Spoons scattered on a table
Spoons. Lots of Them.

To be completely honest, I’m rather low on spoons as I’m writing this article, so I’m in a pretty good place to talk about it.

Regardless of those inspirational “You can do it!” articles that tell you that you can do everything all the time, we all know that there’s days where it’s not happening. When you have chronic illness, sometimes you can’t do everything. You’re human. You’re not going to be 100% all the time, and that’s okay.

However, we have to be realistic. In a perfect world, we can take as many breaks as we need and rest when we need it. Sadly, because of the wonderful concept of capitalism, we have to be as productive as possible. There’s no “I can’t do it today,” because you HAVE to. Or else you’ll likely get a strongly worded email from your professor, boss, etc, with a very rude “Where the hell are you?” tone. That’s okay, I get that we have to be able to handle the real world. Regardless, you can’t handle the real world if you don’t have the spoons to do it. Let’s get down to business and figure out how to navigate what the world throws at us.

What are spoons?

You’ve probably seen the term on the internet. “I don’t have the spoons for this.” “I’m too low on spoons today.” I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in this article myself, and I’ll mention it a thousand times more in others. Christine Miserando, a lupus blogger, coined the concept in her essay, “The Spoon Theory.” She used the concept to help others understand what it’s like to ration energy due to living with an autoimmune disease. However, the usage of the term “Spoonie” and the concept of spoons have spread from physical illness to include chronic mental illness well. Keep in mind that the theory may not apply to everyone, and that’s completely fine! I use the term and find it to be the easiest way to explain where I am energy wise.

To primitively sum it up, spoons represent energy. Every task uses up a different amount of spoons. For example, getting out of bed in the morning takes one spoon by itself. Showering may take two spoons. Going to work or school may use four spoons or more. Living with chronic illness limits the amount of spoons you have each day, so you have to be careful with your energy supply. If you end up in the negatives, the results are catastrophic. Lupus News Today posted a video where Rebecca, an individual with systemic lupus, who gives a personal account of how the disease affects her energy levels.

Spoon Theory Visual
Visual representation of the Spoon Theory

The Dangers of Not Monitoring Spoons

The Slippery Slope

Now that you have a general concept of The Spoon Theory, we can get to what we came for: Keeping an eye on those energy levels.

You have probably had those days where everything starts out fine. You’re not in a terrible place, but you’re not ready to go slay an army. However, as you go through the day, you start to notice that your mood is tanking. Your body starts to get sluggish. You’re starting to snap at friends. You’re tired. All of these feelings are a thousand times worse if you started out having a bad day. Guess what most people do?

They keep going.

You push through, you get everything done, and at the end of the day, you settle in. No big deal, right? It’s just one day. And then tomorrow comes. Lather, rinse, repeat. The next day? Same cycle. Gradually, you’ll notice that your days are starting to get more and more tiring. You have less and less motivation to move, you isolate yourself, you crash. In extreme cases, you end up burning out.

Burnout And Its Effects

This term is thrown around rather loosely, but burnout is very real, and very damaging. The signs of burnout impair your ability to even attempt to function properly. It affects your relationships, your work, your ability to complete tasks, and essentially leaks into every aspect of your life. Personally, I end up fatigued to the point of being unable to stand. I shake, and sometimes I can’t eat regular food for days. In terms of relationships, I can’t be around people. Even the sheer presence of others is enough to trigger a breakdown.

In terms of The Spoon Theory, I would say that burnout happens after you’ve had negative spoons for a long time. It’s something that has been looming over your shoulder for a while, and after you’ve overdone it long enough, it pounces. Keeping track of your energy (spoons) and knowing when you need to recharge can prevent burnout from happening. Monitor your needs, don’t push yourself to this point. It is better to take things easy for a period of time rather than be completely incapacitated.

Alright, we’ve figured out the easy parts. You’re trying to figure out how to use your energy resources, and you’ve probably been allowing yourself to burnout without even realizing it. “Great, so what do I do about that?” Well, that’s the hard part, but that’s what I’m here for.

Who/What Drains Your Spoons?

First thing’s first. Before we can get to the logistics of preventing burnout and recharging, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Write down the things that drain your energy and don’t hold back. For example, does spending time with one friend leave you feeling exhausted? Are you in any clubs or groups that you dread going to? Do you go to events or parties because your friends want you to? Anything you feel forced to do is something that can potentially drain your spoons.

Work and school tasks are relatively easy to deal with once you learn how to prioritize. Think about what you absolutely HAVE to do each day. Keep those tasks in mind and use what energy you have to complete those necessities. You already know that your energy is limited. As such, you’re going to have to make sacrifices.

Say you have two different assignments do and you only have the energy to do one. Ideally you get both done, but that’s not always possible. First do the assignment that is the most pertinent. If one is due tomorrow, do that assignment first. If one assignment is worth more to you, do that one first. There’s hundreds of criteria that you can go through to help you decide, but ultimately you’ll want to use your energy on what will help you the most in the long run. That way, if you don’t get to the other task, it’s less detrimental to your health and sanity.

