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Productivity and Pain

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Productivity and Pain

I was looking straight at the face of one of my favorite students and I couldn’t recall her name. “¡Excelente, señorita!” Once again, I successfully hid my memory issues from my students and coworkers by referring to students as señor or señorita when a name escaped me.

I was in pain all day every day.[MG2] It was devastating my mind and my stamina.

I perched on a barstool while teaching to hide my hip pain. I asked my high school Spanish students to write answers on the board because my hands hurt. Many days I raced home after the final bell at work just to take a nap. I felt guilty for being short-tempered with my students – and my own family – as my patience wore thin at the end of every day.

What was wrong with me?

I had always been an overachiever! As a career educator for almost twenty years, working as a high school Spanish teacher and school administrator, I suddenly felt like I was barely keeping my head above water at work. At home, I was napping my life away.

I saw my doctor, and a few months later, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease which creates chronic inflammation throughout the body.

When I was first diagnosed, I was flooded with so many thoughts and emotions.

Relief! I am not crazy…I’m just sick.

Wait! I don’t have time to be sick…I’m a busy woman.

Panic! I need to fix this…but this can’t be cured, just managed.

Getting sick forced me to face some hard truths. My definition of success and self-worth had always been tied to a career that I no longer had the stamina to do.

Who was I if I couldn’t teach?

That was four years ago.

Today, I am a small business owner with an art studio in my hometown, selling my paintings across the country. How did I manage to start a successful art business despite my diagnosis?

I had to listen to my body.

Here are some tips that helped me change careers and still be productive while managing my pain.

1. Find a reason to get out of bed.

The first few months of being home after leaving teaching were spent resting, cleaning, and watching too much TV. I felt guilty about not working.

I needed a reason to get out of bed each day, and it had to be something better than doing laundry and reorganizing closets!

I thought about my favorite hobby…art.

I was the kid who was always doodling and drawing. I took art classes in high school and college to help me relax while juggling a rigorous course load. I even earned enough credits for an art minor while in college.

I needed a space in the house to call my own so I could paint. My husband moved the furniture out of the dining room and set me up with a new desk and an easel.

I had my first “official” studio.

Over the next few months, I painted several small portraits of dogs and cats for my friends and family. It made me so happy to see people smile when I gave them a painting.

Painting became my reason for getting out of bed.

2. Set small, manageable goals with a specific timeframe

As more people began to see my art at friends’ homes and on my social media pages, they began to reach out to me to purchase and commission pieces.

At first, the thought of committing to all these projects overwhelmed me. As an overachiever, I wanted to do everything right away! How could I make promises to all these people if I didn’t feel well and couldn’t paint eight hours a day?

I took a deep breath and recalled the advice I often gave my son when he was overwhelmed by schoolwork. I’d ask him, “How do you eat an elephant?” He’d respond, “One bite at a time.”

So, I took this new hobby of mine and turned it into an art career…one bite at a time.

Not only did I set goals, but I also allowed myself a reasonable time frame to achieve each goal.

Here are just a few of the goals that I set and accomplished over the past four years.

· Post at least one piece of new art on my social media page each week.

· Take an art class within the next three months.

· Find an art show in which to sell my work within the next six months.

· Learn about collecting sales tax and small business rules for North Carolina next month.

· Hire a housekeeper (with my new found “fortune”) to clean the house so I can paint more by Christmas.

· Create a professional looking website; in the next three months.

· Investigate renting studio space in the downtown arts center (Bel Air Art Center) in the next month.

3. Work smarter, not harder.

One of the things that I initially found challenging about painting was that my hands would cramp up if I worked too long. Often, we “overachievers” forget to take breaks.

The key to being productive while managing pain is to work smarter, not harder. I use the time I need to rest my body to do mental work instead. Mental work IS productive!

Sitting outside with a cup of coffee allows me to observe how the sunlight affects shadows or think about how to best approach my next commission.

I am always looking to learn new things and the internet is full of great video lessons that I can watch from the comfort of my couch.

Websites and social media can be updated while wearing pajamas.

And finally,

4. Do something related to your passion every day.

Another artist told me that I should paint every day if I wanted to grow artistically.

I think that is applicable to life in general.

When dealing with pain, it is easy to focus on the things you can’t do. Instead, find the things you CAN do every day. I’m always observing, learning, taking pictures, reading small business articles, working on my website, selling art online, making connections with other artists, or thinking about my next art project.

Are you living and working with pain?

Don’t let pain convince you that you can’t lead a productive life. You may not be able to do everything you used to do, but you can be successful and find your self-worth again.

Focus on what you CAN do!

- Rebecca Watkins

This article first appeared on

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