How to Stay Motivated and Productive as a College Student with Chronic Illness

Whether you’re an undergraduate college student or a grad student and teaching assistant like me, it’s impossible to deny that staying motivated for schoolwork can be challenging at times. Add in a chronic illness or two, and staying motivated and productive in college can feel even harder.

I should know: besides being diagnosed with celiac disease a few months before my freshman year in college, I’ve also been living with fibromyalgia (and all the chronic pain and fatigue that goes along with it) since age 11. Despite my chronic illnesses, though, I graduated college with a 4.0, and I’m currently attending grad school to receive an MFA in creative writing. And, today, I’m sharing the productivity hacks I use to keep checking items off my to-do list all year long.

 How to Stay Motivated and Productive as a College Student with Chronic Illness

Ready to kick college’s booty - whether you have a chronic illness or not? Then keep reading to learn my top five secrets to staying productive and motivated as a college student! 

1. Every day, make a list of small goals and big goals - and celebrate each one you cross off.

If I had to name one piece of college school supplies that I can’t live without, it would be my planner. I don’t worry about buying a certain brand or type of planner; for me, all that matters is that it has enough space for me to write out a to-do list each day. 

It’s important to mention, however, that I list more than just the homework I need to do or the extracurricular activities I have that day. My to-do list also involves self-care activities related to my chronic illnesses. For instance, since I have celiac disease, I have to eat a strict gluten free diet and I make all my own meals. As a result, my planner is often full of reminders to meal prep my favorite gluten free snacks, bake veggies for that night’s dinner or grocery shop. 

 How to Stay Motivated and Productive as a College Student with Chronic Illness

The benefits of listing out everything are twofold. First, it ensures you won’t forget anything. Second, research has found that writing to-do lists can increase productivity by reducing people's distracting anxiety about uncompleted tasks. As an added bonus for college students, listing to-do list items that aren’t directly related to school lets you take a break from your traditional “homework” but still be productive (by making a big batch of energy balls, for example).

No daily item is too small to add to your list (heck, I even write down “refill your pill case” or “take out the trash”), and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back with every item you can cross off, no matter how minor.

2. Prioritize self care and don't feel guilty about taking breaks.

As hinted at above, making time for self care as a college student is super important, especially if you have a chronic illness. College - and grad school - offer so many activities that it’s easy to stay busy from the time you get up to the moment you finally go to bed. However, if you don’t make time for breaks, you’re setting yourself up for major burn body and motivation.

For me, taking breaks is easier said than done. As a result, in the past few years, I’m often a stressed zombie by the time summer arrives, and it takes me weeks to recover and feel “normal” again. 

 How to Stay Motivated and Productive as a College Student with Chronic Illness

This semester, I’m trying to be more intentional with taking breaks and scheduling self care activities into my day. Practicing self care doesn’t have to be complicated or take a long time; it can be as simple as going for a 15-minute walk or taking a bubble bath instead of a shower. Not to mention that, according to various studies, taking a break from work can actually improve your motivation, increase your productivity and even give your mental and physical health a boost. So the next time you're feeling tired or have been hard at work for several hours straight, make sure you honor your body (and brain) by taking a break! 

3. Establish your own definition of "productive."

Before we even talk any further about productivity hacks, it’s important to define “productivity” in the first place. According to, productivity is “the quality, state, or fact of being able to generate, create, enhance, or bring forth goods and services.” However, whether you’re a full-time employee, a full-time college student or a mixture of the two, when you have a chronic illness, it’s important for you to come up with your own definition of productivity. 

To me, “productivity” means “setting myself up to achieve set goals.” I like this tweaked definition for a couple of reasons. First, it means that productivity doesn’t require finishing or fully producing anything. As a writer, I spend a frightening amount of time tweaking pieces I’ve written without ever having a finished product to show for it. Does that mean I’m wasting my time? Of course not! 

 How to Stay Motivated and Productive as a College Student with Chronic Illness
Equally important, my definition of productivity also includes non-project related actions. Most people might not consider sleeping in or going to bed early acts of “productivity.” However, as someone with fibromyalgia who needs at least 10 hours of sleep to function optimally, this extra snoozing time is setting me up for success the following day. 

Now, I'm challenging you to come up with your own “productivity” definition and try to view your activities through that lens. For me, it’s easier to avoid feeling “lazy” or guilty for “wasting time” when the activities demanded by my chronic illnesses - like food prep, extra sleep, doctor appointments, etc - fit under my umbrella definition of productivity. Maybe establishing your own view of productivity will give you an equally awesome sense of freedom! 

4. Get creative while checking items off your to-do list!

If someone has figured out how to stay motivated for college classes and homework and other academic obligations 100% of the time...that person unfortunately isn't me. However, I have discovered several tricks and tips to get everything done, even when I don’t want to - and getting creative with my homework is my secret weapon. 

Case in point: as a graduate student in an MFA program, I need to do a lot of reading. When I’m struggling to keep turning the pages of a book that isn’t my thang, I try to combine the reading with something I do enjoy: working out. Of course, not all exercise can be done while reading and it’s important to make sure your exercising form is still correct. However, reading while walking on the treadmill or pedaling slowly on the bike helps me focus, and it's a lot harder to get distracted when I’m “trapped” on a workout machine!

 How to Stay Motivated and Productive as a College Student with Chronic Illness

Think of what you enjoy doing and see how you could creatively incorporate those activities into your to-do list. Hate studying? Study outside or somewhere with a pretty view, or reward yourself with a five-minute solo dance party after every 30 mins of studying. Need to stretch regularly during the day because of fibromyalgia or another chronic illness, but hate how boring stretching can be? Do some of your reading for class (or for fun) while stretching on your bedroom floor. 

You’ll be amazed at how much easier or quicker your homework will feel when you experiment with creative ways to get it done! 

5. Don't forget to acknowledge your own awesomeness.

For me, one of the most challenging parts of going to college with a chronic illness is comparing myself to other, more “normal” students, finding myself lacking and feeling discouraged about the next day, week or even next semester of college. 

When you start to fall into this comparison trap, remind yourself how awesome you really are. The harsh truth is that you are not a “typical” college student when you’re going to school with a chronic illness. You may have limitations other students don’t have to deal with (like needing more sleep) and you might not be able to juggle all of the same activities that other students can. 

 How to Stay Motivated and Productive as a College Student with Chronic Illness

However, balancing college with chronic illness also means you have BeyoncĂ©-level student swag. After all going to college is hard enough. Going to college while also dealing with doctors appointments, a special diet, medical procedures, new medications or countless other chronic illness challenges? That’s pretty dang impressive! So don’t forget everything you’ve accomplished, and use that knowledge to motivate you through another awesome semester. 

It’d be a lie to say that acing college is easy, even when you don’t have chronic health conditions. However, it is possible - and I hope these motivation and productivity hacks help you get the most of college...and life afterward!

How do you stay motivated or productive? Tell me in the comments! 


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