Staying Motivated in the Midst of Chronic Pain: Visual Tracking

Staying motivated is a huge issue when chronic pain persists over years, decades, and perhaps even into a lifetime. Over and over again, I have to remind myself that giving up is not an option. A long road lies ahead of me, and I must stay strong. One of my greatest allies in this fight against chronic pain has been my perseverance and determination to not give up even when things get rough.

But, I think will power can only get you so far. Grit and determination are great qualities to have, but I have found them insufficient in the midst of a huge flare or agonizing relapse. Emotions run high and hopelessness begins to set in. There is a danger of wallowing in depression, and when I get to that point, I am vulnerable to stopping all of the tricks and activities that move me forward and help alleviate my pain. This only intensifies the downward spiral.

In these lowest of moments, I have needed practical tips and tricks to get me over the hump and back to a manageable and sane level of life. By far, my favorite practical trick for staying motivated is visual tracking. Tracking times of progression – and unfortunately times of regression – has been beneficial in so many ways. Seeing a visual representation of my progress over time gives me hope, keeps me going, and reminds me each day of the need to be wise and not overdo it.  Right now, I track my progress in three ways.

Checklists of Tasks 


On my fridge hangs a checklist indicating a handful of tasks that need to be completed throughout the day. Each one needs to be done every single day without fail. It includes tasks such as taking my vitamins, doing my stretches, drinking sufficient water, and doing my devotions. There is something about a checklist that makes me get things done. I went from forgetting to do half of these things before the checklist, to getting everything done without fail, with a minor hiccup here and there. The motivating factor: once I go two weeks without forgetting anything, I get a treat! It may sound childish, but it works for me.

Tracking Walks and Exercises 

Off and on for the past year, and consistently every day since March, I have kept an excel sheet of the exercises I do and walks I take each day. This type of tracking is somewhat depressing to look at because my progress is slow to nonexistent, but it has also been extremely helpful. When I put my walking times into a graph, a clear pattern emerged that caused me to change the way I approach walking.


The two dips in the graph around 6/19 and 7/28 represent setbacks. You can see that the second setback was much worse than the first. The distance I can walk has always directly correlated with how I am feeling and my level of limitations/abilities at that time. Looking at the graph, I noticed that these dips seemed to come after taking a walk that I was not prepared for. When I say “not prepared for,” I mean I had increased my time way too soon. You can see my new strategy towards the end of the chart – I am increasing my time much more slowly. If I can avoid further setbacks, hopefully it will be faster in the long run! 

Counting Up


I saved the best for last – this is without a doubt my favorite one. A dry erase board hangs on my fridge at all times, and each morning I celebrate another day without a setback by slowly wiping away the numbers and adding a day! I celebrate that I made it through a whole day without a setback. This board serves so many purposes. First of all, it allows me to celebrate my accomplishments. Secondly, every day I look at it and I am reminded how far I have come and how much I have to lose if I make a stupid mistake that day. The count up puts me in a wiser state of mind to make decisions that won’t compromise my health. It also helps my husband know where I am and how far I have come, keeping him updated on my progress. I had a huge setback a few months ago, and I have slowly climbed my way into a much better place. But this is also a scary place because I have so much to lose after making slow progress for 68 days.

I am hoping and praying I get to 100 days! If I do there will be a major celebration!!!

These methods of tracking may not work for you; if you want to use visual tracking, you will likely need to tailor-fit this to your needs and specific condition. As you modify these ideas for your own uses, keep the following key points in mind.

  1. Find methods of tracking that give you helpful information, such as when I tracked my walking. This is a chart that I would bring to a doctor to show her how I gain progress slowly but then lose it overnight. I can say this to a doctor, but showing is more effective.
  2. Find methods of tracking that keep you accountable, such as my checklist.
  3. Find methods of tracking that give you hope, like my count up of days. Hope is so incredibly important. These methods of tracking show the progress that you are making over time: believing that you are going somewhere, even in small and minuscule ways, is necessary for you to not lose hope.

What other ways of visual tracking have you used that have been helpful?


  1. I love how practical and easy to follow this is. I love the examples you show, and the clearly illustrated lessons you have learned from keeping track. I am much, much, much less disciplined. I have never been able to use any one method of charting my illness and progress/lack of progress (when it’s all downhill… it gets to the point where you don’t so much want to see the graphs, lists, or tallies anymore.) I am super impressed by this approach and how well it has paid off for you, though! Definitely going to keep these tips in mind as I build my recovery/strengthening plan. Right now I feel like I am at the whims of my illnesses, but keeping track of how many days in a row I have NOT been dragged down by that. perhaps that would make the chronic pain and fatigue a little less depressing and would allow me to divorce some of the guilt I feel for being sick and needing help from people. Thanks for writing this and giving such good examples!

    1. I totally get the feeling of being too overwhelmed to even begin something like this. I was in that place for a long time, and only in the last 6 months have I been consistent with these types of tools. Start small at first!

      You made me think of something else too… Have you heard of I did this for awhile, and it helped motivate me in my lowest of lows. It’s kind of like a computer game to help keep you motivated to move towards recovery/feeling better than you presently do. Kind of fun 🙂

      1. I totally have done that, but again, I fell off the bandwagon super quick! My lack of self-control makes my guilt over being ill even worse, like “maybe if I had been a more organized and proactive person to begin with, I might have fared better” but I know that’s not the whole story and I gotta be nicer to myself in my head. I do better with setting a vague goal and hashing out the details as I go along, it just has to be something I have a good reason to do and enough energy/ability to actually follow through with. Over time I do see improvement, but I’m sure it looks more like the first half of your graph than that beautiful slow & steady climb towards health that is at the end! Congratulations on being able to see so clearly now how much you have learned and achieved, and thank you again for sharing it with us all. It is inspiring and enlightening to see your progress laid out with a clear cause-and-effect relationship between overdoing it and set-backs. I am going to print this out to show my friends exactly what it means for someone with chronic illness to work smarter, not harder. That graph is impossible for them to misinterpret!

  2. I really like this. I keep lists too but it’s because my memory is terrible from the medication that I am on. It never occurred to me to use a tracking system as a way of also staying positive. I’m in a bit of a slump at the moment so this post came at a great time for me. Thanks!

  3. That’s an awesome way to track! I used to use My Fitness Pal and an electronic pedometer, plus an app that let you kind of bet against yourself (so you would lose money!) about working out. It was hugely successful. As my condition has deteriorated over the past few months, they haven’t been possible, but I’ve been devising a system to slowly add a few things back in, as I work with my doctors.
    The visuals (and things like consecutive days in a row) are really motivating to me. I remember when I had tracked my food and exercise for over 100 days. That was so gratifying. I need to implement a system like your’s with “days since last set back,” because once it got back down to 3 days in a row, I wasn’t nearly as motivated, but by reframing what I’m counting, that could be great!

    1. Thank you! A pedometer is a really good idea as well. I may have to try that sometime. But I am kind of in the same boat as you in that I don’t really walk that far at the moment. Once I build up my daily activity level, I think it would be worth it to track my steps. I just devised a newer and improved tracking system that I just wrote about in my newest post. Take a look at it if you get the chance 🙂 It could be more useful to you in adding daily activities.

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