11 ways to stay productive when you’re sick

Posted by in Productivity

Being sick doesn’t necessarily have to stop you dead in your tracks. It’s still possible to get things done – albeit with a few modifications – even if you’re feeling under the weather: here are 11 ways to keep on truckin’ without overdoing it.

Possibly the ultimate break, falling ill is a legalized opportunity to jump ship and claim you’re down and out with no chance of getting any proper work done. Granted, there are times when this holds true, but since we’re among friends here, let’s be honest: if you wanted to, you could probably get a few things done.

The problem is, not only is it alluring to relax for a bit – we also fall prey to self-pity and our annoyances with not being able to function optimally. You know them well: my throat hurts, I’ve got a fever, this is too important to do when I’m sick, I didn’t sleep well, I’m about to die here and so forth and so on. That’s okay; you’re entitled.

Now, if I may have your attention for a moment: see this guy? His name is Cato Zahl, and he skied to the South Pole in 1994 – an impressive feat in and of itself, but I believe I neglected to mention that he did so as a double amputee. Oh, and in 2007 he got within 600 feet of ascending Mount Everest.

And so, it begins

Having established a relative comparison as to our inability to function, I’m certain we agree that, to some extent, you can get things done even if you’re feeling debilitated. For this purpose, we’ll borrow a couple of pages from Mr. Zahl’s book: one covers situational adaptation, and the other realistic evaluation of what’s possible to achieve with what resources we have at our disposal.

  1. Establish a supply train. When we’re sick, our bodies feel sore, our temperature keeps fluctuating, and we’re not particularly hungry or thirsty. Our bodies, however, continue to function much as they have, which means you need nutrients. Get hold of some warm soup and something rich in vitamin C to drink or eat; orange juice and kiwis are two alternatives that are easy to come by. If you really can’t force anything down, at least keep your fluid intake up as it’s the most important part of the equation, and remember to stock up on cold remedies.
  2. Get comfortable. Newly starched businesswear isn’t very compatible with being sick: instead, go for loose-fitting comfywear, preferably layered and with zips so you can easily adjust your temperature.
  3. Don’t play with the other kids. This is the perfect opportunity to work from home. If you can’t, though, at least try to keep away from your co-workers as much as possible: they’ll be grateful not to catch whatever you’ve got, and your overworked immune system will be equally grateful for you not adding further to its workload. If you have business calls or meetings, do your best to postpone them. People will be more understanding than you may think.
  4. Break it up. One of the first things to suffer when you’re sick is mental stamina. Take frequent breaks – I recommend using a universally available web app such as Timer d’Oro to set reminders for when you need to take a break. Start with 10-minute work units and 5-minute breaks, then carefully increase the length of your work units if you feel up for it. And don’t forget the nutrients!
  5. Catch up on reading. Consuming media is one of the things we immediately resort to when we’re sick, along with playing games on our smartphones. Rather than watch reruns of Dr. Phil all day long, see if you can relax with a bit of work-related reading. I guarantee that there’s something you’re either behind on or would have liked to read if only you could find the time.
  6. Prune your Inbox. Unless you’ve already mastered the art of keeping your Inbox at a manageable level, this is the perfect opportunity to sit down and get organized. One rule, though: you must resist the temptation to answer new e-mail unless it’s urgent, and focus on tidying up things. Who knows when you’ll get the time to do so again?
  7. Change your focus. Instead of busying yourself with the usual daily motions, what if you took this opportunity to simply sit down and think about the long-term perspective? Perhaps there’s a particularly difficult problem you’ve been grappling with? Most people, and particularly leaders, are of the opinion that they all too rarely find time for undisturbed, in-depth contemplating of important issues. Now’s your chance.
  8. Plan your return with a vengeance. When you’re back in shape, you’ll most likely be behind on something. As opposed to facing an unholy deluge of requests, keep track of what’s going on while you’re sick, and get your priorities straightened out so that you can get right to work on the most pressing matters when you return.
  9. Do nothing. That’s right, you can do nothing. But it’s not a free pass: sit down in a quiet location with a notebook and pen (sorry – still no Dr. Phil), and you’ll notice how you suddenly are reminded of things that you haven’t thought about in a while, or that you should do something about, or that you need to remember. Our brain is funny that way: it does some of its best work on its very own.
  10. Observe as planet Earth revolves. If you’re one of those but-things-will-go-up-in-flames-if-I’m-not-around kind of persons, take the opportunity to lean back and watch as the world continues to function in your absence. Rarely is one single person so important that everything ceases to operate in their absence, and if it is – well, then this should be perfect for teaching you why you shouldn’t structure things the way you have.
  11. Don’t overdo it. The whole point of this post is to open your mind to the possibility of getting at least something done even if you’re not feeling top notch; not to encourage you to stretch yourself beyond your limits. Take it easy, and listen to your body along the way: if you do nothing for a mere 20 seconds, you’ll be perfectly able to judge your energy level and whether or not it’s time for a break.

So, does this advice work? This post is the proof in the pudding: it’s taken twice as long to write as usual, I’ve been sweating like a pig at times, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been to the bathroom. I’ve eaten (reluctantly), and drunk (prodigiously). I’m wearing two layers of wool right now, and I’m still cold. I’ll be hot soon, though, no doubt.

Still, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

You’re up.