How to Get Things Done With Fibromyalgia
Doctors and researchers are still trying to understand fibromyalgia.
Some believe it's an inflammatory condition, coming from the muscles and soft tissues. Other theories propose it is caused by hormonal imbalances.
Recent research shows it may be neurological—chemicals in the brain misreport pain.
Because doctors don't understand the condition, they often ignore it or misdiagnose it. Plus, each fibro sufferer has their own set of treatments that work, and many that don't.
Fibromyalgia sufferers are expected to be as productive as perfectly healthy people—running households, attending school, reporting to work. However, we are plagued with constant fatigue, pain, brain 'fog', and host of other symptoms, which can make these tasks seem impossible.
These top four productivity 'hacks' and helpful tools can help us function a little closer to 'normal' healthy individuals.
I'm a fibromite, too
I have lived with fibromyalgia and other illnesses for over 20 years, some years more successfully than others.
Although I was formally diagnosed at age 24 by neurologists, general doctors and a rheumatologist who specialized in fibro, specialists suggested that I have had fibromyalgia since I was a young teen.
I have had to support myself financially while studying full-time, and then working full-time, which spiraled my symptoms and secondary illnesses out of control as I headed towards burnout.
I chose to downshift and put my health first, recover and re-enter the workforce, part time.
These days I work as a freelance writer, teacher and photographer. But resting and taking care of my health is my first priority.
One of the clearer books about fibromyalgia, and published in the last couple of years (2011). Written by a medical researcher who also suffers from fibro, it's both personal and useful.
Some of the treatments presented in the book are not available easily or cheaply, which is the only complaint I have about it!
Have you heard of the Spoon Theory?
The Spoon Theory, by Christine Miserandino, is the best description for fibro that I have come across.
Your available daily energy is like a limited set of spoons.
- Every action costs spoons, some more than others.
- If you run out of spoons or borrow from tomorrow's spoons, you pay with increased pain and illness.
Establish a routine
As fibro sufferers have a limited and smaller amount of daily energy than healthy people, they must carefully plan how they will spend their time.
Having a regular routine also helps on those days when your brain is not working so well. You can do some things on auto-pilot.
Draw up a routine for regular household (and work or study) activities - cleaning, cooking, shopping, bill paying, etc. But try to keep the routine flexible!
Schedule rest first
Short activity periods with rest breaks in between are less taxing for a fibromyalgia sufferer than one longer work period and a longer break at the end of the activity.
Take longer breaks after more strenuous activities, and don't try to complete such tasks in one go. Vacuum one room, then take a break - don't try to vacuum the whole house at once!
Also, don't plan multiple strenuous activities on one day.
Experiment to find what your ideal activity length and resting times are.
Don't be afraid to take naps - putting your health first is not a sign of weakness!
Plan to beat the brain fog
One of the main limiters to productivity during a fibromyalgia flare, is the brain fog. It's hard to remember the tasks that need to be done in an hour, let alone over a day or longer.
Fibro and other chronic pain sufferers often use memory techniques that reduce the need to remember, or improve their ability to remember. The best way to be productive, even with brain fog, is to plan, use lists and have defined places for items around the home (and to always return them to these places!)
Planning a week's worth of meals ensures a streamlined shopping list (and a quicker shopping trip), and a healthier pantry.
- Include healthy snacks, and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Make sure that most of the meals and snacks are easy and quick to prepare - don't try to aim for a four course gourmet dinner!
- Perhaps cook for two or three nights at once - freeze the left-overs to save energy on those more strenuous days.
Tip: For a couple of weeks, watch how your energy levels fluctuate - this will determine when you shop, plan out your week's menu, and cook.
Shopping from a list
Aimlessly wandering through the grocery store, wondering what you came to buy is a recipe for both exhaustion and budget blow out!
Always shop with a list! It makes shopping trips faster, less strenuous, and much friendlier on your wallet.
I keep several shopping lists - a grocery list compiled from my week's menu, gift lists for different occasions or people, clothing, and 'wish lists' for when people ask me what I'd like for my birthday (I can never remember at the time).
Either a note or an app on your phone can help keep track of your lists easily.
Using a calendar and a task list
Use one calendar system for everything. Write appointments, meal plans, birthdays, tasks, and anything else that is time-based, on the same calendar.
Including even small tasks on the calendar is great for motivation. It's immensely gratifying to see even 1-2 tasks crossed out every day, even during a high-pain period! However, you do need to make a habit of looking at it every day!
I find an electronic calendar (with alarm) much more useful than the paper variety.
My old iPhone is my brain on most days - I normally carry it everywhere I go, even if it's just to another room, so it can buzz and remind me of a task or appointment, wake me up in the mornings, or even remind me to get ready for work.
