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Woman with chronic illness writing a daily achievement list rather than a to do list

Why Migraine Made Me Ditch My "To Do" List

Reading time | 4 mins
When struggling with your health, "To Do" lists can feel overwhelming. Sarah Alexander-Georgeson explains the benefits of making a "Done" list instead.

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When you live with chronic illnesses like migraine and fibromyalgia, it’s easy to succumb to feelings of guilt and failure. When I have a flare-up, I sometimes get so frustrated that I can’t help beating myself up over how "useless" I am.

These feelings can really impact my mental health. Like, I know that I'm not useless. I know that my life has value. But when I'm not productive, I become hyper-critical of my lack of accomplishments.

A “To Do” list comes with a lot of pressure

Being my harshest critic is a double-edged sword. I hold myself in high regard, but I'm also my own worst enemy. When my migraine and fibromyalgia are bad, I pile myself with pressure. Usually, I'm ruminating on "wasted" days when I cannot get out of bed.

I can't do much - physically, anyway. But on days like these, I can barely run a brush through my hair or change my pyjamas. 

Yet, I would then kick myself when I was already down. I tell myself I shouldn't be wasting days, and then I add up the chores I haven't done and all the work currently on hold. Of course, this frustrates me even more. Being a lover of lists, I made hundreds of "To Do" lists as my short-term memory was - and remains - awful. 

But, on bad days, these "To Do" lists were a hindrance rather than a help. I couldn't tick off all the items and feel that sense of achievement from doing everything I had planned. I felt deflated. Viewing that list with nothing ticked off filled me with guilt - even when I couldn't get out of bed. I still felt like not crossing off all my tasks meant I was a failure. 

In reality, I'm not sitting around squandering my time. I'm recovering. I'm fighting. I'm constantly managing my chronic conditions.

My anxiety would get overwhelming

There were usually five to ten things on my list that I needed to do. I'd get so anxious because I knew I couldn't do any of them, and it scared me. I couldn’t go to the post office, I didn’t reply to emails, and 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, not completing the daily lists started to chip away at me. 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 realized that the simple solution was to stop writing “To Do” lists.

But how would I remember even half of what I had to do? I relied on these lists to keep track of appointments and deadlines. 

Focusing on what I’ve achieved, not what I haven’t

I admitted that even though the list helped my memory, it didn’t help my mind. This was 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 pajamas on
  • Called family member/friend
  • Listened to an audiobook
  • Ordered food online
  • Posted on Instagram

The things on your list can be anything you've completed that day. Remind yourself that you've done as much as you can. While it may not seem like a lot, you'll have solid evidence that a day hasn't been "wasted."

These lists help with my guilt. It helps me to track my progress and give myself some credit, as I rarely acknowledge my achievements. The “Done” list is a constructive way to focus on the positives, which is always beneficial. 

A whole new approach to "being productive" 

I used to compose "Done" lists every day, but recently I haven't needed them as much. My thoughts are changing about flare-ups and "unproductive" days. 

I now feel less guilty when unproductive. Living with chronic conditions means fewer busy days and the need to pace myself. I also need days to rest and recuperate, which is okay. 

That's my reality. If I'm spiraling over what I haven't done, I write down what I successfully managed that day. 

Sometimes, I still compose "To Do" lists. My memory is so bad that they can be necessary. But I don't hold myself accountable if they're not completed. 

I don't put too much pressure on myself. If something needs doing and I'm in too much pain or can't keep my eyes open from fatigue, I can always ask for help. I'm lucky to have an incredibly caring boyfriend and an unwaveringly supportive family.

The takeaway 

If you're living with a chronic condition and feel somehow "inadequate," you're not alone. You're not a failure; you're living with a chronic illness. Give yourself some credit for the small things you do every day.

Remember, nobody is superhuman, and we all need time to recover from flare-ups. Creating a "Done" list might prove how much you've achieved on bad days. 

So, jot one down, even if the only item is "I asked for help." That's still a massive achievement. 

NOTE: The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for migraine symptoms. Please consult with a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.

NPS-ALL-NP-00702 NOVEMBER 2022