How to Be More Effective with Limited Mental Energy

This post is for those of us with chronic illness who can manage a little productivity in our day and perhaps even work part time, but are battling against limited mental energy and the need to make sure we don’t use too much of it.

For me not overdoing it physically or mentally is an absolute priority because I know from experience, that it’s the only chance I have for improving my well-being. However, when improvements are never that quick it can be tempting to try to wring out every drop of energy you have each day, to get as much out of life as possible. The pressure to do so can be even stronger when you’re trying to contribute to your household or even support yourself financially.  It can be a real challenge to balance health with productivity.

There is no way I could work and remain relatively well, if I couldn’t manage what I’m doing on a moment to moment basis, listening carefully to my body’s needs. Fortunately working from home (in my own business) gives me that flexibility.

I’ve found that there are two keys to being as effective as possible on an average day without risking your well-being when you have a chronic illness: pacing and energy matching. Both make sure you’re using your energy as efficiently as possible so that you don’t end up using more than you need to, for each thing you do.

Pacing productivity

Breaking activity into short bursts is absolutely key to keeping productivity high even when it seems to interrupt a sense of flow. I use a timer to limit my work sessions to 40 minutes and make sure I have a 20-minute break in between. It can seem frustrating to interrupt myself when I’m on a roll, but I’ve discovered that if I continue, I can frequently get to a point where my concentration is fading and I’m having to use far more energy for far less output. In addition, the more tired I get, the less likely I am to notice that I need to stop and take a rest and the more likely my old unhelpful autopilot of ‘push to finish’ will click in. Pushing always threatens my well-being, resulting in me having less energy for days to come.

Stopping and resting earlier, keeps productivity high and means more gets done with less energy in a shorter time. That means more time and energy for investing in well-being! Even when I have to interrupt something that may benefit from continuity like writing a blog post, I find that by taking better care of my mental energy with breaks and making sure I stop when I need to, I can usually slip back into the flow even if it’s a day or two later. (This post has been written in 4 sittings over 3 days plus a sitting to load it onto my website).

Good pacing can be really helpful when things are particularly challenging too. When you step away from a problem and let it go for a while, the solution will often present itself more easily when you start afresh. It can help to do something to ‘break frame’ at the beginning of each break too. I like to practice one of my Sevillana dances. Each one only takes about 90 seconds, and the focus on the steps, switches my mind off whatever I was working on, as well as the fun of dancing lightening my mood. There are many different ways to break frame, for example: put on some rousing or light hearted music for a moment, sing a song, pull some silly faces, or standing in an empowering stance (like the superhero pose), find something that works for you!

I often use my work breaks to do a little washing up or tidying. I’ve found that as long as overall energy isn’t extremely limited, changing the kind of activity you do for example from mental to gentle physical, can be as effective as a rest. After ‘braking frame’ moving around gently practising being mindful with a simple task can be quite relaxing and it’s amazing how you can keep on top of the household just by doing a couple of minutes here and there. I always try to include a few minutes of low stimulation quite time in my work breaks too.

Energy matching

One of the things that makes the biggest difference to my overall productivity, is not making myself do something when I just don’t have the right kind of energy to do it. For example, I have less than an hour a day’s worth of the kind of mental energy needed to find complex solutions to problems or to be particularly creative. If something difficult comes up in the afternoon, I know that if I try to deal with it then I’ll really struggle and will end up pushing myself, so I always give myself to permission to put it on hold until I’ll next be feeling creative and productive, which is usually after I’ve done my morning practises the following day.

I have created time slots in my work day for different kinds of activities, that fit with the kind of energy I tend to have. Creativity / problem solving needs to come first when I am most fresh and alert. By the end of the morning, I’m usually not up to doing anything that needs thinking about but I can follow a procedure like putting invoices on a spreadsheet.  Typing out my case notes involves a bit of memory but doesn’t involve problem solving or creativity so I usually do that mid-morning.

My lists are also very important. At the beginning of each week I write a list of what I’m hoping to achieve that week and then break it down into the smallest possible chunks of activity, sorting them into the type of energy required so that I can match them with my time slots. I may schedule some things on my calendar, like case notes for the mid-morning slot the day after a coaching session and maybe the most important tasks in the relevant slots for the first few days.  Then at the end of my work day I review/plan what task I will put into each energy matched time slot for the following day.

This schedule has to be flexible though. If I’m having a low energy/ high brain fog day, then I may not have any creativity / problem solving in me at all. So even though I have a rough plan for what I’m going to do when, I always check out whether I actually feel like doing the thing in that moment; whether I can do it without it feeling stressful and an effort. If it’s a no, I’ll check out the rest of my list to see if there’s anything else that I could do with ease.

How to be more effective with limited mental energyTrust

Energy matching like this involves letting go of the idea that you’ve got to do all the important and urgent things on your list first. This involves a certain amount of trust that by taking this approach everything important will get done. I know that when I push, I always end up with far less energy overall. Having experimented with this trust I’ve been amazed by how much more productive I can be.  It’s amazing how much you really can get done in small chunks, when you respect your energy and don’t let yourself get pressured and fatigued.

NB. This post assumes that you’ve already found your baseline of sustainable activity with your illness. It my not ring true if you’ve been resisting the reality of your limits. It’s a sad fact that our sustainable baseline is often a lot lower than we want it to be, but when you can accept and respect it you have a far better chance of creating a routine for yourself that will also encourage healing.

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4 thoughts on “How to Be More Effective with Limited Mental Energy”

  1. This makes so much sense to me…having been unwell with chronic fatigie for over 15 yrs I still don’t know what my base line is, I have always been someone to push and push and finish tasks (ok when i was well but not so good now!) and am now trying to break a habit of a lifetime, as am now 54. I am a serial crash and burner and am really really working on finding my baseline and moving forward from there. Your article made total sense, so thanku xxxx

  2. This was a very helpful post to me. My biggest struggle is finding the balance. I need to try to follow your tips and I think it will be a big help to me. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I really like that you brought up the topic of trust when it comes to being productive with chronic fatigue. That’s not a topic I’ve seen discussed before in an article like this. One challenge I find is when well-meaning family and friends want to make sure you accomplish things, and suddenly instead of feeling that I’ll be able to get it done, I start to worry and feel pressured to do it *now.* I think reframing this as trusting the process and trusting myself will be helpful!

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