Productivity Tricks for the Chronically Brain Fogged
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.
For keeping lists, and doing creativity exercises, I use small notepads. My favorite of which is a product called the “Dotpad” made by the French stationary company, Rhodia.
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.
For additional tools, tips, tricks and tools for dealing with brain fog, make sure to check out my three-part series: Meniere’s Disease and the Battle of Brain Fog Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
13 thoughts on “Productivity Tricks for the Chronically Brain Fogged”
I highly suggest you try a gluten free diet. I too suffer from Meniere’s and thought that I would just have to accept the fog that came with it. I started keeping a food diary and realized how heavily my diet relied on gluten-full foods. Three days after going gluten free, my brain fog all but disappeared, and my attacks dropped from nearly weekly to once or twice a year. It’s been over three years now, and it is not that tough to do with all the options these days. Give it a shot!
Hey Laura, thanks for sharing this! In other articles, and in my book, I have written a lot about making dietary changes to help brain fog, but I have never tried going Gluten free. I have, however, considered giving it a try for a long time. After I got diagnosed, my diet became mostly gluten free but not completely. I’m currently working on a second book, entirely about brain fog and chronic illness, and plan to experiment with going gluten free. Thanks for the tip!
I’ve got it, too. I’m gluten free for nearly a year and it hasn’t changed anything. Oh, I have lost 70 lbs, so that’s helping my overall health. But I still have serious brain fog, and am in a near-constant state of vertigo. I eat a very clean diet, get regular exercise and keep an active, daily social life. But being gluten-free hasn’t done a thing for the MD, not in my case.
Hi Laura. That’s really interesting, because I also have Meniere’s and I have gone on an elimination diet. I have eliminated anything that might be a trigger (caffeine, salt, chocolate, alcohol AND gluten) and my brain fog (which was a nightmare) has all but gone. I have not had an attack for nearly a month. Previous to this I was getting all the usual Meniere’s symptoms every day
So right on about brain fog! Except I’m not 28 anymore I’m so tired of everyone saying , “well, your getting older now this happens!” This is not how I’ve been plus I’m not 60 yet I don’t buy the age thing. I do however have a couple of the illnesses you mentioned. Wish it was easier to get everyone else to understand.
Thank you so much for the tips. I’m absorbing all the tips I can get in or should I say written down. 🙂
You’re welcome Donna! People definitely have a hard time understanding brain fog. There’s no question about it. I had no idea how pervasive brain fog was until I started researching it, but it affects so many people, with so many different chronic illness and health conditions. It’s crazy.
Ugh, my day exactly. Today though seems to be a “good day”. I also use the post it on the back of my phone, it works so well because I’m tied to this thing. I also carry a composition book at work and take pages of notes daily, I can’t afford to forget to submit payroll for one of my employees or get tasks done. It can be a struggle daily and I never thought anything of it besides, oh I’m just not as sharp as I was…. I need to exercise more, eat better, etc. People with this brain fog issue can be successful and productive members of society, just find what works for you.
Awesome article, Glenn. One thing I’ve learned to use is the Notes app on my phone. With arthritis in my hands, it’s so much easier to grab my phone, open that app and dictate what I want. Then I can transfer notes into calendar entries, blogs, emails, whatever I want. Keep the tips coming!
Thats a great tip Bev thanks! And I certainly will. My next book is actually going to be all about coping with brain fog. This is post was my attempt to start working on some of the concepts for one of the chapters. I’m glad you liked it 🙂
I do also used a lot of notes, mostly written down things I have to do in a DAILY basis. I was diagnosed with BPPV thru my Vertigo. Ever since, I am experiencing brain fog and it is really frustrating. I used to be very productive, non-stop energy. Since I had my Vertigo, I am becoming very “forgetful” shall we say. Thanks for the TIPS! And Laura, I sure will try my best to try on Gluten-Free Diet.
I strive for all these everyday in my battle with my Meniere’s–list glaore, walking, music, meditation, proper eating and as well have been on a gluten free diet for over about 8 weeks now and do notice a difference in brain fog so far…it hasn’t all disappeared, but I do feel a bit better and have less of it. Don’t feel so lost all the time and have a bit more confidence in my decisions. Hope I can continue with the gluten free diet, but it is so hard, I love all bread, pizza (have made cauliflower pizza crust myself but can’t find anyone who delivers??? LOL :-))pastas, pretzels and even though I know it’s bad for me, I have major breaks in will power, and uhhh what is that word I’m looking or here….uhhh , hum, i can’t remember oh yah dedication… LOL 🙂 Loved this article, so me in a nutshell and I pray for strength and help everyday.
Just came across your site and everything you say is so true! I was diagnosed with Meniere’s in 2009 in my late 30’s and hold a high level finance position; which requires me to be sharp. The “brain fog” can really wreak havoc on your confidence as I struggle at times to find the right words, and my memory is definitely failing me. I wish there were more research around this disease, as it afflicts so many people. My mother has Meniere’s disease, so at least we can talk about it without thinking the other person is crazy. Your tips are helpful and I especially cued into your “productive time” of the day comment. I find my symptoms are worse in the late afternoon (about an hour or two after lunch) and feel like a zombie. I have never commented on a site like this, but maybe just writing about it and sharing thoughts can be helpful. I do believe that the most important thing I do to clear the “brain fog” is my exercise routine. I run 15 miles a week, and can tell you that I feel the most clear after I complete my run…so endorphin factor is true and HELPS. I do pray that someday there will be a cure or at least alleviate some of the effects of brain fog as it is truly debilitating. Thanks for the tips and everyone keep talking about this disease!
Hi Chris, thank you for sharing your story! And I agree with everything you are saying. I wrote a three part article about the ways I manage Brain Fog that might be helpful for you as well. You can read it here.