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8 Tips From Disability Research for Getting Things Done

Strategies from the disability community that avoid toxic productivity.

Key points

  • Time blocking creates a healthy work routine and stops boom and bust cycling.
  • Scheduling time off creates boundaries for rest.
  • Prioritize working on the things you value most.
 Disabled and Here, Creative Commons attribution license
A person in a wheelchair writes in a notebook.
Source: Disabled and Here, Creative Commons attribution license

I run an active disability research lab and am fortunate to find my work really meaningful and fulfilling. In one of our first lab meetings of the school year, my students and I shared strategies for getting our work done. My lab represents a mixture of disabled and nondisabled researchers who all study disability. There are as many ways of doing things as there are people in this world, and in the disability community, there is even more ingenuity, creativity, and diversity. Here are some strategies that have worked for me and my students.

  1. Use time blocking. I was first introduced to time blocking when I won a small award as a grad student and the prize was the invaluable (and ironically slim) book How to Write a Lot. I now gift this to every one of my graduate students. The author, Paul J. Silvia, recommends scheduling a regular block of time each day for your work and keeping a steady, sustainable pace. Ideally, it should strike a balance between a time when your energy is best for the type of work you do and a time that fits with your other responsibilities. I’m a morning chronotype, so I do my writing block first thing each day.

    While not specifically developed with people with disabilities in mind, this concept is similar to several approaches that were created to benefit the disability community. Self-described neurospicy spoonie Cassie Winter calls this “butt in chair time,” and emphasizes that time can include anything you need to do to move a project closer to completion. Sometimes this means staring blankly and thinking through ideas; other times it means writing in a flow state. Either one should be met with pride and self-compassion.

    Another technique related to time blocking is activity pacing. Originally developed for disabilities involving chronic fatigue and pain, activity pacing means keeping a consistent routine, instead of falling into boom or bust cycles. Putting in long work hours on a high-energy day or before a looming deadline can result in burnout or post-exertional malaise that lasts for days, leading to an untenable cycle. Those with episodic disabilities that come with unexpected flares may need to build in extra flexibility. Over time, activity pacing is actually designed to reduce flares. Activity pacing is related to spoon theory, a metaphor developed by Christine Miserandino, a member of the chronic illness community, to describe the need to ration one's energy, and can be thought of as a way to manage your “spoons.” In her dissertation research, my graduate student Brooke Bryson found that activity pacing predicted lower fatigue among people with blood cancers better than other commonly used strategies.

  2. Schedule time off. The benefit of time blocking is that it builds in rest time. One of the most challenging things about academic culture is that it always feels like there is more to do, and I used to feel guilty when not working. Once I have done my “butt-in-chair time,” I know I have already done the amount of work that is reasonable for me, and this boundary keeps me from feeling guilty. I don’t generally work past 5 or 6 on weekdays and usually don’t work on the weekends. Looking forward to that time off allows me to experience anticipatory savoring in addition to the pleasure of rest. I look forward to self-care like cooking, eating, and spending time with loved ones. I also prioritize my eight hours of sleep.

  3. A to-do list keeps track of your tasks so your brain doesn’t have to. When managing multiple projects, it may seem like there are a million moving pieces that you could forget. You may be rehearsing the things you need to do in your head so you don't forget, which is especially challenging if you have executive functioning or anxiety issues. Free up your working memory by writing it all down. I use a simple notes app on my phone, Google Keep, so I can jot something down whenever I think of it.

    Facing a long to-do list or a big task can be so overwhelming you can’t even start. Break a big project into small, manageable chunks on a separate, smaller to-do list. That means you eventually get to check off more things from your list and get a dopamine hit for each one!

  4. Triage. According to my grad students, this is basically my catchphrase. There will always be lots of things on your to-do list, and you have to prioritize the things that are most important to your goals. Every morning, I open up my to-do list and move items around based on what is most important for me to accomplish that day. Sometimes this means prioritizing the things that are due first, but it can be easy to get caught in a cycle of putting out fires (i.e., only working on things that have immediate due dates). Some of the most meaningful work may be long-term research or writing projects that don’t have concrete due dates. Be sure to prioritize these things for your butt-in-chair time.

  5. Iterate. Getting started is often the hardest part of any project. I never like my first drafts, and it is freeing to acknowledge that I probably never will. It is much easier to edit something into good shape than to write it in good shape the first time around. I think of my first draft like a sketch; I don't even bother to stop and clean up typos, focusing more on sketching out the big picture. Save a new version of your work each day or use a cloud-based storage system that does this automatically. You can easily go back to a previous version if you need to. I learned this lesson the hard way while I was a graduate student analyzing the data for my master's thesis. I realized that I had made a mistake a few days into my analysis, essentially scrambling my data. I had to throw away a week’s worth of work and start my data analysis from scratch. From then on, I began saving each day’s work in a new file, so if I find an error, I can trace it back and keep the work I did until that point.

  6. Batch your emails. I get an overwhelming amount of email each day. Most emails are not truly urgent; they can wait a few hours. I’ve turned off my email notifications and only check it a few times, and only during my workday, allowing for blocks of uninterrupted work time. This prevents divided attention, task switching, and distractions, which can be especially challenging for neurodiverse people.

  7. Inbox zero every day. When I check email in batches, I immediately remove it from my inbox with one of three actions. First, I archive as much as I can straight away. If the message can be answered or acted upon within a couple of minutes, I do it then. If it will require more time, I move it to a “snoozed” folder. Once every day or two, during a time not in my writing block, I tackle my “snoozed” folder like a to-do list.

  8. Don’t fall into ableist traps about productivity. Productivity culture can be quite ableist, equating labor with worth. Getting things done looks different for everyone; don't measure yourself against others' standards. Use these tips to do the things you value most, which may or may not be the same as your work.

More from Kathleen R. Bogart Ph.D.
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