First Published: April 14, 2021 | Last Updated: April 14, 2021

The gist: staying productive when you have chronic illness has a different meaning than what most productivity experts talk about, making their advice hard to follow. Here are some tips to try instead.

My personal interest in productivity, and my personal approach to it, is heavily influenced by my chronic illness, mental illness, and neurodivergence. 

The reason I always cared so much about saving time and energy and stress was because my body couldn't handle the amount of work that it took to function in everyday society.

And the productivity hacks you need to manage that stuff is very different from the productivity tips it takes to do things other productivity advice focuses on, like making money or getting promoted or starting a business.

Today I'm going to share some of my favorites of those spoonie productivity hacks with you. 

(And if you don't know what spoonie means, I will explain it later in the video. 😉)

So this video is just focused on ways you can work easier without following those traditional hacks that weren't written for people like us. 

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell, especially when you have chronic physical or mental illness. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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1. Practice energy management / spoon theory

The first chronic illness productivity tip won't be surprising to anyone who either already follows Work Brighter or is already active in chronic illness communities.

And that is to practice energy management, aka spoon theory.

I talk a lot about energy management in this business as being "spoon theory for everybody," because anyone can benefit from the idea, but let's talk about spoon theory specifically. 🥄

If you haven't heard of it, spoon theory is an analogy or metaphor popular in the disability and chronic illness community. 

And it's based on a personal essay written by Christine Miserandino on her website But You Don't Look Sick called The Spoon Theory. In it, she describes explaining to a friend how her chronic illness affected her energy and getting things done day-to-day.

I've thought about doing a whole video on Spoon Theory. But honestly, Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has one that's awesome and uses The Sims to explain it, which you know I'm obsessed with. And honestly, you can't beat that so I don't need to try. 

Anyway, carefully managing your spoons or your energy, and always making sure it's at the forefront of your mind, is so important to not overextending yourself, especially if that can worsen your illness.

When you're chronically ill, everything I normally say about energy management is just magnified even more.

It's even more true.

So if you've never checked out my playlist on energy management before, definitely do that. I also have an energy tracker you can download.

2. Break things down into small details

The second thing I think is most important for staying productive with chronic illness is to break things down into a lot of detail.

This has a few different benefits depending on your own symptoms and how your own diagnoses show up in your work, but I'm just speaking from my own personal experience.

For me, breaking down a project into every detailed task, or an idea into all the detailed thoughts that go into it, is the only way I can get clear on it.

It's like if the dots aren't specifically pointed out to me before starting a project, my brain won't connect them. It will just tire itself out trying.

Breaking things down is also really helpful when you have to frequently start and stop your work like in the style that Cal Newport calls Journalistic Deep Work.

There were times when I worked in an office and going from my desk to the bathroom and back to care for various symptoms in private was a decent trip across the building. And I had to do it pretty frequently.

And when you're constantly getting up from your work, it can be really easy to lose your place, what you were thinking about, what you were working on, what needs to happen next.

I've found that having that plan all laid out makes it a lot of easier to jump into and out of flow like I need to. Like I said, this is covered in Cal Newport's Deep Work, so let me know if you want to hear more about it.

It also comes in handy if you ever need to stop your work short for the day to deal with your health.

You don't need to remember the details of the previous work session if they're stored in some kind of system.

And finally it's helpful for brain fog because you don't need to remember all the intricate details of your plan.

Speaking of which...

3. Take lots of notes

My third favorite tip for how to be productive with chronic illness is to take lots of notes.

I know a lot of people are attracted to the idea of knowledge management and building a second brain as a way to level up their work or creative output. 

But when I first got into it, it was as a way to deal with brain fog.

Getting into the habit of taking notes in meetings or on calls, when I'm reading, when I'm thinking or brainstorming, and really anything, has been one of the best things I've ever done for making working with chronic illness easier.

Brain fog makes it hard to think. Fatigue makes it hard to think. Pain makes it hard to think. Migraines make it hard to think. And work and thinking are hard enough already!

Taking notes is a way to think on paper and give your brain a huge assist, both in the moment you're taking them and whenever you reference them in the future.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell, especially when you have chronic physical or mental illness. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

4. Stay flexible

Tip number 4 for chronic illness productivity is to stay flexible.

A lot of other productivity advice revolves around prioritizing discipline and dedication to your work as priority number 1.

But with chronic illness, your top priority always needs to be to your health. This is a lesson I'm admittedly still learning, but I have gotten a lot better at it since I've started working brighter and ditching toxic productivity culture.

Most people with chronic illness know that your body doesn't care what your plans are, what projects you're excited to work on, or what meetings you're supposed to attend. When it's done, it's done.

And in addition to a crap ton of patience with yourself, that also requires flexibility around how you accomplish the outcomes you're working towards at work.

For example, if you're working on a big website launch at work, to use an example of mine, and you start to have a flare up, it's time to get flexible about what pages of the website need to be included in the launch.

5. Always have contingency plans

Number 5 builds off of number 4, and that is to have contingency plans or backup plans in case your health gets in the way.

This is kind of leveling up staying flexible.

It's hard enough to stay flexible and accept when your ideal plan needs to change. So accomplishing that is great.

But then the next level is having a backup plan ready for when it does.

For example, based on times in my past like that website launch I mentioned earlier, I have learned to always divide the tasks for a project into the ones that are absolutely necessary and which ones can be dropped if the project needs to be scaled back.

Now for a big website launch, I would list out which paged I wanted to be live when the site launched, but also note which ones could be published later if necessary.

6. Create systems for self-care

Finally, my last tip for working with chronic illness is to create systems for self-care

I have a whole video about this, but a lot of the systems we use at work can be really beneficial to manage our health as well. If you're not using things like calendars, to-do lists, apps, and other tools to help you manage your illness, I highly recommend it.

Systems make things easier on you by creating an environment that supports you. And that can be either a physical environment or a digital one.

I've talked on the channel before about how I used to be really bad at remembering to take my medication. But once I started thinking about how to create a system to remember and breaking it down strategically, I was able to build the habit so I actually do it every day like I'm supposed to.

Productivity for every body

So those are my biggest tips for staying productive and working well when you're chronically ill, or disabled, or mentally ill, in a way that particularly impacts your energy.

Those of us with bodies and brains that are excluded from traditional conversations about work and self-care, you're the ones I care the most about helping with my knack for productivity, so I hope this was helpful.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell, especially when you have chronic physical or mental illness. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

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