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Riding the Energy Waves: Spoons in Hand

Everyone has good days and bad days. Well, there may be a few perfect people living even-keeled,energetic lives, but I am certainly not one of them. I am an imperfect person and I have fewer spoons than average. That means one of my superpowers is planning for low-energy and low-motivation days so that I can take care of myself without feeling guilty about it.

For those of you wondering what silverware has to do with energy, "The Spoon Theory" essay by Christine Miserandino (2013) is currently posted on Facebook, and you can read it here:

After this essay appeared, spoons became the go-to metaphor to describe the lived experience of people with chronic illnesses (who sometimes call themselves "Spoonies"). Spoons are a visual representation of the physical and mental energy it takes to accomplish daily life tasks. One spoon might represent a shower; another, getting dressed. For an ill person with only two spoons, resting after getting dressed isn't a choice, it's a necessity.

Able-bodied people take their spoons for granted, run through their day, and recharge through sleep at night, or they can even pull all-nighters without harm. Other people have to ration their spoons, because they have a limited supply.

Out of spoons? Must. Stop. Now.

iridescent spoons
Photo by Forest Simon on Unsplash

Early in my life, I learned that I my energy comes and goes in waves, and I need to ride the crests and rest in the troughs. I take advantage of the days when I have more spoons to do as much as possible, and I know to slow down soon enough to save a spoon or two for the next day.

Today, I woke up with fewer spoons than usual. I had long meetings last week, went shopping with a dear friend yesterday, and today I simply required more rest. I listened to my body, and napped for most of the morning. That's not lazy. That's energy conservation that will get me through the coming week.

How to plan ahead for low energy days (also helpful when your motivation ebbs)

  • Always be ready for a bad day to surprise you. When you know your body and your energy cycles, you can sometimes predict when a bad day is coming. I have energy surges right before I get a migraine, for example. Some bad days come as a surprise, though. Maybe the weather is wonky, or I accidentally ate a trigger food. Even worse are days with no warning, no apparent trigger. Those are the days I really have to prepare for. Expecting the unexpected gets me through.

  • Have low-energy to do lists. Do tasks that require less effort and fit what you might be capable of doing on a particular day. I always have a list of blog ideas to jump start me when I am not feeling creative. I also have brainless data entry tasks that I do when I feel that nothing but my fingers can move.

  • Have high-energy to do lists, but stop before you finish all the tasks. When you have a good day, take advantage of it, but try to stop before your spoons are all gone. It is too easy to overdo on a good day and start a streak of too many bad days as a result. Take mental time to plan for bad days when you have mental energy and the physical wherewithal to do so.

  • Have spaces and tools ready to fit your ergonomic needs. Sitting in my favorite chair and opening my laptop helps me be in writing mode. It is a habit that helps when my motivation ebbs, and the chair is generally comfortable even when other furniture is not. Have assistive technologies ready, like voice-recognition apps for flat-on-your-back days.

  • Allow extra time for self-care. If you don't take care of yourself, you end up with fewer good days. You know this, but it is really, really hard to do when you have a chronic issue. You want to be like "everybody else," doing the things that "everybody else" does. Remember that even able-bodied people need to take care of themselves. "Everybody else" might need more or less rest than you do. They also need more or less food than you do. It's just biological difference.

  • Don't take on more than you can handle. This one is the hardest for me because I like to be busy and helpful. I say "no" when a deadline is too close and I can't renegotiate it. You have to know your physical limitations, and not push them unless something is really important.

  • Save your spoons for important events. If I have a meeting scheduled with a client, I will be there. If it is a bad day, I may do very little else that day, but I will be at that meeting, and the client will never see me sweat. At home, I may balance an anniversary outing with an afternoon nap, or we might go out for lunch instead of supper. Only you can decide what is most important and when you need to rest.

  • Work well ahead of deadlines. Allow an extra cushion when you have a deadline to make low spoon days less stressful. If you know you have another week before a due date, you can rest today and work tomorrow; if it is due tomorrow, you have to push through, and your work won't be as good.

I have more spoons than many people with chronic illnesses, but I think that these tips are scalable, depending on your level of ability. Taking time to reflect on your individual needs at any given time is an important activity for anyone, even if you are currently able-bodied.

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