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 miss-report pain.

Because doctors don't understand the condition, they often ignore it or miss-diagnose it. Plus each fibro sufferer has their own set of treatments which work, and many which don't.

Fibromyalgia sufferers are expected to be as productive as perfectly healthy people - running households, attending school, attending 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 4 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.

Figuring out Fibromyalgia: Current science and the most effective treatments
Figuring out Fibromyalgia: Current science and the most effective treatments

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!

Juggling energy levels in fibromyalgia is like being given a limited number of spoons.
Juggling energy levels in fibromyalgia is like being given a limited number of spoons. | Source

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!

Taking time for tea and a quick check of my lists on my phone.
Taking time for tea and a quick check of my lists on my phone. | Source

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!

3. 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!)

Menu planning

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?

  • Once a day - I have the memory of an elephant!
  • A few times a day, as I finish a handful of tasks.
  • Every time I finish a task - I must cross it off immediately, or I will forget!
  • More often - I need to remind myself of what time I'm working on now!
  • Never - I like chaos and hate task lists!
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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.

Batch cooking with a helper on a Sunday - cooking two week's worth of healthy meals.
Batch cooking with a helper on a Sunday - cooking two week's worth of healthy meals. | Source

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[1].

Stretch and exercise - gentle stretching increases mobility and decreases pain. Tai chi[2]and 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!

Voice capture software and a split keyboard makes writing less painful for me!
Voice capture software and a split keyboard makes writing less painful for me! | Source

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!

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

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


  1. 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
  2. Tai chi and chronic pain, P.W. Peng, Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medication, July 2012, 37(4):372-82
  3. Comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and multidisciplinary intervention programs for chronic pain: a randomized comparative trial, S.Y. Wong,, Clinical Journal of Pain, October 2011, 27(8):724-34
  4. 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!

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Comments 13 comments

Lisawilliamsj profile image

Lisawilliamsj 4 years ago

This is a fantastic article! I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia about two years ago. I have weeks that I am fine but, then I have weeks where I am totally useless. I will definitely give your tips a try. Thanks for posting, I voted up!

innerspin profile image

innerspin 4 years ago from uk

I'm sorry you have this debilitating condition. The headline about being productive caught my eye, as I have "brain fog" and low stamina due to an inner ear disorder. It's a drag, but building the same kind of coping strategies as you have listed is very useful. Great information. It can be counter-productive trying to fit too much into your day. Oh, and my keys live on a little hook near the door. Makes life easier! Good hub, thanks.

Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

even the very healthy can benefit from your methods of staying organized and remaining productive. I have a friend who has been dealing with this illness also for quite some time. she uses a number of your techniques but I know she struggles daily. the disease you both live with is a constant battle. Baby steps every day. Thanks for bringing awareness to this debilitating disease and for providing some very useful coping mechanisms. I'm a list person myself!

INFJay profile image

INFJay 4 years ago from Santa Rosa, California

Excellent Hub! Posted as a "like" on Facebook. My wife has been living with Fibro since the early 80s when doctors couldn't diagnose the condition accurately some even saying, "It's all in your head." She read your Hub right after I did and I heard her say, "yep, yep." So the Facebook "like" is so she can also share it with her friends with Fibro.

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Leipzig, Germany Author

Lisa - I'm sorry to hear that you've also been diagnosed with fibro. Swinging between bad and good weeks sounds so familiar (I'm usually like this during summer or hot weather). It's hard to predict when crashes will occur. I hope some of these tips can help you manage a bit better!

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Leipzig, Germany Author

Innerspin - I didn't know that inner ear problems (or dizziness) could cause or contribute to 'brain fog', but it makes sense. You'd have to deal with a lot more demands on your processing power to balance and hear. I also have a hook at my front door - my current problem is remembering to take my keys from my bag and put them there!

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Leipzig, Germany Author

Teresa - Fibro is a daily struggle - I'm sorry to hear about your friend. I hope some of these tips are new and can help her too! Lists are great (but I need to remember to cross things off!)

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Leipzig, Germany Author

INFJay - Thank you! I hope this can help your wife, and thank you for sharing! I still get responses from people that it's all in my head (even for pain that is completely and obviously physical). When someone mentions that my fibro is 'in my head', my standard response now, is that it's a chemical imbalance in my brain that causes nerves to respond either too much or too little. Helps to nudge them towards the realisation that pain doesn't just occur from physical damage.

freefogging profile image

freefogging 2 years ago from Florida

Nice Hub. I also suffer from Fibromyalgia, CFS, anxiety and a load of other physical problems. You have to be organized and keep to do lists to accomplish anything without causing a flairup...good info!!

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 2 years ago from Leipzig, Germany Author

freefogging - I need to be super organised with my classes now (teaching so many different levels and at different places) - task lists and keeping everything in its place (mostly) helps enormously to keep pain flares away. Thanks!

thebiologyofleah profile image

thebiologyofleah 2 years ago from Massachusetts

Great tips here for sufferers of chronic conditions and those lucky enough to be healthly as well. I am a long-time chronic pain sufferer (but really I am most likely an undiagnosed fibro sufferer). I appreciate how all of your tips minimize frenzied states. Not letting stress get the better of me really goes a long way for health and happiness.

Thanks for sharing!

Deborah 2 years ago

I was diagnosed approx 18yrs ago and have been doing ok with handling things until this last year. Our youngest son is a diabetic with kidney failure and has been in the hospital 6 times over the last year. My hubby is a disabled vet and has had two spinal fusion and one neck fusion surgeries. I quit teaching to take care of my husband and son 8 yrs ago. this last year though I hit a wall just before Christmas And was down for the count. I was sleeeping 12 hrs a nite. And then taking a nap. Dragging myself out of bed to do anything. I could barely cook one meal and clean it up or fold a load of laundry. My pain went from a steady 7 to a 10plus all the time! I have never had such a painful winter. My IBS went into overdrive. I've had every test possible for my belly to include a liver biopsy. I have just been crying out to the Lord to help me get better. I have people depending on me for their care. I can't be this ill. So I started looking online for new information and treatment for fibromyalgia and found this site. I bought some really good probiotics and my belly is much better. All the tips for organization and lists are things I have already incorporated in my life before as a military wife, mother of 4, teacher, grandmother of 6 and now a chaplain. I have not let this " junk diagnosis" of a disease that's "all in my head" slow me down... much! but I must say, lately fibromyalgia has changed the rules on me and I am struggling. would appreciate any positive comments or advice to help. thanks,

nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 2 years ago from Leipzig, Germany Author

TheBiologyOfLeah - thank you! Frenzy and stress is the arch-enemy of chronic pain sufferers!

Deborah - thank you so much for sharing your story! I'm sorry to hear about your son and hubby.

I'm still struggling with the ups and downs (more downs) of my fibromyalgia, but managing to work part time. Catching a few viruses recently has made me hit the wall, and take some time off work to recover a little.

As much as I hated to, I asked for help from family members with the cleaning, shopping and cooking, and let myself sleep as much as I could. The meals I had cooked and frozen when I had more energy also came in handy.

A good vitamin B is helping me build my energy level back, but I need to avoid sugar, or I crash!

I am so glad I've been making my teaching schedules and handouts in advance -- it has allowed me to really turn off and rest this time. In all previous times when I was down for the count, I kept beating myself up with everything that I should be doing. This time, I am recovering quicker because I let myself switch off. I still need a nap every couple of days though!

Now I just need to work in a daily switch off from work and worries, and I think this will help me manage better!

Best of luck, and let us know how you go!

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