to do? Even if you didn’t do a whole lot, maybe you made dinner one night or ran some errands. Did you do some work? Remember that you are doing the best you can with your current life circumstances. Please celebrate what went well instead of dwelling on what didn’t go well.

4. It’s okay to make plans, but don’t hold onto them too tightly.

These days I don’t make a lot of plans. Aside from work and church, I don’t have a set schedule of places I need to be and things I need to do. I can’t handle the extra pressure of commitments right now. But, it’s not a bad thing to make plans when you have a chronic illness. Making plans just means you can’t hold onto those plans as tightly as you would like. Being okay with having your plans rerouted is helpful for keeping additional chronic illness symptoms at bay. When stress enters the equation, things usually get worse, so if you do make plans, it’s a good idea to realize that they might change.

The concept of making plans (either short-term or long-term) and not holding onto them too tightly is something that I’ve been learning about for several years on my faith journey. When I got sick to the point where, even with my most persistent efforts, I could not control even an ounce of the outcome of my day, I learned what it meant to make plans and lay them down in faith that God will guide me. When plans are laid down, they may be given back, but we can trust that continuing to walk out in faith regardless of the outcome is the way to go.

This whole chronic illness thing is hard. If you’re also suffering from a chronic illness, please know that you don’t have to walk this out alone. I wrote an eBook called Finding Hope Through the Fog where I share about getting to my breaking point while suffering from the effects of Lyme Disease and how I found hope even while still walking through the fog. I’d love to give you a free copy!