7 tips to help writers stay productive, even when they’re sick

You’re nowhere close to 100 percent, but you can still get stuff done, from the mindless task of shredding old papers to letting your slightly fevered brain free-associate about big-picture goals.


Brace yourself for some nasty illnesses.

Australia, Hong Kong and other spots in the Southern Hemisphere have already faced one of their worst flu seasons on record. For those of us north of the equator, that’s a harbinger of what’s likely to happen during our own winter. Start washing your hands—now.

If you’re a freelance writer, illness can be devastating. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job with a health plan and a guaranteed income, getting sick is no fun.

Here are some ways writers can cope:

1. Stay away from other people. If you work in an office, don’t become a disease conduit to your co-workers. Every surface you touch—doorknobs, desktops, phones, keyboards, pieces of paper—will become covered with cold or flu virus you’ve shed. When I shared a desk with someone (on alternate days), I’d bring disinfectant and wipe down our entire office whenever my co-worker had been sick. Dragging yourself into work when you’re ill is only likely to make other people sick. Be equally mindful about sharing germs if you usually work from home. Don’t go out to conduct interviews, because it will mean sharing your bug with others. If there’s something so important you can’t miss it, arrange to do the interview by telephone or email.

2. Don’t treat illness as an all-or-nothing proposition. From time to time, we get profoundly sick and are unable to do a single thing, but that’s rare. More often, we’re too sick to go into work but spend six hours watching Netflix. Instead of zoning out with easy entertainment, challenge yourself to do small amounts of work, as long as you feel up to it.

3. Make a list. We accomplish more when we plan our time. This becomes even more important when we’re sick. Gauge how much energy you have, and decide how much you can work. If the answer is 45 minutes—of what might have been an eight-hour day—so be it, but make those 45 minutes extra worthwhile. Write down all the things you need to do, and then circle the ones that are most important. Figure out how much time each will take, and then schedule them into your day. Be generous with those time estimates; you’re sick, and you’ll be working more slowly than usual. Delegate as much as you can. If you’re a freelancer, that might mean delegating to yourself once you’re well again.

4. Work in short bursts, using a timer. You won’t have your usual energy when you’re sick, so don’t try to conduct meetings from bed or to churn out a 1,700-word profile. Instead, do small, discrete jobs. Use the Pomodoro method—bursts of 25 minutes focused on a given task. After you’ve logged your Pomodoro, take a five-minute break. Use a noisy timer to track your activity. The tick-tock of the clock will help keep you focused. After you’ve done a few pomodoros, reward yourself with a glass of ginger ale, a nap or a show on Netflix.

5. Focus on easy, mindless tasks. OK, so your brain isn’t working so well, but don’t you have plenty of tasks that you otherwise never have time for? What about cleaning out or reorganizing your inbox, or thinning the junk that’s cluttering your cell phone? Do you have old papers you can shred or filing you can do? What about typing up interview notes? Not all work requires 100 percent mental acuity; do the “easy” stuff now.

6. Read. You might not have the mental attention to get through a challenging nonfiction work, but surely you can read a light novel. For my recent book recommendations, look here. Otherwise, check out the New York Times bestseller list, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, Kirkus Reviews or NPR.

7. Plan for the future. Many of us get caught on the gerbil-wheel of constant activity, forgetting to evaluate our major personal or professional goals. As you zone out in bed, you can let your mind wander. Cognitive scientists call this the diffuse mode—enjoying distractions and making random connections. When you’re healthy and working at 100 percent, you might not have time for this. Now that you’re sick, take the time to let your mind roam and think “big thoughts” that will help you make better plans for the future.

Being sick is no fun, but it doesn’t have to be a waste of time, either. While your body recovers, your mind—no matter how fuzzy—can accomplish a few worthwhile tasks.

A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach.

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