Purposeful Productivity, Self-care & Stress

How to Stay Productive When You’re Sick

As I write this, I’m trying to shake off a cold. It’s clearly nothing serious, but definitely means I’m not operating in top gear. So I got to thinking about how you can – realistically – stay somewhat productive when you’re sick.

This is not a post for those with a serious or chronic illness, nor is it intended as medical advice. It’s also more appropriate for those of us who either work for ourselves, or don’t need to show up for a day job (with or without sick pay), or have some choice about which tasks you tackle at your day job.

So, if you have a little discretion over how you spend your time, paired with a short-term, non threatening bout of sickness (like a cold, mild flu or even a festive hangover), read on for my 12 suggestions on staying at least a little productive.

How to be productive when you're sick | Pauline Wiles

Look at it this way

  1. Accept that occasional sickness is inevitable. Even if you do all the “right” things in terms of healthy habits, sooner or later, you’ll get sick. This is only my second spell of being under-the-weather this year, and frankly, it’s come at a fairly convenient time.
  2. Thank your body for the signal to slow down. The crummy feeling that comes with a cold is, frankly, a sign to rest. Unless I’m absolutely desperate, I don’t take much in the way of medications, as I figure the symptoms are there to put the brakes on my typical behavior. Maybe a slight illness is an early warning of the need to take better care.
  3. Accept that, when you’re not at your best, your usual levels of “productivity” will suffer. There’s no getting around it. You’ll make yourself miserable, and prolong your sickness, if you try to push through with no accommodations.
  4. Know that, if you’re at all worried about your productivity, that’s a sign you’re not truly at death’s door. I always see it as a sign I’m actually feeling better, if I can fret about my to-do list. When I’m more ill, I just don’t care!
  5. If I remember to (and I don’t always), I try to be grateful my illness isn’t worse. It’s not hard to imagine a diagnosis which would be far, far more severe.

What can you do?

  1. Check your calendar and your deadlines for everything you can cancel or defer. If in doubt, bow out. The sooner you tell people, the better, especially if you’re going to miss a deadline or they’ll need to find a replacement for you. Don’t be wishy-washy in saying you “might not” be able to deliver. This was a mistake I just made in canceling plans with friends: I shouldn’t have put the onus on them to decide whether we should still meet. It would have been better for me to judge my ability to be a pleasant companion, and cancel immediately. As a Brit, we tend to want to soldier on, but the local culture here in California is that it’s actually rude to risk making someone else sick.
  2. You probably don’t feel like tackling big, important projects which require strategic or creative thinking. And there’s no point embarking on a task which is daunting even when you’re healthy. But I bet your to-do list contains low-value, possibly monotonous tasks which you might have been putting off. When you’re under the weather, you might find one of these is ideal as it only needs about 30% of your brain power and you can still feel like you’re doing something. For example, in the last few days I’ve uploaded many vacation photos onto the USB stick which powers my digital photo frame, and lined up this year’s Christmas cards. For further gentle ideas, you might like this free download of 25 Things to Do Instead of TV.
  3. Working at the computer, or reading, might be too much for your brain to handle. But do you have podcasts or videos you’ve been meaning to catch up with? I find when my eyes are tired, listening to material is ideal. And yesterday I watched a few evergreen webinars, which I hadn’t found time earlier to ponder.
  4. There’s no shame in setting an out-of-office email responder to let people know you’ll be slow getting back to them. This is also a great time to get into the habit of email triage: often, we can tell from the subject line whether an incoming email needs our immediate attention. And yes, it’s OK to let your usual social media habits slide – unless they nurture your recovery, of course!
  5. Get some sleep. You’re probably not snoozing enough during “regular” life and clearly, this is a time when it’s more important than ever. If you tend to feel guilty about grabbing extra shut-eye, being sick is the perfect excuse.

And after, take note

  1. Once you feel better, take another look at your calendar and anything you let slide. Make any apologies you need to and give yourself a realistic amount of time to catch up.
  2. Take particular note of the things you “let go” for that brief time when you were sick. If they weren’t important then, are they really important the rest of the time? Admittedly, you can skip vacuuming for a week, but not forever. However, if there were emails you didn’t read, maybe you should just go ahead and unsubscribe. Which meetings, obligations or appointments did you simply cancel? Your enforced break may just give you new perspective on how you spend your time.

I’m not claiming that being ill is fun, and I definitely don’t want to imply that you can power on productively, regardless. But it does create an ideal opportunity to pause and consider what’s really important, and perhaps also to “catch up” with a few non-urgent or lower-value tasks.

What would you add? How do you navigate your hoped-for workload, to stay just a little productive when sick?


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