06 Jan Productivity: A Caregiver’s Best Friend and Worst Enemy
Your to-do list is probably too long for one person. Every item on the list is important, so prioritizing can feel frustrating. When you pick one task to try and complete, something unexpected comes up, or you realize you need to wait for someone else to do something, or you only have time to partially finish the task, leaving more to be done at some other time. All that effort, and you can’t even scratch the task off your to-do list. You’re exhausted and overwhelmed. Sound familiar?
If so, you may be a caregiver.
In my experience as a full-time caregiver, the idea of “productivity” can be torture: sometimes elusive, always necessary, never easy. It seems like it should be so simple: “I have a list. I need to do the things on the list. The things are important things. Most of them have to do with the health or safety of my family and the people I’m caring for. I should just get to work doing the things on the list.” Right?
Wrong. Caregiving creates an environment in which we have very little control over the trajectory of our days. We live under a fog of medical uncertainty, requiring a permanent sense of readiness for any possibility. This constant vigilance takes most of our energy.
And, of course, the elephant in the room – next to the pile of laundry and unopened mail – is that the work of two (or more) households is simply too much for one person to physically and practically handle.
However, we must. We often have no choice: we do the work, or the work does not get done. It’s an impasse; a violation of the laws of physics; and yet, we face it every day.
So: for caregivers, the ability to be productive at an athletic level is our closest ally, but the notion of having to be so productive is our bitter foe.
I was an organized and productive person before becoming a caregiver, but becoming a caregiver made me feel like at least part of my life went off the rails. I've noticed that the advice that has made the most positive difference in my life over the past few years, is all related to productivity. How can we channel our fear of productivity into actually being productive? How can we be caregivers and make productivity our friend?
Here are a few of the tips, tricks, and hacks that have served me in practical ways; I hope that they can serve you, too.
- Set timers. Chores are scarier for me when they don’t have an endpoint in sight. I feel as if I’ll be working on something for hours, and that makes me too stressed to even begin. This is especially true if I’ve fallen behind. Try setting a timer for five, ten, or fifteen minutes, and working on a given task as hard as you can for that time, with no distractions. After that, take a break of the same length. Repeat as you are able.
- Set a routine and follow it as much as possible. Be forgiving and realistic when trying out new routines to see if they fit your lifestyle: if the loved one you care for doesn’t tend to need anything early in the morning, don’t force yourself to get up early. Routines should serve you, not the other way around. The purpose of a routine is not to be disciplined or rigid, but to save you time. We lose a great deal of time just staring at tasks on our lists, not sure where to start. If you lose time “deciding” which chore to tackle when – like I do –a routine removes that angst. If you set a habit of doing your laundry every Wednesday afternoon, then you will no longer wonder how to be productive on Wednesday afternoons, when there are no medical needs that must come before laundry.
- Save your steps. If you are making a quick trip down the hall or up the stairs, take a handful of stuff with you that also needs to go in that direction.
- Take small, consistent steps. Consistent, small periods of productivity every day are more manageable and more rewarding than letting a large task go undone, because you think it will take forever to complete. Don’t force yourself to move the mountain, because that isn’t possible; just grab a shovel.
- Try to complete one item off of your short-term to-do list and one item off of your long-term to-do list every day. Just try for one a week. Completing just one of your long-term tasks every so often will give you major peace of mind. The sense of relief will also inspire you to complete the next task on the list.
- Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. This is especially hard. Prioritizing tasks feels impossible when you’re facing a long list that all has to get done; but try triaging what needs to get done first. Is there less clean laundry in the house, or are there fewer groceries? Try to triage your list as much as possible in a calm, in-between moment. If you know that your household runs out of clothes by Saturday afternoon, but that Monday morning is a convenient time to grocery shop, do not let your tired Saturday afternoon brain convince you to run to the grocery store. Do the laundry.
- Be intentional with how you relax. If I had a nickel for the number of times I have collapsed onto a couch and scrolled my phone for embarrassing amounts of time just because I was too tired to think about what I needed to do next, I’d have a bank of nickels. Don’t be me! Plan ahead: “if I have a moment today, I’m going to read this magazine.” Leave that magazine by the couch to make it easier for yourself later, when you are exhausted. Rest is productive; loss of time is not.
- Avail yourself of fun productivity resources online. TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, lifestyle websites, and many other sources have productivity “hacks” that are meant to be fun. Take some of your planned downtime and check these out! Many of them follow the theme of “work smarter, not harder,” and are at least worth trying. A productivity plan that isn’t fun or easy to follow, will fail.
Let’s be real: this stuff is hard to talk about and hard to implement. If you’re a caregiver, you are probably saying “I am too exhausted to implement any of this.” I totally understand, because I am in this struggle right alongside you.
But here are the key takeaways
Think strategically; create routines; think ahead in calm times; look at the items on your to-do list one at a time; save your steps; prioritize, and go from there. Adjust as needed. In my experience, it takes a few weeks to turn a productivity plan into a habit, because of everything else we have on our plates. From one caregiver to another: I am definitely not telling you anything you don’t already know; it’s all a matter of trial and error, finding the best way to get you and your loved ones from one day to the next.
Danielle Pardue is the Legal Fellow for Triage Cancer and a patient advocate. She is the primary caregiver for her mom, who has Stage IV lung cancer, and her dad, who has several chronic illnesses.
About Triage Cancer
Triage Cancer is a national, nonprofit providing free education to people diagnosed with cancer, advocates, caregivers, and health care professionals on cancer-related legal and practical issues. Through events, materials, and resources, Triage Cancer is dedicated to helping people move beyond diagnosis. For more on the topics discussed in this blog, see our Caregiving Resources and our new, Practical Guide to Cancer Rights for Caregivers.