Productivity when your body says "no"
February 3, 2018 4:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm chronically ill and frequently have to deal with periods of feeling awful for no discernible reason. I'm also a grad student in a PhD program. Sometimes I can't afford to just wait until I feel better to be productive again. What tips and tricks do you have for focusing when you don't feel well?

First: assume this is not an instance of pushing myself past my limits, or that I'm not taking enough time for myself. I'm pretty dedicated to self care and work-life balance. I almost always eat 3 meals a day, get 9+ hours of sleep on a consistent schedule, take at least an hour for myself everyday (and often more--e.g. yesterday I spent the morning doing one of my hobbies, did homework until dinner, and then took the entire evening off to relax with my partner and family), stay hydrated, and I never drink alcohol or coffee. So while self care tips are great, I think I'm pretty good on that front.

I'm not opposed to taking a whole day off, and sometimes I do, but sometimes a flare-up happens at a time where I really can't take a whole day off. I don't need to be working all day--I just need to be able to do at least an hour or two of work. What do you do to give yourself a bit of focus and energy when you don't feel well?

One of the problems I have is traditional "productivity hacks" don't work for me. I can't drink coffee or soda because the caffeine/sugar makes me sick; I can't take naps because I always feel worse when I wake up; I can't go for a walk because my chronic illness limits how much exercise I can get without overexerting myself. Right now, the only things I can do are 1) drink cold water, and 2) drink peppermint tea.

Is there anything else I'm missing that might help me focus or give me a bit of energy, just long enough to read a couple articles or solve a couple stats problems? Again, I'm not looking to power through this all day, but when I don't get anything done, it all just piles up, and then I have to rush to finish it later and feel awful for a different (discernible) reason. Thus, though it's easy to say "well I just can't do it now, and resting is probably the best thing for me!" I often find that taking the entire day off just means pushing "feeling like shit" to a different spot in my calendar.

Also assume my doctor and I are working on this. It's a long process and I have other health problems that are being prioritized right now.
posted by brook horse to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
posted by aniola at 4:38 PM on February 3, 2018

Is there any activity you normally do that tends to leave you feeling energized for a bit? If you can find something that gives you that little dopamine hit and then transition directly to the tasks you need to complete you may find it easier to get started.

On days where my ADHD symptoms are less pronounced and my brain acts more like an NT person's, I find that getting started is my biggest problem, but continuing to work on something once I'm 10 or 15 minutes in is relatively easy. (On the bad days, even if I do start my brain will latch onto something else within 5 minutes unless I find a way to make the task novel or interesting, but I don't get the sense that is a problem that you have)
posted by wierdo at 4:52 PM on February 3, 2018

Begin with a relatively easy task, like writing a to-do list or putting some dates into your planner, just to get yourself into a groove.

Wear earplugs, and play repetitive, upbeat music with no vocals, not too loud (dubstep is great). (The earplugs and the music seem like opposites but they actually work really well together).

Set a timer for 15 minutes, try to keep yourself focussed while it's counting down, and keep re-setting when it dings.

Put something slightly constricting around your waist- I wrap a wide scarf around me from hips to chest- snugly, but not at all tightly. Dunno why, but being slightly "squeezed" sometimes makes me concentrate better.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:56 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm kind of in the same boat. It's good that you have modest goals, instead of punishing yourself for unrealistic ones.

Some things that help me, but not always:

Stress makes things worse, so I've worked really hard to get rid of the guilt for not doing more, or feeling like a failure because I can't work as many hours as someone else.

If I'm not feeling well I let myself pick an easy task instead of the most important task. If I have two papers, I'll read the easier one. If need to write or do some easy mindless data segmentation, I'll do the mindless data segmentation. I try to plan ahead so pressing tasks aren't getting done at the last minute, so I have flexibility to do this.

I also try to set modest goals, like you - not "I'll work a full day" but "I'll work a couple of hours." To reach this goal I find it really useful to do pomodoros. 25 minutes four times a day sounds manageable, and that little feeling of accomplishment after I finish one pomodoro can cheer me up and make it easier to do more.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:58 PM on February 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have a bright light visor that I use for seasonal affective issues but it is very energizing in general. Also there is an album on Spotify called "Brainwave Symphony Energize and Focus". It purports to bring your brain into a state of more beta waves and I can't speak to that but it has Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn and Mozart on it, and I do feel more lively when I put it on to work. Finally, this Yin Yoga app which involves all long gentle postures on the floor and features narration by a deep husky voiced Scandinavian lady, can be very soothing in only 15 minutes and has been a balm to me when my own health issues were flared up.
posted by hungrytiger at 5:00 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Delegate everything else to someone else or later you. Wake up and then self care. As soon as you can work, do it. Delegate picking up your pjs and doing the dishes to afternoon you or your partner. The great thing about acedemia is that you can typically finish your paper or grant next quarter or next year. You are fabulous for moving foward at your own pace.
posted by Kalmya at 5:55 PM on February 3, 2018

