My mind isn’t what it used to be.
It’s a weird thing for a 28-year-old to have to say, but unfortunately it’s true.
There was a time when productivity was a part of me and I didn’t have to make difficult decisions on how to spend my energy. There was a time when I had energy…
But no longer. Chronic illness changed all the rules. I’m not even playing the same game anymore, but some things remain the same. I still have dreams and aspirations. I still want to be successful and be happy and loved. I can still manage to get work done on my own schedule.
It’s just all so much harder now because I suffer from Meniere’s disease, and Meniere’s, like so many other chronic illnesses, causes a kind of cognitive impairment called brain fog.
In a lot of ways, brain fog is hard to describe, and experiences can vary from one illness to another. But for me, brain fog is a frustrating clouding of consciousness. It makes it hard for me to focus and concentrate, and as a consequence my work and productivity suffers. It also affects my memory. I often forget why I walk into rooms, and I frequently have trouble recalling words.
It is incredibly pervasive problem, too. The number of chronic health conditions that cause brain fog is simply staggering. From autoimmune disorders, Fibromyalgia, Diabetes, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Chronic Pain to Vestibular Disorders, Chronic Migraine, Crohn’s Disease, and Depression, just to name a few. It’s a problem that affects literally hundreds of millions of people around the world.
If you are used to be being a productive person, brain fog will take the wind from your sails. The fuzzy feeling of fatigue and lack of motivation that many people experience can make it nearly impossible to accomplish anything. It can be hard to participate in daily life when your mental energy levels are constantly depleted.
Productivity and illness are two words that clearly don’t belong together, but fortunately, over the years I have found helpful strategies for improving my productivity and getting more work done.
Write it all down:
The first rule of brain fog is to write everything down. In the past, I’ve written about ways to improve your memory. It’s an incredibly helpful practice but also quite difficult. A simpler solution is to just write everything down.
I keep stacks of index cards, pads of Post-it notes, and small notepads all over my house. It can be hard to organize all of the scraps of paper, but I don’t have to worry anymore about forgetting an idea, an appointment, or meeting my responsibilities.
I generally stick to several simple note taking strategies. For random ideas, and general note taking, I use 3”x5” index cards. I find that the small size keeps my notes concise and to the point. It also makes it easy to carry around.
I also use Post-It notes, though primarily for reminders. If there is something I need to remember, I write it down on a 3”x3” post it note and stick it to the place where I will need to remember something specific. Another good trick I’ve found is to stick post-it notes to the back of my cell phone. I do this with anything important that I need to remember in the near future. I keep a pad of post-it notes next to my bed for this exact reason. If I think of something while brushing my teeth or falling asleep, I immediately write it down and stick it to the back of my cellphone to make sure I remember it, and remember to read it in the morning.
Keep a fixed routine:
One of the most powerful productivity tricks I’ve found is to keep a routine. When a routine becomes a habit through repetition, the brain uses less energy to accomplish task. Through a process known as “chunking”, the brain turns a complex routine into a single chunk of information, allowing us to execute a complicated set of actions on auto pilot. It’s a way for our brains to conserve energy, and it pervades our lives. According to a paper published in 2006 by a Duke University researcher, up to 40% of our daily actions are not conscious decisions we make, but automatically executed habits.
For someone with a chronic illness, you can use this to your advantage. If you follow a fixed daily routine, over time you will have more and more mental energy available to put toward the work you need to do. It will allow you to be more productive.
For me personally, I tend to go to sleep, wake up, exercise, meditate, and eat, at the same times every day. I also have a fixed morning routine. By the time I need to get to work and be productive, I usually haven’t had to make any decisions that day or waste any energy.
Manage priorities and keep an I-did-it list instead of a to-do list:
I sometimes use to-do lists, but on a daily basis, I try to focus more on priority management. On most days I tend to have a lot of relatively unimportant tasks to accomplish, and one or two that are priorities. But because I almost never have the energy to finish everything on my to-do lists, it’s incredibly important for me to know which tasks to focus on first. As long as I can address one priority, I can feel like I’ve accomplished something important for the day.
Also, instead of keeping a to-do list, it’s often far more rewarding to keep an I-did-it list. I find a list of my accomplishments to be a greater motivator then an unfinished to-do list. The latter causes anxiety while the former inspires hope and momentum.
Find your most productive time of day:
You may not realize it, but everyone has a time of day when they are the most productive. For me, it’s after I finish my morning routine, roughly an hour after I wake up. If I have something important to do, I make sure to work on it during this time. On my most challenging days, when my brain fog and fatigue are at their worst, I can often at least get something simple done during this time. My energy has no guarantees, but I am able to get the most important things done by leveraging my most productive time of day. Take time to experiment and find out which time of the day you have the most energy and are most productive.
Get rid of distractions:
This may seem like a simple suggestion, but in reality it’s quite hard to put into practice. With the rise of social media, mobile devices, and web based entertainment, we face more distractions than ever before. For someone with a chronic illness, these distractions can rob us of the little bit of productivity we have left.
When you need to be productive, it takes time and energy to get into the mental space needed to complete a task. Every time you get distracted, you have to start over and re-engage with whatever you’re working on. It’s not always obvious though, and until I started writing, I didn’t realize how much time I was wasting.
For example, while writing this article, I’ve received five emails, two text messages, three phone calls, and four Facebook notifications. And every single one has disrupted my mental flow. Each time, it takes me a while to get back into the zone and sometimes, I never do.
Like many of you, I am addicted to my phone. But when I need to be productive I try to force myself to turn it off. I close my web browser and listen to ambient music to drown out any distracting background noise. It makes a huge difference.
I also try to keep an organized workspace. It may not be as problematic as a smart phone, but a cluttered working environment can be a distraction and a source of stress. I find that when I keep my office clean and organized, I am able to focus better and be more productive.
Stop working and go for a walk:
Sometimes the best way to be productive is to stop working and go for a walk. I get easily overwhelmed when I have a lot of work to do and I’m feeling brain fogged and fatigued. Sometimes I try to just push through it, but that usually makes me feel worse.
When the frustration starts to build, I always go for a walk. There’s something about walking that just seems to stimulate the mind. I find it boosts my creativity, and works incredibly well to reduce brain fog.
Walking is also all that’s needed for your brain to start releasing endorphins, your body’s “feel good” neurochemicals. Ever hear someone refer to a “runner’s high”? They’re talking about endorphins. The release of endorphins causes your stress levels to go down and your feeling of satisfaction to go up. If you are feeling brain fogged, the endorphins released during a nice long walk will help you feel better.
All of these strategies have helped me cope with brain fog and improve my productivity, but I still have not been able to eliminate brain fog from my life, try as I might. I am, however, often able to mitigate it in the moment, and if I can be productive, get my work done, and meet my responsibilities when it matters most, then the end result is ultimately the same.
You can learn to cope with your brain fog, too. No matter what chronic illness or condition you face, you can learn take back your daily life, one minute of focus at a time.