This is not for you: Productivity and Chronic Illness

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This was originally posted on my Medium profile on February 7th, 2017.

I read a lot of articles on productivity and improving one’s creativity and making life better. How to do better, be better, accomplish more, feel satisfied with my life, not feel like such a fucking failure all the time. I read these articles because productivity and discipline are things I struggle with and I want to see if there’s anything out there that can give me a leg up in reaching my goals.

About 90% of them are explicitly not for me.

I struggle with discipline, but I’m also chronically ill. I have trouble being productive because I’m a procrastinator, but I’m also disabled. I struggle with gratitude because I haven’t developed a habit of it, but I also suffer from severe mental illness.

There are very few articles out there about productivity that write with any of these things in mind. Almost all of them talk about “willpower” and “making time” and “a morning routine is essential” and “you need to practice gratefulness” and “breakfast WILL give you energy!”

Willpower? Willpower means nothing when I sleep through the 10 alarms I set; it’s not about using my strength of will to not hit the snooze button, it’s about salvaging my wreckage of a day because my body refused to wake up, refused to even hear the alarms until it got 12 hours. Articles that write about “having the willpower to get up earlier” are telling me nothing new; they’re just telling me something useless, something I’ve heard time and time again that does nothing to help me with my issues.

Making time? Am I wizard now? I can magically make time appear after an entire day gets stolen from me by severe back pain? Or a week to mental illness? Look, on good days when my pain level isn’t higher than 8 and my depression and anxiety and PTSD aren’t wholly invested in murdering me, I can try to “make time,” ie, schedule time aside for the things that matter to me. But good days are unpredictable and infrequent, and generally I spend them playing catch-up on all the things I couldn’t accomplish on my bad days (which come far too often).

A morning routine. What the hell is a morning routine? Yesterday I slept till 6pm and now it’s 6 in the morning and I am not tired. So I am doing things that I should have done in my morning now — writing this article, making lunches for the week, maybe some laundry, and at some point soon I’ll fucking crash with exhaustion, and then I have no idea how long I’ll sleep. Chronic illness doesn’t just mean sleeping too much for me; it also means not sleeping when I should because I couldn’t not sleep earlier; it means waking up after 4 hours when I went to bed exhausted because why not? says my body, and not being able to fall back asleep, and getting up to “be productive” and then needing to go back to bed within 2 hours time. I have no mornings and I sure as hell don’t have a routine.

You can’t have a routine when you don’t know if today is going to be a day you can move or not.

An attitude of gratitude is a great thing to cultivate but it’s also something impossible for me most of the time. On good days I absolutely take time to think of things I’m grateful for. But I tried that practice, to write down things I was grateful for every day. You know what it did? Made me more depressed. Because most days I couldn’t even put down “I’m alive” as a thing to feel grateful for. Because I didn’t. It would have been a lie, and I don’t want to lie to my journal. I ended up with a mostly empty gratitude log because I couldn’t bring myself to write anything most days. I think cultivating gratefulness is important, but I’ve yet to figure out how to effectively do it when suffering from severe depression.

And no, breakfast doesn’t give me energy. It makes me sleepy. Everything makes me sleepy. I sleep with a CPAP every night and I take iron to combat my anemia but I’m still tired. all. the. time. And I have no idea why. Also, I can’t eat right away when I get up because it will nauseate me. So I put off breakfast until I’m starving enough that I can eat, and start my morning with coffee instead. Which may not give me as much energy as it apparently gives able-bodied people but it does keep me from contemplating murder too much.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think any of this is bad advice, per se. I just don’t think anyone writes these articles with disabled people or the chronically or mentally ill in mind. Audiences are assumed able-bodied and free of mental illness — but you know what? I don’t know many people like that. I’m starting to question the assumption that it’s “normal” to be able-bodied; all I see is people on a spectrum of various forms of disability, and mostly everyone I know in my generation suffers from some form of mental illness. (Probably because of the trauma of growing up in a world that’s been fucked by Boomers.)

What would make these articles better? Maybe not writing them with the assumption that literally anyone can do anything. I know it’s meant to be seen as inspiring, and maybe there are people who see it that way, but when I see phrases like “Don’t make excuses! You do have the time!” I want to say fuck it to even trying to improve my life, because all that phrase told me was that my disability makes me a lazy shithead, not that I can put anything I put my mind to.

The fact is, mind over matter is bullshit for a lot of people.

I imagine having a working spine all the time, but no amount of self-discipline or willpower is going to change a shit day into a great one — no, not even if I write those words onto my bottles of painkillers.

If I had a dime for every time I saw “willpower” as a key to productivity I would have enough money to pay for the treatment that could conceivably make my back better. I don’t understand why it’s constantly harped on. I know about the willpower thing, we all know about the willpower thing; if I didn’t I wouldn’t be reading your article! What I’m looking for is something that will help when willpower is not even part of the equation. Some freaking “life hack” that will be the magic answer to productivity for someone with chronic illness.

Maybe it’s a pipe dream. Maybe there is no productivity for people who are chronically ill or disabled and we would need literal magic wands to make it happen. Maybe I am barking up all the wrong trees, and maybe I should just stop reading these fucking articles before one gives me an aneurysm.

Or I’ll just stick to the other 10% — the articles that may not be written with chronic illness, disability, or mental illness specifically in mind, that might not tell me anything new or give me that magic life hack, but at least their wording doesn’t tell me I’m horrible and lazy because I’m sick. That’s worth something, at least.

And maybe someday, through enough trial and error, I’ll figure out the magic wand, the miraculous life hack, that makes productivity a Thing when you’re chronically ill. If I do, I promise the article I write about it won’t fucking mention “willpower.”