For the first time in maybe 15 years, I have a significant chunk of time away from "work-work." (Work-work meaning the work one does to pay the bills—versus the other work one does for love or art or family.) It wasn't space I necessarily envisioned six months ago, but I am embracing it as an opportunity to think more deeply about who I want to be and how I want to spend my time.
Naturally, I decided to check out some self-help books on the topic. Habits. Time management. Productivity. There are a million different approaches out there.
Sure, I'd love to get more out of each day!
I started with Atomic Habits because I'm a total creature of habit and I was desperately in need of some new ones. After all, I'm living in a new home in a new country without a set work schedule. All of which gives me the blessing and the curse of establishing a new routine.
My main focus was creating habits that can help me write on the days I feel well. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been testing out morning and bedtime routines. I'm talking simple things, like plugging in my phone outside of the bedroom at night or spending 30 minutes doing my neck and shoulder stretches before bed. I even re-adopted a morning exercise and/or stretch habit (depending on how I feel).
But I still felt a bit distracted and unfocused sometimes (hello, social media). So I progressed to books about how to become less distracted and more focused. This sounded lovely in theory.
Yes, I want to be more productive! Yes, I want to finish each day feeling accomplished!
But then theory met reality.
One book in particular got down to the gritty details of how to accomplish this sought-after level of focus. The answer according to this author? Time blocking. You create time blocks for when you will do things such as responding to emails, reading articles, spending time with family, exercising, relaxing.
Immediately, I recoiled. Time blocks sounded terrible, like something from the Museum of Torture in Lucca (which I want to check out someday). But I couldn't figure out why.
I may love schedules. My chronic illness does not.
Then, the inevitable migraine day hit. The migraines I wake up with are the trickiest to treat because most specialized meds rely on catching symptoms early. One privilege of my time away from work-work is that I can practice the radical act of rest. If I wake up with a pounding head, neck pain, nausea, vertigo, brain fog, light sensitivity—I take medications and then I rest.
It sounds simple, but it's a huge shift for me. I'm used to taking medications and then pushing through it, whether the meds help or not. So one habit I'm learning is to allow my body to have sick days.
And that's when it struck me:
Too many productivity "hacks"—whether it's time blocking or something else—are simply not compatible with chronic illness.
This is internalized ableism in action. These hacks assume your body is in a steady state of health and wellness.
But how can I time block when my body is constantly throwing a wrench in my plans? How can I be more productive when overdoing it one day could send my chronic illness into a flare for a week? And why on earth am I trying to be more productive?
Who defines productivity?
So this week, I'm taking a step back and asking new questions:
How much can I realistically accomplish in a day without stumbling into a known migraine trigger? (Not even counting the triggers like air pressure changes that I have zero control over.)
If I accomplish less than I want, how can I still feel good about what I've done?
If I rest on the days I'm sick, will it help me recover faster? (The answer is a resounding yes.)
How do I define productivity and success for myself?
Living with chronic illness requires constant adaptation. It requires persistence and enormous amounts of grit. It takes up physical and mental space. It means always holding two versions of each day, each moment, in your head at all times—a sick-day version and a non-sick-day version. That is all real work and real skills, even if you can't time block them.
So here's a new productivity goal for my work-work break: Learn to value the invisible, yet still very real, work that is required when living with chronic illness.