7 energy management lessons from my chronic illness that I wish I knew before I got sick

Hindsight’s a jerk sometimes.

You know, that moment when you look back at an experience and now you see the red flags and the warning signs…

… or the hindsight that makes you aware of what things you could have done differently to prevent life from going as sideways for you as it did.

Of course you didn’t notice all of these things in the moment because…well who knows why?

Over the past five and a bit years of learning how to embrace my chronic illnesses and disability, hindsight has shared seven specific lessons that I wish I knew before all of this started.

Would these things have prevented my body from breaking in the epic way that it did? Maybe. Maybe not. 

But either way, these seven things would have made this experience a lot easier, so I wanted to share them with you because I don’t think you need to have a chronic illness or a disability to benefit from these seven skills.

Lesson #1 – The importance of checking in with your body for better energy management

Learning how to check in with your body is a super important skill that I wish I learned ages ago. Especially since our culture that says things like “suck it up” and “everyone’s replaceable” leads to a lot of really unbalanced productivity beliefs and ways we value both ourselves and one another.

This is also known as equating your worth with how many things you’ve checked off your to-do list.

I wish I knew or at least trusted that quieter voice that was letting me know the warning signs a lot earlier. I mean, it started as a quiet voice until I burnt out and it truly just started screaming. Now I have a regular daily practice of checking in with my body, and my energy levels, to hopefully prevent hindsight from being a jerk again.

Lesson #2 – Energy Management 101: aka how to pace your energy

Like I’ve said on my other podcast, burnout isn’t a stress management issue, it’s an energy management issue. The more that all of us can really be in tune with our four different energy batteries (physical, mental, emotional and fulfillment energy levels) the more consistently calm and in-flow we’ll feel. This is something that I talk about a little in the Creating Calm app and we go into detail with it in the Recover and Optimize programs. Essentially what you’re looking for are the warning signs like the one on your phone that says “hey, your battery is at 20%, you should charge it”.

So often though, we either

  1. Ignore these warnings and keep pushing through, or 
  2. We don’t hear these warning signs at all. 

The goal of learning how to work with your energy, or ‘pacing’ your energy, is to consistently have a steady state of energy from day to day, rather than have one day where you go-go-go, and the next day where you struggle to focus or lack the ability to do what you want.

Learning how to pace my energy to avoid the boom-bust cycle was a very steep learning curve for this high achiever, but when I’ve applied these principles to my clients who don’t have chronic illnesses or disabilities that affect their energy – they still saw a huge benefit! 

Sure, my experience of this boom-bust energy cycle is likely more extreme than someone without a disability, especially on the energy crash side of things. But the principles still apply and are still really important for everyone.

Lesson #3 – Why planning out tomorrow at the end of the previous day doesn’t work

I see this strategy talked about a lot in the productivity space, where you take 15 minutes at the end of your day to plan and organize tomorrow. It’s a good idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in real life.

I mean, it would if we were a machine that woke up with fully charged physical, mental, emotional and fulfillment energy every day and you never had to worry about energy management. But that’s almost never the case!

Life happens, each day is different, and some days will drain your energy in one battery more than another. Some days your mind will just not let you sleep! Some days your anxiety will be higher and you’ll drain that mental and emotional battery much faster and maybe struggle to recharge it.

So, instead of trying to stick to a plan that doesn’t fit the energy level you have to give today, why not just check in and adjust your plan for the day based on the energy levels that you have. This is key for energy management.

Low on mental energy that day? Maybe stick to more of the simpler tasks, rather than trying to write out a report or solve a complex problem. Push that to another day, and bring some of your less mentally taxing tasks to your to-do list for that day.

Flexibility and really accepting where you’re at (the concept of Santosha) is such an important skill we can all benefit from.

Lesson #4 – Take steps to separate your identity from your job

I talk about it often when I am interviewed on podcasts or radio shows, but I really struggled when I got sick and was unable to work as an ICU nurse. So much of who I saw myself as and what I tied to my identity was wrapped around a job that I was physically incapable of doing anymore. 

I ended up having to do a lot of inner work and grief work to separate who I am from that job, and it’s something I still have to monitor because I’m still prone to tying my identity to my work. You are not your role at your job, though. You are so much more than that. The first step for me was defining my core values, and you can try it here if you’re ready for that first step.

Lesson #5 – How to ask for help, but also how to accept help

When I say I was a hyper independent high achiever with a disorganized attachment style, I was almost a caricature of this stereotype. Everything to the extreme! The only time I knew how to “ask for help” was when I was teaching someone else how to do something. It wasn’t really like it was helping me, but more that I was helping them learn.

So when my body forced me to need help, woo wee this was the steepest learning curve for sure. Because it’s not just about asking for help, but also learning how to accept that help without feeling guilty. I fully admit that I’m still working on this one, especially the last piece about not feeling guilty or not feeling like a burden.

Lesson #6 – How to embrace the unknown and live with uncertainty

I think my OCD therapy has really helped me with this one the most, that and the previous work I’ve done with Internal Family Systems therapy because it’s hard to know that there’s a possibility of something going incredibly, incredibly wrong and saying “Maybe” and letting it sit.

I talk about it a bit more in the episode called Dealing with Uncertainty and the episode called Broken & Beautiful. 

Lesson #7 – How to ease my mental load and improve my energy management with different apps, sticky notes and alarms

My mental energy management is one of the batteries of mine that behaves kind of like those old iPhone batteries that got to a point where they’d take forever to charge and would drain so fast. The frustrating bit is when my mental energy is low, but my physical energy is fine – I literally lie in a darker room listening to rain sounds and that’s all I can do. 

Everything else irritates the fuck out of me.

I don’t have the mental capacity for anything really, which is so frustrating as a high achiever to have physical energy to be able to get up and move, but not the mental capacity or the coordination to do that. 

One of the ways that I manage this, is to offload my mentally draining things and use supports like apps, sticky notes, and reminders. Instead of checking the time repeatedly to make sure I don’t miss a Zoom call or appointment, at the beginning of every day I set alarms on my watch to go off 5 minutes before each appointment or call. That way I don’t have to think about it and know that I’ll just get a little buzz when it’s time. The Three Tier Weekly Planning System (which we cover in the Optimize Program) is something that works really well for me too and both of these things are something I wish I had started doing much, much earlier in my adult life.

Where to go from here?

All of these strategies or lessons are really important and I’ve seen them make a huge difference in my life and that of my clients, BUT…

(and it’s a big BUT)

Please don’t start implementing all of these things at once. I know you’re likely also a high achiever reading this, so please for the love of cheese, pick one. ONE. And let it sit and settle into your life before adding one more. 

The consistent results will be way better than trying to do it all at once and stopping after a while because it’s too hard. 

Small shifts are always the way to go.

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