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International ME Awareness Day: Productivity tips for writers

Today is International ME Awareness Day. Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) is a complex multisystem disorder which causes symptoms such as post-exertional malaise (delayed illness and exacerbation of symptoms several days after activity of any kind), brain fog (problems with concentration and focus), orthostatic problems (light-headedness, dizziness), muscle and joint pain (the mylagia part), widespread inflamation (the -itis part), sensitivity to light and sound, disturbed sleep cycles, food and chemical sensitivities, and irritable bowel symptoms, among many others. ME is a type of chronic fatigue syndrome, although some people with a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome have other conditions with similar symptoms (CFS is a label for a cluster of symptoms rather than a specific diagnosis). As such, CFS is a contested term, and one many ME patients' groups and charities reject. Sometime it's called post-viral fatigue, because ME is often sparked by a virus, as in the 1955 Royal Free Hospital outbreak (the origin of the term ME).

One of the major challenges for people with ME is activity management. Doing too much can cause a relapse that lasts for days, weeks or even months. Knowing exactly how much energy you have on a specific day, and therefore what you can do, is key to illness management. People with ME often 'save up' energy for days when they know they'll be required to work or give a lot of energy they otherwise wouldn't be able to manage. Besides the energy issue, however, another key barrier to productivity, and one I've struggled with more than other symptoms, is the brain fog. I used to battle against this with coffee and sugar-free energy drinks, but that's the wrong way to go about it--you shouldn't ignore symptoms, as they're a sign of when to stop. Listen to them and roll with them--it'll actually make you more productive in the long-run.

What follows are some tips I've developed over time (some of them adapted long before my rather recent diagnosis of ME), and which might be useful to other writers with ME (and to writers in general).

Create your writing space

If you can, try to create a specific space for writing. A spare room, a corner of your dining room, or even a cheap TV dinner table (this one is suitable for the sofa or the bed). Try to keep it clear of other distractions--only your writing materials should be here. Make sure you have ample support for your back and neck (a travel neck cushion or neck hot water bottle can be a godsend). Ideally, you won't work in bed, because that can interfere with your sleep patterns, but that may be unavoidable. If you do write in bed, do so on top of the bedding, and perhaps on the opposite side to the one on which you usually sleep. That way, you can minimise the impact on sleep.

Whenever possible, take your breaks away from your writing space. That way, you won't feel claustrophobic, and you will slowly come to associate different spaces within your home with work, rest or play (making it easier to fall into the right mindset for each). Because writers often spend a lot of time at home, it's important to try to vary the energies of each space. If have a garden, it's also a good idea to take some time to sit outside with a cup of tea or a good book (weather permitting). If you don't, try sitting near the window. You could make a weekly visit to the local library for a change of scenery. Walks in the park are also great for clearing your head, but make sure you stop regularly to sit on benches, or take a walking stick/walker/wheelchair. It makes a huge difference to your mood if you can leave and then return to your home, but this is, understandably, not possible for everyone.

I'm very lucky to have a friend who's excellent at DIY. He's just converted my spare room into an office, and I love it. I have a nice long white table, which catches and reflects the sunlight that comes in through the small window beside it. Sunlight is important, as we writers often lock ourselves indoors to beaver away on some magnum opus, and we can all do with more sunshine in our lives. I'm also well aware that the frequent rain in Salford (where I live) and the poor British weather in general means even a window and a white table won't cut the mustard, so I've bought myself a cheap SAD light box to combat the gloom. Beware, though, that when I'm feeling sensitive to light, the light box can actually make my symptoms worse--so only use it when you feel able. A good vitamin D supplement might also be helpful, but if you've got ME, you're probably more than aware already of the various supplements and herbal remedies you might want to take.

Break up your day into small chunks

Rest is an essential part of recovery for ME, but part of the struggle with ME is the feeling of missing out on our former lives. For writers with ME, that is compounded by the frustration that occurs when we can't write. Ideally, we'd be able to write often enough to feed our passions without wearing ourselves down, but that has to be balanced with regular rest or it's going to be unsustainable in the long-run.

A good tip for writers of any kind, but especially those with ME, is to break down your tasks into smaller chunks. It's recommended that you break up your day into at least hourly slots, and then alternate periods of activity and rest. This ensures you won't push too far and perpetuate the 'boom and bust' cycle that so often accompanies those of us with the illness. Having an activity diary can be helpful for tracking just how much you've actually done (and doing the dishes counts as an activity you should log) and how much rest you've given yourself. Over time, you'll be able to look at your diary and see which activities take up the most time, which activities bring you joy, and which activities trigger your relapses. You can also use an activity diary to keep track of when you need to take any supplements and to make sure you eat and sleep at regular times.