When I had a four-year-long non-stop migraine I was in the last semester of my masters program and writing my thesis + I had a full-time job. So, like you, I didn't have the luxury/resources to just stop. I did a LOT of work in bed with my laptop and that's the only way I made it through. I just gave myself permission to do whatever I needed to to: a) keep my income, and b) write my thesis. Good luck - I feel for you.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 6:21 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

If getting started is part of the problem, I had a lot of success with freewriting for fifteen minutes to clear my mind and start thinking about work I could handle that day. Often this started with a whine-fest about how horrible grad school is, but it generally came back around to productive ideas within fifteen minutes, and I often verbalized new thoughts or ideas about my work this way.
posted by momus_window at 6:46 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

I do Pomodoros when I’m having a rough mental health day but can’t afford to take the day off. Except that my breaks are way longer because I only set a timer for the work part. Set a timer for 15 or 20 or 25 minutes, do something necessary but easy, then as soon as the timer goes off stop working and rest. When you feel as rested as you’re going to be on a day like this, do another pomodoro session and rest again. I can get an hour or three of work done this way, which usually covers the most important (or most important to my sense of guilt) stuff.

Also I give myself permission to half-arse the work. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even good. It just has to be done. Low standards are your friend.
posted by harriet vane at 7:05 PM on February 3, 2018 [8 favorites]

I've used a variation on pomodoro during my flare ups and have also suggested it to others who found this method helpful.

Begin by designating 3 different types of activities - 1) The Task that needs to get done, 2) self-care (e.g. making and drinking tea), 3) energising task ( could be laying in bed or a household chore - different things work for different people).

Then, decide on how long you can sustain The Task - this could be anywhere between 5-25 minutes.

Next, set a timer to complete the 3 activities within 1 hour - tomato timer is an online one you can customise yourself. You'll work sequentially on all 3 tasks every hour.

A sample might be:

15 min - The Task
20 min - meditate
20 min - fold laundry in bed while watching favourite movie
5 min - reset (glass of water, checkin with yourself, get back to The Task)

(I've also successfully done this without a timer and instead eg word count + number of dishes to hand wash.)

All the repetitions will add up and by the end you'll have made progress - which is so much preferable to hating yourself or dreading catching up.

Hope this helps!
posted by A hidden well at 7:17 PM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is my life, too — it's so hard to have a chronic illness, in this productivity-obsessed culture. Sending good thoughts your way.

I find it helpful to triage, and set aside mindless tasks to do when I'm feeling like crap. Beforehand, when I'm feeling clear-headed, I make a to-do list, breaking down all the projects into small, manageable 20-minute chunks. This is the most important step for me. When I'm in pain, I don't have the mental spoons to approach a big task, but if it's broken down into agonizingly simplistic, step-by-step instructions, I can just manage it.

Then I sort all the tasks into categories of difficulty: 1) passive, mindless or repetitive tasks where you don't have to worry about producing things up to a certain standard; 2) things that require concentration/understanding, like listening to a lecture or doing readings; 3) the most difficult tasks, analysis or writing etc. Most importantly, I give myself permission to only work on level one tasks, no matter how much I feel like I "should" do the important stuff.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 7:47 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, does heat or cold affect you at all? Sometimes when I feel foggy, I find that it helps to "shock" my body into a different state, even if it doesn't touch the pain or fatigue. So, a hot shower. Or a cold shower, or towel on my face, or stepping outside into the cold for 20 seconds in wintertime.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 7:50 PM on February 3, 2018

I second fire, water, earth, air's advice about sorting your jobs into difficulty levels and saving the easy brain ones for sick days. I do a lot of paperwork and filling on bad days and let it pile up in between if it's not urgent. You need a routine for healthy days and a different routine for meh days and terrible days.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:07 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Finishing morning showers with a cold rinse (supposed to stimulate noradrenaline production, and boost energy), having a tea-making ritual (try cutting back on the peppermint, as it can be too relaxing/enervating), upping my fish oil* intake, and using timers have all helped to get things accomplished during my own (autoimmune-disease-related) low, awful stretches.

