“Migraine Brain” Part IV – Getting the job done

Last updated: January 2015

When it comes to “migraine brain” I hear a lot of complaints about having too many unfinished projects. Some even share that they frequently forget what they were doing if interrupted. Additionally, migraine attacks can slow us down, keeping us from completing tasks on time. One of my friends coined the phrase “migraine time” to explain this challenge. The cognitive impairment of migraine interferes with our ability to use task completion skills. These include sustained attention, time management, and goal-oriented persistence.

One of the challenges for retirees or those on disability is that we don’t have externally-imposed deadlines anymore. There is no boss who can fire us if we don’t get the job done. However, our inability to finish a task can still drastically affect our closest relationships. Part of the job is to educate our loved ones on the impact of “migraine brain”. The other part is to recognize that we still need to have a plan and a purpose for our lives, even though we can no longer work. Obviously, we will not be able to perform at the same level expected from an employed person. But it’s not likely you’ve been doing that for quite some time.

Let me give you a real-life example of how I used specific strategies to overcome my own task completion deficits. It’s still a work in progress, but occasionally I can get it right.  Last October we were surprised by our daughter’s announcement that we were going to be grandparents. Given that she is our only daughter and this was to be our first grandchild, I had a lot of things I wanted to be able to do for her. One of those things was hosting a baby shower.

Because I knew that I had to allow myself plenty of time for resting, taking breaks, and bad migraine days, I planned to start a few months early. With my husband’s help, I broke down all the things that had to be done and set completion dates for each smaller task. It got more complicated when I decided to make a baby blanket & pillow, recover the bassinet, and sew a cute hospital gown. I started the whole process in January. The baby shower was in mid-March and baby was born in May. That gave me plenty of time to get everything done without over-working myself.

Here are the key principles I used.

  1. Start early. Give yourself at least twice the pre-migraine time to finish the project
  2. Plan for and schedule break times
  3. Create rewards for completing each small step. If the task itself is not motivating, give yourself a reason to complete the project – something to look forward to.
  4. Set a schedule that includes time for sleep, meals, and breaks, as well as work on the project
  5. Have contingency plans. Decide ahead of time what tasks can be left unfinished and which ones must be completed.
  6. Enlist an accountability partner who can remind you of things you forget. Create an email account that both of you share so that he or she can help you stay on track.
  7. Get rid of distractions. Plan for lack of focus and use strategies that tell your brain when it’s time to pay attention. For me that was music. I set up playlists and Pandora channels full of upbeat music that energized me.
  8. Make yourself a priority. Eat regular meals. Drink lots of water. Maintain your regular sleep schedule. If you don’t, you will pay the price and risk not meeting your goal.
  9. Write it all down. Mark off what you get finished so you can see how far you have progressed and what you have yet to do. Do not trust your “migraine brain” to remember everything on its own. This will help you pick up where you left off should you get interrupted.
  10. Expect setbacks. You will get migraines. There will be a point when you think you can’t do it anymore. Plan for ways to overcome this. Enlist a friend whom you can call for a pep talk when this happens.

Patient advocate, Tammy Rome and granddaughter on her "birth" day. My project did get finished. The baby shower was a success. All the sewing projects were completed ahead of schedule. We even got the nursery set up a few weeks before baby arrived. I had to take a lot of breaks. I still got migraines a few times each week. Some of them put me in bed for a day. My migraine pattern didn’t change. My attitude did. I had a reason to try and a really big reward to look forward to.

p.s. The morning we went to the hospital, I had a terrible cluster headache attack. My toolkit came into the delivery room with us. Somehow I managed to stay migraine and cluster-free long enough to witness the birth of this beautiful baby girl.

Read Part 5 of the "Migraine Brain" series - Emotional Control

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