I’ll never forget the time I had a bad case of food poisoning and a huge pile of work. I’m guessing it was the fault of an egg, which although refrigerated, had been cooked long beforehand.
My illness came at the most inconvenient time you could ever imagine… I had an important client presentation in a few days. I also had a volunteer job to speak to three classes of grade 8s. And I was in the final preparatory phase for an annual workshop for one of my clients. No time to be sick, for sure!
But there I was with a sore tummy and a somnolent, achy attitude. On the first day I ate nothing except a half cup of plain yogurt. I went to bed at 7 pm and awoke at 3 am for an hour to watch TV. Then it was back to sleep until 8:30 the next morning. (That’s 12½ hours of sleep! I haven’t gotten that much shut-eye since I was 16.)
This morphed into three entire days of sleeping, reading, and watching bad TV. Even climbing our stairs wearied me. The worst symptom? I felt as though someone had taken me out back and beaten me up. My entire body ached.
Of course, many of you may have faced something much worse than food poisoning—Covid. And some of you may still be recovering if you’re dealing with the fatigue, headaches and pain of so-called Long Covid.
Here are five tips for dealing with work when you’re sick:
1. Put yourself first.
No one cares about your problems (or your work) as much as you do, so concentrate on what you need to. In my case, it was sleeping. I slept like it was an Olympic sport.
2. Make lists.
I know there are people who are born list-makers and those who aren’t. (And then there was Umberto Eco who said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”) But when you are sick or super-pressured you really do need to make a list. Lists improve memory, productivity, and motivation. But for the sick or super-busy, they also allow you to choose what you can safely ignore. This is because once you’ve put an item on a list, your brain can relax, knowing that you’re not going to forget about it. I call this “the promissory note system” and I even encourage you to use promissory notes in your writing. It’s an incredibly effective way of breaking the editing-while-writing habit.
3. Do ONLY the urgent.
When I became sick, I started abandoning all the things I normally do. Copying? It’s very important to me but completely non-urgent. I stopped. I even abandoned my daily list of “first-morning tasks” (in which I check my Google analytics, track my product sales, and respond to my email). Important, yes. But also non-urgent.
4) Work only during your prime time.
When younger, I was a night owl. Now I’m a morning lark. When I began to feel better enough to work a little bit, I started with my most urgent tasks first thing in the day, before I needed to go back to bed for a nap.
5) Rely on the help of others.
If you’re wondering how my client presentation went, well, I was a little disappointed with my own performance. It wasn’t nearly as polished as I would have liked. But here’s the good news: My co-presenters did a fantastic job. They were stars. And I was happy to let them have their moment in the spotlight while I continued to recover—and catch up.
Don’t try to be a hero when you’re sick. Instead, give yourself the space to recover. ∞