Avoiding an avalanche: keeping track without being overwhelmed


Sluff is the cloud of moving snow you see behind someone skiing or snowboarding down a steep slope. I recently re-read a post by Inger Mewburn (The Thesis Whisperer) where she uses ‘sluff’ as a metaphor for the mass of notes and memos we accumulate to keep track of what we thought or did. In the academic world, ‘sluff’ would mean notes, comments pencilled in margins and incomplete records of what books have been read. In the everyday world, we also write notes and save information such as shopping lists, to-do lists, receipts, scribbled messages, email. A chronic illness can generate extra information to keep track of such as appointment letters, symptom diaries, medication instructions etc. At the same time, some symptoms make it harder to keep track of it all. I’ve found myself relying on reminders, to-do lists and note-taking apps. All of this together creates lots of little pieces of writing which get muddled easily. Once the terrain becomes more treacherous that sluff can accumulate rapidly!

Some common problems associated with chronic illness:

  • fatigue and low energy
  • lost time (e.g. sick days)
  • ‘brain fog’
  • pain
  • breathlessness
  • extra admin (doctors’ appointments, symptom diaries, benefits forms etc.)

And some of their impacts on organisation:

  • time pressure
  • need to prioritise
  • decision fatigue
  • memory problems
  • distraction
  • poor concentration
  • lost items
  • difficulty keeping track of time

Struggling to keep on top of life is frustrating. It never used to be this difficult. I wasn’t very systematic about keeping stuff organised but I used to be on top of things. My perfectionism and tendency to overprepare was fuelled by insecurity and a fear of making mistakes. At the same time, I could manage a lot of information without needing a productivity system to do it – the occasional handwritten to-do list and a calendar were sufficient. I knew where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing. I would be aware of what dates were coming up and my notes might have been chaotic but I usually had an idea of where to look for something. When migraines made it difficult to hold ideas in my head, and I no longer had the time or energy for over-preparing or perfectionism I still had the anxiety but my usual methods of compensating weren’t available anymore. It affected my self-esteem because it took me some time to recognise that the problems I was having remembering conversations, making decisions and paying attention were caused by my symptoms. I felt incompetent and unreliable every time I made a mistake. My relationship was affected. My forgetfulness and lack of engagement made it seem to my partner like I didn’t care. This was a serious source of stress and friction.

My initial reaction, in the first year, after my diagnosis was to try and work harder. I tried to treat managing my migraine as an extra-curricular activity that would fit in around my PhD and my share of domestic responsibility. I read a lot of articles on personal productivity honing in on anything that promised to teach me to be more alert, more effective, more focused. I desperately wanted to find a way to overcome my symptoms so that I could think clearly whenever I needed to. Of course, that didn’t work out. Eventually, I realised that my symptoms were a fact that I was going to have to come to terms with. This made it possible for my partner and me to develop a different way of thinking about my forgetfulness. By accepting that at times my brain isn’t going to perform I was able to think of practical ways of coping when that happened. I also had to accept that there would be times when I simply couldn’t do what I wanted. One practical way I’ve tried to adapt is by immediately writing down anything I might forget. I’ve tried to make a habit of adding things to my to-do list as soon as I agree to do them, asking a friend to text me details of arrangements we’ve made, and writing little notes to myself. It’s not perfect, I do forget to write things down, but it helps. Of course, the unintended consequence is that all those little notes have the potential to become troublesome sluff.

A good metaphor can give you a new perspective on an old problem. Sluff is serious for a snowboarder because it can take them off their feet if they’re not careful. Paper and digital sluff can also overwhelm you. Reading the article conjured a mental image of myself careering down a precipitous slope. All but engulfed in a cloud of post-its, scribbled-on envelopes, to-do lists, emails, digital sticky notes, and more. I have covered my desk with scraps of paper. My to-do list is cluttered with very old tasks that I’m unlikely to tackle. My inbox is also full of email. Some are there to remind me to do something. Some contain important information. Most are useless. OneNote has lots of notes with no context and articles I’ve saved but never read. The confusing notes are mixed up with useful and important ones. I usually have something between 50 and 100 open tabs in my mobile browser. The result of all this disorganization is that I am overwhelmed and dispirited by uncompleted tasks, notes I can’t understand, and a mountain of information that may or may not be useful. I need a way of keeping all this stuff organised as I go so I don’t end up in a mess.

Magical thinking

Midway through editing this post I realised that the opening line “I recently read a post…” misses an important part of the story. I was looking through my old notes to see what I wanted to keep. But at the same time, I was deliberately looking out for anything that might help me to write more blog posts. I read anything that might tell me how to do more work including articles like How to write 1000 words a day (and not go batshit crazy) or How to write that paper in 7 days. While reading I followed any link that looked like it might lead to more hints on how to be more productive. Now I’m being more honest with myself I can see that I was trying to find a secret that would let me publish faster. I wasn’t thinking about the requirements of living with a health condition, and what reasonable expectations might mean in those circumstances. It seems I haven’t learnt anything sigh.

I can prepare and publish a post in two weeks if it’s straightforward. It takes nearer a month for something that needs some more thought or research. I want to post once a week and add all those tips and articles I’ve collected as an on-line resource. There’s a reason that hasn’t happened yet. But it isn’t that I haven’t read the right blog post on how to write to-do lists. I write slowly because I’ve had a migraine every day for years with an average of two full-blown migraines a week. Nothing I read is going to remove this limitation. I have been avoiding facing that reality by trying to find a shortcut to working faster. I am confident that improving my organisation skills and working habits will help me write more. Managing the information I collect will help me get those resources published on my website. But there’s not going to be any miraculous change in how much time I can spend at the computer. I need to let go of the once a week ambition and keep writing what I can when I can.

Does this mean I should stop reading about writing and productivity? Not necessarily but I do want to read with my sceptical antennae fully alert! I expect to find some useful ideas by reading about other peoples work habits. But, most posts (a) weren’t written for people like me (b) might make me feel inspired but the techniques haven’t been tested in any meaningful way, and (c) won’t change the basic fact that the limitations caused by chronic illnesses are beyond my control. The other problem I have with the personal productivity industry is that it doesn’t sit well with my understanding of the world. It often offers simplistic individualistic answers to complex problems; doesn’t challenge social and political inequalities, and reinforces narrow ideas about what success looks like.

Approaching productivity advice with my sceptical antenna active!

What does reading sceptically mean in practice? I want to drop the belief that there’s a perfect solution out there somewhere. I intend to stop reading as soon as I have found a small set of good ideas to try out. I can always repeat this process again later if those ideas don’t work out. I’m going to be selective about which ideas I do try out. I’ll ignore extravagant claims about what I can achieve with a list or app. I’ll begin by listing the limitations and problems I’m currently struggling with so I can tailor my reading to my needs. I’ll think about what my physical needs are in relation to apps and work habits. I want to keep my habits and system as simple a possible and to focus on small sustainable changes. Finally, while writing this has made me remember some of the issues I have with the productivity industry. I’m going to make a note of my aims and philosophy so that I can pick out the ideas, quotes and resources that are compatible with who I am, what matters most to me and my philosophy.


I started writing this in October. I’ve been making lists, reading articles, creating notes and trying out ideas on and off for over a month. My thoughts are starting to come together and I have an idea of how I want to organise my lists, tasks and notes. I think I can make a list of rules to follow that will give me the right balance of flexibility and structure. I’m very ready to move on to thinking about something else at this point but I’m determined to get all the scrappy notes I’ve made while writing this post files safely so they will be useful to me in the future. From here on I intend to practise some serious sluff-management skills!