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Why Migraine Made Me Ditch My To-Do List

Reading time | 4 mins

When you live with chronic illness, it’s easy to succumb to feelings of guilt and failure. When I’m having a flare up, I sometimes get so frustrated that I can’t help beating myself up and taking jabs at how ‘useless’ I am.

These type of feelings can impact really negatively on my mental health. I know that I’m not useless. I know that my life has value. But when I’ve not been productive for a while, I become hyper-critical of my lack of accomplishments.

The pressure of the to-do list

Being highly critical of myself is a two edged-sword. I hold myself in high regard but I’m also my own worst enemy. When the symptoms of my chronic conditions are bad, I put pressure on myself, thinking of the many days I’ve ‘wasted’ as a result of being bedbound.

I can’t do much physically anyway. But on days like these I can barely get out of bed. I can’t run a brush through my hair or change my pyjamas. Yet, I would then kick myself when I am already down. I tell myself I shouldn’t be wasting days, I add up all the chores I haven’t done and all the work that has been put on hold, and I frustrate myself even more. Being a lover of lists, I was constantly making to-do lists as my short-term memory is awful.

I found that on my bad days these to-do lists were actually hindering rather than helping me. I couldn’t tick off all the items and I couldn’t feel that sense of achievement from doing all the things I’d planned. I felt deflated. Viewing that list with nothing ticked off filled me with guilt - even when I was barely able get out of bed. I still felt like the lack of completion of my tasks was a failure.

In reality, I’m not sat about squandering my time.  I’m recovering. I’m fighting. I’m battling my conditions.

The feelings of anxiety increased

There were usually five to ten things on my list that I needed to do. I’d get so anxious just looking at it because I knew I wasn’t able to do any of them and it scared me. I couldn’t go to the post office, I didn’t reply to emails, I didn’t shower. I focussed on all the things I didn’t do. My to-do lists became overwhelming, never-ending and toxic.

Eventually the fact that I was not completing them day-after-day chipped away at my mental health. Who would have thought a simple to-do list could have such a harmful effect on me?

I got stuck in a vicious cycle of torturing myself when I was down. I realised that the simple solution was probably to stop writing to-do list, but how was I going to remember even half of the things I had to do? I relied on this list to make sure I followed up on appointments and met deadlines.

Focusing on the ‘done list’

I realised that even though the list helped my memory, it didn’t help my mind. This is when I was introduced to the ‘done list’.

Unlike the well-known to-do list, the done list included all the tasks I had completed that day.

My done list includes things like:

  • Got out of bed
  • Made a drink
  • Fed the dogs
  • Brushed my teeth
  • Did some stretches
  • Took my medication
  • Texted a friend
  • Confirmed hospital appointment
  • Put fresh pyjamas on
  • Called family member/friend
  • Listened to an audiobook
  • Ordered food online
  • Posted on Instagram

The things on your list can be absolutely anything that you have completed that day. Remind yourself that you’ve done as much as you can do. While it may not seem like a lot, it will give you solid evidence that you’ve definitely not ‘wasted’ a day.

For me, this list really helps with my guilt. It helps me to track my progress and give myself some credit as I rarely acknowledge my achievements. This type of list is a really constructive way to focus on the positives, which is always beneficial.

A whole new approach

I used to compose a done list on a regular basis, but recently I haven’t needed it quite as much.  This shift in how I approach day-to-day tasks has helped me to change the way I think about flaring up and/or ‘wasting’ days. I have now got to the point where I feel much less guilty when I’m not as productive. Nowadays, I give myself a break because I recognise that living with chronic conditions means that I require less busy days. I know that my body isn’t always able and that I need days to rest and recuperate, and that is okay.

That’s just my reality. If I feel like I’m sinking back into the anxiety over what I haven’t done, I write down what I have done.

Sometimes I still compose to-do lists -  mainly because my memory is so bad that I absolutely have to - but I don’t hold myself accountable if they’re not completed. I don’t put too much pressure on myself, and if something desperately needs doing and I’m in too much pain or can’t keep my eyes open from fatigue, I can always ask someone else for help. I am very lucky to have an extremely supportive boyfriend and family who consistently offer help and support.

The takeaway

If you’re living with a chronic condition and are feeling inadequate, you’re not alone. You’re certainly not a failure for not being able to do much. You’re fighting a condition – constantly – and sometimes you might need to take a break and give yourself some credit for the small things that you can do.

Nobody is superhuman and we all need time to recover from a flare-up. Hopefully by creating a done list, it will prove to you just how much you can do, even when you’re suffering.  This goes even if the only item on your list is asking for help – which is a massive achievement in itself.

UK/MED/19/0257 October 2019