(*My standby was a bottled, lemon-flavored cod liver oil, but I just started this gel kind and like it because I don't have to take it with meals in order to tolerate it. If the gel interests you, please do check the ingredients; Coromega has a busier list than most fish oil supplements.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:38 PM on February 3, 2018

Also, so as not to abuse the edit window: for me, it's much better to take omega-3 supplements in the morning.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:41 PM on February 3, 2018

I have hypothyroid. I am being treated for it, but perhaps not receiving the best treatment, and I have far less energy than I gather most people my age have. Working a full-time job is in itself a huge effort for me, and I don't have much left over for even things I need to do, like housework, let alone socializing or a creative life. My house is in a perpetual state of mess and it's depressing to try to tackle it, because it feels like I am futilely trying to move a giant mountain of dirt with a little teaspoon.

I've recently experimented with approaches that might make this issue less stressful and depressing for me. Here are the things that have helped:

1. I used to look at things in terms of tasks. My to-do list would include chores that needed to be completed, and I would feel bad when I couldn't do so. Instead, it seems more helpful to view things in terms of the time I spend, regardless of whether I get the overall task done or not. If my list contains "work on vacuuming for 15 minutes", I can do that. If it says "vacuum upstairs", I might not get that done depending on how sluggish I am on a given day.

For you, this might mean "read for 15 minutes", rather than "read X article today".

2. On a related note, it seems more helpful for me to have very short periods of work, followed by periods of rest. If I work for 10 or 15 minutes and then rest for X minutes (which varies depending on how I am doing that day), it is doable and I usually get more accomplished overall in a day than if I expect myself to do chores nonstop, like "normal" people do, and then collapse in a frustrated and exhausted heap.

For you, maybe that would mean those "one or two hours" of work would really be 4-8 periods of 15 minutes.

3. I've been allowing myself to watch silly/entertaining videos lately, despite the fact that my superego labels them "a waste of time". Having a good belly laugh sometimes does give me a tiny bit of adrenaline with which I might accomplish something. Maybe you could add specifically seeking laughter to your self-care routine.
posted by nirblegee at 11:38 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

There’s the common advice of matching the tasks to your energy levels, difficult tasks when you’re at your best, low-stake easy tasks for times of lower energy. Here is a new bit of advice I got, still fresh and unused by me, but it makes sense to me: you match the way you do things to your energy level and still get to work on that A priority hard task, so it doesn’t come back to bite you later or keep you anxious for not being done. The idea is to just work more slowly, work on tiny sub tasks, nibble a bit at that frog and get away from an all or nothing view of that task.

For me, the hardest part is getting started, I second setting a timer/Pomodoro. It’s also hard to decide what to get started with. I’ve had some success with putting a list of tasks in a randomizer online and clicking on the button until I’m fine with the sequence of tasks, at least the first three or so. That sounds like I could order the list myself, but it’s easier for me to recognize a good order than to come up with it myself; it’s like reading in a foreign language is easier than writing.
posted by meijusa at 11:48 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

As a counterpoint to the recommendations of taking breaks, since getting started is the hardest part for me, I don’t do well with breaks because then I have to overcome the hurdle of getting started again and again. It costs me much less energy in total to just power through larger chunks of time, even though I might structure them using Pomodori. I use the Pomodoro breaks for preparing the next Pomodoro. So for me, doing the 1-2 hours in one go takes less energy and then I’d get energy from the sense of accomplishment and would enjoy the resting time more. YMMV, is what I’m saying.
posted by meijusa at 11:55 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you would find it useful, one-to-one coaching is available for situations like this, as per this previous ask.
posted by rd45 at 6:17 AM on February 4, 2018

You can try some sensory routines to try to kick start a “work” mode.

Smell - if you tolerate essential oils, you can diffuse a cheerful blend such as citrus.

Sound - energizing music, have a dedicated play list at the length you want to use for work.

Touch (body) - something that gets the blood going in a minute or less that works with your physical constraints. For example, stand up and rub your hands together really fast for 20 seconds, then put your warmed hands over your eyes. Repeat two more times.

Sight - have a work room

Taste - you might not need this one

This admittedly sounds hokey but I found a variation of this to work for relaxation. Won’t hurt to try.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:43 AM on February 4, 2018

- Looking out a window at sunlight and nature, especially when that's a rarity.
- "Gentle"/"restorative" yoga.
- Putting on my "get pumped" playlist.

And then also, checking in with my body to see if there are any "background apps" "draining my battery":
- Have I eaten recently? Drunk water?
- Am I too hot or too cold, or otherwise physically uncomfortable?
- Am I feeling anxious about this task for some reason? Is it a dumb reason?
posted by hishtafel at 4:39 PM on February 4, 2018

Honestly, drugs. I have daily pain meds, and I have breakthrough pain meds. I also have the flexibility from my doctor of taking a little more than usual when it's absolutely necessary. The days when I absolutely have to work and I feel like death I have that extra little help, and when it's not yet that bad, it helps to know that I have that in my back pocket. A lot of times I don't even have to use it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:44 PM on February 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

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