8 Tips From Disability Research for Getting Things Done

Strategies from the disability community that avoid toxic productivity.

About the Author

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 eight 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.

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