First things first

Be kind to yourself.

Everyone has bad days, and some people are more prone to having bad days than others. And some people have worse bad days than others.

So, when you have a bad day and you still have responsibilities, tasks, commitments, appointments… what do you do?

The Spoon Theory and other energy analogies

The Spoon Theory is a widely used analogy to explain finite energy and the activities that use it up to people who haven’t otherwise come across this kind of limitation. There’s several spinoffs of it, along with other theories for those for whom the spoon theory doesn’t quite click, but the point is that we often need a shorthand to easily talk about finite energy levels at any given moment.

The way I usually find myself explaining it when I don’t have a lot of time to go into the Spoon Theory (because it doesn’t make sense without the backstory) is simple. You know how you feel when you have a bad cold or the flu, when you’re always exhausted and even simple daily tasks take a lot out of you? That’s how I feel very frequently, just without the whole actually being sick part.

Side note, “being sick” also means different things to the chronic illness community than it does to those that are chronically healthy.

So, when you’re low on energy or out of spoons or just generally not having a day where things are going to plan, here’s a few strategies and ideas I’ve found work for me to help me get through the day and make tomorrow successful as well.

Self care habits

Self care is not a new concept; basically every advanced life form understands that to reach a goal of any level, you have to take care of your physical well-being. Expand that to include your mental well-being, and you have self care.

The way this usually applies in my own life is a list of habits and tasks that I prioritize in three categories:

Must Do: Tasks and habits that have to be completed if I want to stay healthy.

  • Preparing my lunch to take to work tomorrow
  • Feeding my cats
  • Showering and taking care of other hygiene
  • Updating my financial spreadsheet with each day’s transactions
  • Washing the day’s dishes
  • Getting up and going to bed on time
  • Taking any medications, supplements, and prescriptions that I need to take on time

Should Do: Tasks and habits that will have a benefit if I’m able to do them, but no significant consequences if they don’t get done for a day or two.

  • Taking last night’s bag of dirty cat litter out to the curbside trash bin
  • Refilling the water jugs I have on my kitchen counter from the water distiller in the laundry room
  • Meeting my exercise goals for the day
  • Clearing out my email to Inbox Zero

Can Do: Tasks and habits that I’d like to do if possible but won’t have any negative effect if they aren’t completed for weeks at a time.

  • Completing any to-do items that aren’t self-care related and don’t have a deadline
  • Doing meal prep in advance so that low energy days are easier

The question that I rely on to help me define where a task or habit goes is simple.

What do I have to do today to make tomorrow successful?

This goes off the concept of self care being empathy with your future self. Basically, if Future You is going to regret whatever Present You is currently doing or not doing, it’s not likely going to be effective self care.

Another thing to keep in mind is that self care is different for literally everyone. For example, one of my friends uses lavender to help her relax, but lavender is a migraine trigger for me. Bath bombs can be an excellent way to release stress and tension, but for some, it can irritate the skin and respiratory systems. It may take some trial and error, and you’ll have to be open to trying new things and admitting when something doesn’t work for you.

Easy things to do on low/no energy days

Chances are if you’re reading this section, you don’t have the energy to slog through paragraphs of text, so we’ll keep it easy.

  • Take a shower or bath.
    You won’t get any further on your to do list, but at least you’ll be warm and clean.
  • Take a nap.
    But not too long of one. Sleep too much during the day, and sleeping at night will be harder.
  • Don’t sleep too much.
    Lack of sleep is a serious problem, but so is oversleeping. If you’re sleeping more than 9 hours and still feel fatigued, groggy, or sluggish, try sleeping less. It sounds counterintuitive but sometimes it works.
  • Move around.
    Even just walking around your house once an hour is better than sitting or laying down all day, if you have the ability to do so.
  • Clean just one thing.
    Break large goals (“Clean the house”) into manageable, small chunks (“Clean the desk”). Clean just one room, or just one area, or just one surface. Then rest, and do more later if you have energy.
  • Eat something.
    Something healthy, specifically; stay away from processed foods and refined sugars. Your body won’t work if its gas tank is empty, but the quality of fuel is just as important as the quantity. Brain fog can often be cleared by eating some protein. Ramen, pho, and udon are excellent recharge soups that make for easy takeout and delivery.
  • Drink some water.
    Almost all of us are chronically dehydrated. Drink some water—just water. Soda, coffee, sport drinks, and energy drinks will have less benefit and possibly even negative effects due to caffeine and/or sugars.
  • Take a dose of an anti-inflammatory.
    Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen may not have a significant effect on any pain you’re in, but they’ll probably make you more comfortable. Tylenol is not an anti-inflammatory, however, so it won’t help with inflammation-related aches, only the pain that comes with them.
  • Have a cup of tea.
    There’s a reason so many people drink tea. The ritual of heating water and preparing a cup can be just as relaxing as drinking the tea itself, and a hot liquid can help warm a cold body on a bad health day. Stick with herbal, decaf, or green tea to avoid too much caffeine throwing you off balance.

Easy, healthy, nourishing food

If you don’t already have your own recipe book, it may be worth the time investment to start collecting your favorites into a binder, notebook, folder on your computer, whatever you choose. I have an entire section in my recipe collection dedicated to easy meals that are healthy and filling, and another section for meals I can prep on good days that freeze and refrigerate well to reheat on my bad days.

For one of my favorite low-energy recipes, here’s a three-ingredient soup that’s vegetarian, can be gluten free and/or vegan, and can be a pantry meal as well if you use frozen spinach. It’s incredibly easy to cook, so easy that it’s more just dumping the ingredients in a pot and warming them up than it is actually cooking. I originally found it on The Kitchn, and it’s quickly become one of my go-to recipes when I need soul-satisfying food without a lot of energy invested in making it. I’ve adapted the instructions to make it even more foolproof and easier to follow on days where the brain isn’t braining so well. Enjoy!

Final thoughts

While it’s definitely not fun to have days where you’re exhausted, aching, or generally feeling unwell, with a little bit of planning ahead and organization, those days can be made less awful. No system works for everyone, though, so it’s going to take some trial and error to see what works for you. Let me know what you think of the tips above, and if you have any suggestions of your own!

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