Toxic Friends Are Still Toxic

To be completely honest? People can be the most detrimental to your health. We feel as if we have to maintain certain friendships or relationships, especially in a new environment. Nobody wants to be outcasted or alone, so we hold on to people who are probably more harmful than not. That is, in my opinion, the worst thing you can do when you struggle with chronic physical or mental illness.

An important tool in preventing burnout is having a good support system. If you’re spending time with people who emotionally drain you or put you in a bad place, you’re only making the completion of other tasks more difficult. You deserve to be surrounded by people who support you. Trust me. When I started cutting toxic people out of my life, everything was easier. Identifying toxic people can be difficult, and ending those relationships is even more complicated. However, taking care of yourself is more important than holding on to people who make your life more difficult.

Once you understand what aspects of your life are detrimental, work on either removing them completely (if it’s a particular person or group), or planning your day around dealing with the tasks set out for you. Knowing what drains your spoons can allow for you to be prepared for each day. You can plan your activities, meals, and breaks around these tasks and prevent yourself from being overwhelmed.

Who/What Refreshes Your Spoons?

woman playing with a husky puppy

Thankfully, just as there are things in your life that drains your spoons, there are also plenty of things that replenish them. Jot down some of the things that help you get through the day. What makes you feel refreshed? Who can make you feel happy by just thinking of them? Do you have a food or snack that you look forward to? Are there activities that lift the weight from your shoulders? Anything that you can think of that impacts you positively can potentially recharge your spoons and make your life easier.

Leverage Your Support Systems

The stronger the support system in your life, the better. When you have people who you trust, you can let them know when you’re having a low energy day. I’ve found that when I tell people when I’m not up to doing much, they’re understanding and help me get to a better place. They also hold me accountable if I’m not taking care of myself. If you’re one of those people (like me) who will very easily stay in bed all day and forget to eat or get fresh air, find at least one person to check on you to make sure you’re alright.

But I Can’t Think Of Any Positive Things!

If you have something similar to chronic depression or you have a chronic illness that severely limits your ability to enjoy the things you love, this thought probably has crossed your mind. And that is perfectly fine! It doesn’t have to be something that fills you with absolute glee.

For me, simple things such as sleep and certain types of foods can replenish my spoons. This is especially true for physical illnesses that may affect your blood sugar, vitamin levels, etc. For example, I try to keep Gatorade on hand to help with my electrolytes. While it doesn’t completely replenish my energy, it stabilizes me until I can get to a place where I can rest. Socially, there are people who don’t drain my energy, but they don’t necessarily refresh it either. Honestly, spending time with dogs (or at least watching dog videos!) is the only thing that can pick me up on a bad day, and that’s okay. Well, that and sleep.

Still having trouble thinking of anything? Here’s 12 Ways to Replenish Your Energy. If you want me to write my own post about the best ways to replenish your energy, just let me know with a comment or an email! For now, see if the above article can give you some ideas or guide you in the right direction. As long as there is at least one thing that can give you a boost, you’re ahead of the game. Just think: You’ve already started getting rid of the energy drains. The boosts are just a bonus!

Monitoring Your Levels

person writing in a journal

You’ve taken the first steps forward with the initial preparation, and now it’s time to put that preparation to good use. When you have a chronic illness, often times your energy comes in cycles. Some people are fine for a month and then you’re running on low energy the next month. For some people, it goes in a day by day cycle or with the seasons. Others don’t have much of a pattern. Regardless, try to get into a habit of completing a daily or weekly journal where you track your energy levels.

Lifehack has an excellent article on tracking your energy cycles, but I want to add more specifics to that exercise. Before you begin various tasks, rate your different energy levels from 1-10. Lifehack uses general energy, yap level, and creativity level, but you can put your own variation on these levels. I personally focus on physical energy, emotional energy, and intellectual energy, since those are the most helpful for me.

Once you’ve rated the energy level, start the task. Either when you finish the task or take a break, report in your new energy levels. Was there a dramatic decrease or increase? Did your energy levels stay the same? Adjust how you handle the task accordingly. If you find that studying drastically drains your energy, try taking more quick breaks or rewarding yourself when you hit a milestone. Does that decrease your energy less or is it just as draining?

You may find that some tasks are just energy toilets and there’s not much you can do to fix that. However, you’ll also find that some tasks are easier depending on how you approach them. By tracking your energy levels, you have a better understanding of your habits and can adjust accordingly.

Recap

That may have felt like a lot to take in, so I’m going to give a quick summary so you can come back and have a short, step-by-step guide to follow.

1. Figure out what drains your energy.
2. Minimize how much time you spend on draining tasks.
3. Re-examine and potentially remove toxic relationships.
4. Build/Utilize a support system to help keep track.
5. Figure out what restores your energy and have those things on hand/those people in close contact.
6. Track your energy levels before and after different activities.
7. Adjust your days according to what you’ve tracked.

If you have any other advice on how to keep up your energy, feel free to leave a comment! Or if there was anything in this article that made you go, “Yep. That’s me.” or “Hmmm, I know someone like that!” let me know as well. You can also subscribe to receive updates so we can stay in touch with each other, or feel free to contact me with any requests, concerns, or questions.

Remember to be kind to yourself, you deserve it!