Compassion-Forward Productivity Techniques for Sick People (and Everyone)
A Guest Post by Edith Hollander
Today we are featuring Part II of Edith Hollander's two-part guest series, free for all readers. You can read more about Edith's experience navigating a difficult health diagnosis while in graduate school here:
While Edith developed these strategies while navigating her illness, the wisdom in her words and self-compassionate approaches to work could be beneficial to so many of us.
Letting go of toxic hope and the belief that I couldn’t do work until I got better did not give me complete relief, but it did give me a foundation from which to slowly build a new relationship to creative production. I developed an approach for myself that I’ve summarized in a few narrative tools.
These tools share a common philosophy of prioritizing emotional safety and pleasure over will. Carrot over stick. To me, that’s not anti-discipline–rather, making it easier to consistently do the things life requires of us is discipline. In that vein, I experimented with using short timers to get past anticipatory anxiety around work, which evoked serious fears about my abilities. I invested in a habit of regular writing, even amidst my tougher symptoms, as a type of exposure therapy to establish a sense of security in the writing process. I prioritized the work that excited me the most and took every single thing I could as a win.
For the first time, I felt that just facing the work at all was courageous, and that freed me to build on successes in a way I hadn’t ever been able to before. Writing could even, at times, serve as a refuge from my situation. It provided a tether to the familiar, engaged me in the present, and helped me to make meaning out of my experience.
Against Goals – Writing as a Practice
I’ve come to treat writing as a practice akin to meditation. Historically, I’ve not seen the forest for the trees when it comes to academic work: I sequestered this sector of my life into a series of finite tasks comprised of projects, syllabi, semesters, and so on. Viewing work in terms of iterative to-dos created a kind of staccato urgency and emphasized gaps in accomplishment over continuity of effort.
The type of effort we put into a practice is qualitatively different from how we approach finite tasks. It has a different relationship to time. I asked ChaptGPT what the elements of a practice are, and these were my favorite of its descriptors: consistency, intent, repetition, patience, and adaptability.
For me, adapting to chronic illness entails applying effort consistently without as much attachment to the outcome, which I can no longer control (or believe I can) as I did before. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it helped me to be more disciplined than ever because it was so much easier to start working when I didn’t believe that I had to write at my highest level and for as long as possible in every session.
The qualities of adaptability and non-judgement in particular radically allowed me to view obstructions as natural and start again after failures with far more ease. In meditation, when following the breath, we are instructed to simply return when we find ourselves distracted and to recognize that the mind being pulled away is expected. When I shift my perspective to believe that bad days and roadblocks are not only permissible but unavoidable, I forgive myself faster and become more resilient.
I still do the basics of breaking down projects into parts and using a Calendar so I can visualize blocks of open time. (My favorite tool for task management is the app Todoist and I use Google Calendar for scheduling.) But I put the majority of my effort into trying to refine one behavior at a time, like writing a 5 sentence summary after every source for a literature review or writing for 5 minutes a day on the project causing me the most anxiety.
Training at Altitude
Being productive while sick is a lot like an athlete training at altitude. In that vein, it changes our expectations of what exertion feels like.
Before, I didn’t write when I didn’t feel like I could focus at a high level. I’d think, “don’t be so hard on yourself, writing right now won't be productive anyway.” If I held my focus to the same standard now, I would literally never write! Instead, I focus on doing small amounts of work consistently, even when I know my abilities are poor.
Work can be very triggering when I’m having bad symptoms. It evokes anger, frustration, sadness, and thoughts like, “if this never changes or gets worse, it’ll be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I’ll have to quit.”The point of working when I feel horrible isn’t to get a lot done. I’m conscious of this – if I felt I was adding a long, uncomfortable experience to the pain I was already in, I would quickly burn-out. The purpose is exposure therapy, to teach my brain that writing will not hurt as bad as I imagine it will.
Like other proponents of work timers, I usually find that once I’m present in the task, I can do more than I think—even when I’m feeling sick. Sometimes not. Sometimes I cry before, during, and after. But most importantly, I get full credit for facing the work I’m afraid to do at that moment, regardless of the outcome.
The experiential learning that I can accomplish things even when I feel unable to is precious for my self-efficacy. Training at altitude also makes good days, symptoms-wise great days, when I can enjoy the pleasure of easeful effort and flow-state concentration.
Move the Target Closer
When getting started is a big demon, it also means doing whatever I can. I try to start with things that do excite me about the project. If writing actual sentences is nightmare-inducing today, I work on formatting citations. If formatting citations is too tedious, I use ChatGPT to draft titles. Sometimes, all I do in my 5 minute timer is reread a sentence I’m proud of and change one word. Moving the target closer supports the ability to start, and starting begets starting again tomorrow.
My mom was a middle school teacher for 15 years and has always said that managing her students helped her to manage herself as a writer. Often, the kids weren’t doing anything right – but being constantly punitive diminished trust and even further disincentivized them. Instead, she complimented the one thing they did do right. Some days, that meant saying, “Great job getting started.” On days when nothing else goes right, I try to tell myself: “Great job getting started!”
The “Have Done” List
We tend to only view academic tasks as us working," but we do things all day that take effort and, most importantly, that take discipline. Discipline and willpower are limited resources, especially when you’re sick.
Enter the inverse to-do list, or "the ‘have done’ list.”
At the end of the day (or when I get stuck), I make a mental or physical list of everything I did that took energy, will, and discipline, not just schoolwork. Exercising, meditating, grocery shopping, cooking, and doing therapy all go on the list.
What I find is that even on days where it feels like I've hardly gotten anything done, I’ve actually been working all day. I particularly like the app ATracker to track how much time I’ve spent on tasks. I don’t do this to be punitive, but actually to give myself credit for all the hours of things I’ve done each day.
There are about as many ways to be sick as there are bodies in the world. This is a non-prescriptive, autobiographical reflection on the ways I shaped myself, consciously and unconsciously, to fit into new physiological conditions. Managing illness in graduate school depends on myriad variables. To name a few: your particular symptoms, socio-economic status, level of familial and financial support, access to medical care, discrimination faced in medicine, other caregiving responsibilities, institutional culture and policies, academic mentorship, lessons learned from our families about receiving help, and the list goes on.
Having the experiences and expectations of able-bodied people applied to us within the social institutions we navigate (academic and non-academic) is endemic to living with illness, and to live in such a different reality than our peers is isolating in ways that can be hard to even articulate. So, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.
A drizzle, then a flood. When does something stop being an inconvenience you can live around and become a disability? My situation (and my knowledge of it) continues to change. The proverbial dust hasn’t settled, but I’m becoming more used to living in dust storms. Experientially, loss of ability is an intrusion into how we imagine life should feel, a violation - yet it is also an entirely normal part of being alive. It’s challenging to strike a balance between honoring the depth of these traumatic interruptions and understanding them as far more core to the human experience than our “bootstraps” culture would have us believe. I know I have found so much relief in recognizing the echoes of my now-everyday challenges in others’ testimony. I hope that some of it resonates for you.