If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably know that I live with a slew of chronic conditions. With an assortment of physical and mental illnesses both formally diagnosed and suspected, a day rarely goes by without struggling with symptoms of some sort. At the same time, though, I’m chronically busy—I run this blog and all that goes with it, run Nightingale & Sparrow, a small press & literary magazine, publish my own writing, and offer a variety of freelance services to pay the bills. And that’s not counting the basic requirements of adulthood—like managing my budget, cooking, and keeping my space clean & organised—or the less-mandatory-but-not-optional to-dos, like exercising, personal development work, spiritual tasks, social connections, and the occasional bit of relaxation.
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With all this on my plate—and, more literally, on my calendar—it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed more often than not. I deal with bouts of burnout far more often than is healthy, creating another nasty cycle on top of my health issues. As a result of all of this, I constantly feel as if I’m behind on, frankly, everything.
To some degree, I can only blame myself—I’m ambitious to a fault and have always been one to take on more than I should. On countless occasions, I’ve made the half-joking comment that I genuinely don’t know how to relax. At the same time, though, many of these tasks are unavoidable and, if it’s technically optional, it’s likely something that’s on there because I genuinely want to do it. Without those want-to-dos, how could life be worth living? Nobody, myself included, wants to spend all of their capable hours on non-negotiable, must-do tasks.
Productivity with chronic illness
With all that in mind, I need to figure out how to be productive despite the obstacles. Recently, chronic illness is the roadblock that’s been making my life the most difficult. A few of my conditions have been flaring up on top of some acute issues, leaving me with painfully little time when I feel relatively healthy. Between the pain, fatigue, brain fog, and other concerns, it even took me quite some time to realise how much of an issue it had become!
Once I made that realisation, I quickly set to researching how to be productive with chronic illness. I’ve spent a ridiculous time searching Pinterest, Reddit, Google, and every resource I could get my hands on, seeking out the ways people thrive with conditions like depression, fibromyalgia, anxiety, lupus, PTSD, chronic fatigue, autism, ADHD, migraines, and so on. From that and my own experience, I’ve worked to create this post, a sort of guide to productivity with chronic illness. I hope it will help me better manage life while giving my fellow spoonies the support they need to do the same!
Reset your expectations.
I’d argue that this is a vital first step to being productive with chronic illness—and the one I struggle with most. If you have a disability (or, like me, several), you can’t expect yourself to have the same level of activity as someone whose most significant health issue was a cold they had three years ago. And, if you developed your condition(s) later in life, you can’t expect to accomplish the same amount of tasks in a day you once could have.
I find this especially difficult as a multi-passionate entrepreneur and single head of household (I only rent a room, but it’s still got all those unavoidable adult responsibilities!). Try as I might to purge my Todoist projects, there are some tasks that I need to get done. Plus, they typically have to be done on a deadline, or at least promptly. As a lifelong overachiever, how can I better handle the fact that sometimes it’s genuinely not possible to do everything on my list? More importantly, how do I reframe my expectations to recognise that this is simply a fact of disabled life, not some personal shortcoming?
As of yet, I don’t have a perfect answer for these. But hopefully, with time & effort, I will.
Find the right tools for you.
I love Todoist for keeping track of my never-ending list of projects & responsibilities. I’ve been a subscriber for a few months now and, while I’ve lapsed at times and my projects are terribly in need of a tidy, it’s one of the most effective tools I’ve used so far.
More recently, I signed up for a 30-day trial of Amazing Marvin. I’m still learning the ins and outs of this one, but I love it! The mascot is adorable, and the task jar is something I’ve been searching for for ages. I found Marvin while searching for a tool that would let me mark both due dates and “do” dates—another benefit.
These are just a few of the endlessly growing list of productivity tools I’ve tried, not to mention my bullet journal, Passion Planner, Day Designer planner, and other systems I’ve tested out. In short, find a tool that works for you—and it’s okay if that changes over time. If you’re looking for suggestions beyond mine, it can be helpful to search some variant of “productivity apps for [insert condition or symptom here].” Whether it’s brain fog, ADHD, or spoonie life in general, there’s probably a list out there with recommendations that offers a great starting point.
For instance, check out our list of productivity tools for spoonies!
Experiment as much as you can.