Plus it has my shopping lists, audio playlists and bi-lingual dictionaries that I use when teaching.
How often do you look at, and update your task list?
Storing things in the same places
I'm terrible with this - I am always looking for my keys. I've been late leaving for work, because I had to find my keys, and then was too low on energy to teach at my normal enthusiasm. The students felt that, and I felt bad because of it.
Knowing exactly where to find your glasses of a morning, the tea bags and sugar, a heating pad, keys, your phone, bills, without having to puzzle out the location in the midst of brain fog, is a must if you want to be productive with fibromyalgia.
Disorganization wastes time, creates stress, and saps energy. Allocate appropriate places for everything in your home and office, and be consistent in returning items to their places after using them.
Break things down into small steps
Large jobs, like cleaning the house, or writing an assignment paper for school, can paralyze fibro patients (and even healthy people!) But when such large tasks are broken down into small steps, and spread over time, they become much more manageable.
My example: cooking dinner
On bad days, I find cooking a meal at the end of the day impossible - my hands refuse to hold the knife for a long period of time.
However, when I start early in the day, spending 5-10 minutes to chop vegetables, or complete one step of a recipe, it is manageable. I also use equipment to make food preparation easier - such as a food processor.
Other tricks to increase productivity
There are a great number of other useful productivity boosting hacks.
Beat procrastination - leaving tasks until the last minute causes stress and uses energy while you are procrastinating, and then requires far too much energy in one hit to complete the task properly. Use rewards or other procrastination-fighting techniques to stop procrastination.
Stop aiming for perfection - good enough is good enough, cut yourself some slack and don't push for perfection in anything. The world won't end if the dishes take the whole day to be cleaned!
Eat healthily - a variety of healthy foods gives the body the vitamins and minerals it needs. A variety of studies suggest that fibromyalgia patients burn through certain vitamins and minerals faster than healthy people, such as vitamin D and magnesium, among others.
Stretch and exercise - gentle stretching increases mobility and decreases pain. Tai chiand gentle yoga are often recommended to fibro patients. Including time for stretching and gentle exercises in your daily routine.
Get a good night's rest - sleep is one of the most important factors in determining daily fibro pain levels. A comfortable and supportive bed, a regular and healthy sleep routine can help the productivity levels of fibro patients enormously.
Meditate - repeated studies are showing that meditation can help reduce the severity of pain, probably by reducing stress levels and hormones. Mindfulness techniques can be used throughout the day to reduce overall stress levels, and reduce pain.
Use helpful tools - a food processor makes meal preparation much quicker and less painful. Speech-to-text tools like Dragon Dictate (MacOSX) or Dragon Naturally Speaking can cut down on pain from typing and computer use.
Accept help when it is offered - perhaps the hardest for me to do! If someone offers to help, accept their offer with grace - they are trying to be useful and do something nice!
Breathe and think positively! It's much easier to deal with pain when you think positive thoughts. Breathe, relax the tension in your muscles as much as you can, slow down and never give up!
Why it's hard to develop habits as a fibromite
Habits and routines help you do things on auto-pilot, reducing the number of decisions you need to make and the strain on your willpower 'muscle'.
This reduces, fatigue stress and most importantly pain for fibro sufferers.
However, fibromites have a problem.
When researching the science of habits, Charles Duhigg discovered that the basal ganglia played a most important role in habit formation.
Unfortunately, in fibromyalgia patients, the area associated with rewards for a completed task (learning and habits) has a markedly decreased activation.(4)
The lack of reward makes it harder to establish a habit.
Therefore, to establish a new habit or change an old habit, fibromites need to reward themselves richly to compensate for the lack of 'reward' inside their brains!
A fascinating look at how habits are formed, both in individuals and at a societal level.
Along with medical research into the habit-areas of the brain, this has helped me understand why I have such trouble setting routines and forming healthy habits.
It also gave me hints for how to build habits slowly, one at a time, and stack them on top of each other to become more productive, even when my health was terrible.
The most inspirational video
- Women with fibromyalgia have lower levels of calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese in hair mineral analysis, Y.S. Kim, et. al., Journal of Korean Medical Science, October 2011, 26(10):1253-7
- Tai chi and chronic pain, P.W. Peng, Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medication, July 2012, 37(4):372-82
- Comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and multidisciplinary intervention programs for chronic pain: a randomized comparative trial, S.Y. Wong, et.al., Clinical Journal of Pain, October 2011, 27(8):724-34
- Decreased Basal Ganglia Activation in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Subjects is Associated with Increased Fatigue, A. Miller, et. al, PLOS.One, May 2014
What productivity tips do you have?
Especially for chronic pain and fibromyalgia sufferers, who struggle with expectations of productivity, both their own and of others - what tips and tricks do you have?
Let us know in the comments below!