Use productivity apps

I'd go one step further than using an activity diary alone, however: you can use an app to make it easier and to set the reminders for you. I've found that I personally benefit from productivity tools like the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro website is built with the self-employed, including writers, in mind, and even lists a way to draft a novel in three weeks. The Metro recently ran an article detailing the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique for people living with ME, and these benefits also apply to writers without ME. You can download a number of apps that use the technique--many of them free!

The key to the technique is splitting your day up into 30-minute slots. You work for 25 minutes on just one thing at a time. If you finish early, go back over your work and check it. After the 25 minutes is up, rest for five minutes. Then start over, if you feel able. Every two hours (that is, four work slots), you should take a 30-minute break. Some apps let you adjust the period of your work and rest periods--the Productivity Challenge Timer (available on Google Play and iTunes) lets you change the length of your work and break slots, which gives you maximum customisation. You can also combine the Pomodoro Technique with apps such as Cold Turkey or Self-Control (now available as a Chrome Extension, or via iTunes) to help you avoid distractions online while you work.

I use my five-minute breaks to stretch, use the toilet and get fresh peppermint tea. I use the half-hour breaks to relax properly (whether you lie down, meditate or whatever). The key here isn't to force yourself to do things you don't have energy for, but to help you use the limited time you do have more productively, and to make sure you're getting regular breaks in. The temptation is to cram everything into those days when you have some energy, but the downside is that you don't take adequate breaks and then leave yourself feeling worse for days afterwards. Get the balance right (i.e., pacing) and you'll feel better as you find you're able to enjoy your writing again.

Cut down on coffee

Though coffee is tempting, it can lead to serious energy crashes later in the day, and many people with ME are actually quite intolerant to it. If you have to start the day with a coffee, my advice is to add D-ribose and creatine to it, and then don't drink any more (and certainly not after 2pm). Swap sugar with stevia, as artificial sweeteners cause toxins to build up in the liver, and stevia may have health benefits that scientists have only just started looking into. Other drinks that can provide energy without the same jolt to your system include matcha tea (my personal favourite, as it's relatively high in caffeine but has plenty of L-theanine, which relaxes you at the same time as increasing your focus), yerba mate tea (nice with half a teaspoon of stevia and a sprinkling of cinnamon) or a homemade ginger and lemon tea (great for fighting those flu-like feelings).

Some people with ME recommend L-carnitine, hemp oil, NADH, ashwagandha and L-taurine to help with concentration. A good rest will probably also help. I find that, instead of taking a nap and potentially ruining my sleep later, it's helpful to lie down and listen to a 30-minute meditation or hypnotherapy track. You slip into a near-sleep state, but the track should count you back into wakefulness, meaning you get the dual benefits of a quick power nap and positive thinking to spur you on again when you come around. You don't usually need to set an alarm, either, which means you come around more peacefully, without a jolt to your system.

A good bath with Epsom salts can be equally effective. 


Another symptom that can be a big problem for writers with ME is sensory sensitivity. At times, I can't keep my eyes open in a moving taxi, because the movement is one stimulation too far. Other times, I can't read--temporary dyslexia and dyscalculia are common in ME. Spellcheckers and calculcators can help, but sometimes you just can't write or read without exacerbating your symptoms. In those instances, I find dictation apps are really useful. Google Docs Voice Typing and Apple Dictation, which are both free, are pretty accurate--with only one mistake in 250 words and two mistakes in 250 words, respectively. If you can afford it, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is meant to be really good, and learns from your voice.

I find dictation software really useful for first drafts--especially when it comes to dialogue. The natural flow of speech adds realism to your dialogue, and you can basically do dramatic improv between your characters. Not only is it productive, it's also fun, and takes the pressure off filling a blank page. People often find it easier to talk through their ideas than to write them down, because there's less fear of commitment. If you can allow yourself to consider such dictations a 'draft zero', you can free yourself to just witter on, giving you something to work with and polish going forward.

Prioritise your writing

With ME, you'll quickly have to learn to say no without feeling guilty, or else you can expect to feel worse for longer. Things may fall to the wayside, despite our best efforts. But writing not only serves as a useful skill and potential source of income, it's also key to the wellbeing of any writer. Stop writing for a while and you'll soon see your mood worsen. So, where possible, prioritise things so that you can write for at least one 25-minute slot per week--perhaps longer, if you can manage it. Even writing a few paragraphs can lift your spirits and over time it all adds up. On those days where you feel better, don't rush into a 12-hour slog in front of a computer screen, try a smaller writing session on paper first taking regular breaks using the Pomodoro Technique. See how you feel at regular junctures and stop if you need to. It's not about writing through the night, but about writing small chunks as often as you can.

Though saying no to things can seem disheartening at first, when we are able to recognise the space in our lives that leaves open for writing, it can become a source of pleasure and reassurance.

If you have any other tips you'd like to share, please get in touch with me at adam@peepaltreepress.com.

About the author

Adam Lowe is a writer, performer and publisher from Leeds (who now lives in Salford). He was finally diagnosed with ME in April 2017, after four years of tests and hospital visits.


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