I suggest this tip with a warning: if you aren’t careful, trying new productivity tools or chronic illness treatments can become another distraction or overwhelming project. But, if you can focus a reasonable amount, trying new things can be a great way to find the best products and services for you.
For productivity, in particular, search for a new tool when you find you can’t stick to your current system. Or, try a different option for managing the symptoms that frustrate you. Maybe CBD is the key to easing your anxiety (I’ve had luck with Wink’s CBD products!). Trello could be the project management app that finally gets you through that assignment you’re putting off. When the need arises, the more options you test out, the more likely you’ll find the right fit.
Connect with others who struggle.
In-person or online, connecting with others who struggle with productivity and chronic illness is a fantastic way to find advice. If you have friends or acquaintances who suffer from the same conditions as you do or similar symptoms and productivity problems, talk to them about ways you can help each other thrive.
If your IRL friend group is lacking in this department, the internet is ready to help. I’ve found Facebook groups to be particularly helpful (spend some time searching for your condition or symptoms), and Reddit seems to have some excellent chances to connect with others, too.
Rest, and then rest some more.
Another vital step that I overlook all too often! Whatever your condition(s), your body is constantly working to handle chronic illness symptoms. It’s hardly surprising that you face fatigue! Whenever possible, take time to rest when you need it. If you’re exhausted by 8 pm, can your remaining to-dos wait until morning? When you can’t keep your eyes open, can you let yourself take an afternoon nap? Part of why I can’t imagine doing something besides freelancing is the freedom to rest when my body needs it.
Similarly, I’ve found that I can’t sacrifice sleep and remain semi-functional, especially as I get older. Anything less than seven hours—maybe six and a half—and I need a nap by mid-morning! Here, too, I recognise the importance of rest in maintaining productivity with chronic illness.
Reconsider your workload.
Hear me out with this one, using my situation as an example. Overall, I can’t fathom paring much from my to-do list, however long it becomes. I take on a lot, but these are either projects I love or those I need to survive. But, within those projects, I’m learning where to cut back.
Right now, I’m focusing on this with my freelance work in particular. For far too long, I’ve worked ridiculous hours for painfully little income. I’ll raise my rates by Q3 to better reflect costs of living, business expenses, and market averages. From there, I’ll cut down the freelance work I have at one time and earn a survival-ready wage in the process.
If you’re a freelancer like me, be sure to check your rates and other policies regularly. Are you pushing yourself too hard for too little reward? In a more conventional job, this might be a more difficult task. But, even then, consider: how can you adjust your workload, with or without trimming your project list? Then, do the same for projects in your personal life.
One of the best productivity tools in my arsenal so far is simply maintaining some flexibility. I love the concept of unflappable routines, consistent habits, and practical constraints. But my various disabilities have other ideas.
As much as possible, I try to stick to my routines, keep up my habit streaks, and stop drinking coffee by 5 pm. But, when I can’t get out of bed, a migraine makes Duolingo impossible, or I can hardly stay awake to meet a deadline? Well, as they say, rules were meant to be broken—especially when it comes to being productive with chronic illness.
Bend, adapt, or break the rules.
The standard “rules” of productivity weren’t exactly made with disabled, neurodiverent, or otherwise chronically ill people in mind. If you can manage your symptoms to work efficiently within those existing standards, that’s great! But, if not, consider adjusting the rules to better work with you.
Know you’ll work better with a stim toy or cuddly friend at your side? Let Teddy become your assistant—Bruce the Beaver is usually sitting with me as I work! If you’re in a more public workspace and anxious about having a toy, stim jewelry offers a more subtle option.
If you can’t overcome executive dysfunction or depression to wipe the dishes before running the dishwasher, run the dishwasher twice. Can’t focus on a task long enough to utilise time blocking? Jump around if it makes you more effective! Struggling to find a tool that works for you? Use Amazing Marvin’s Christina as inspiration and create something all your own! Who says you can’t adjust some norms to better meet you where you are? More often than not, absolutely no one.
How do you stay productive with disabilities?
Despite this rather lengthy post, I’m still learning how to balance productivity with chronic illness. I’ll be sure to report back as I get better at this balancing act and hit a productive sort of stride. And, in the meantime, I’d love to hear your favourite chronic illness-friendly productivity tools and tips! Or, if you test out any of my advice for yourself, be sure to let me know in the comments or @anideallifeblog.