You're overwhelmed at work. You have a ton of projects piling up at home and your calendar is packed with overdue tasks. To make room for all of this stuff, you skip lunch, stop going to the gym and forget about your social life entirely. When we're stressed, self care is usually the first thing to go. And that only makes things worse. Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
As fluffy and indulgent as the phrase "self care" may sound, it's just a few basic habits that are crucial to your functioning. Most of us grew up believing that the more you sacrifice, the bigger the reward. In high school, for example, I once signed up for a debate tournament and forced myself to stay up all night preparing. I figured pushing myself to the point of exhaustion had to pay off. Of course, the next day, I was so exhausted I could barely form coherent sentences and I tanked.
The point is, it's easy to take the "hard work pays off" adage too far, to the point that it becomes counterproductive. Your abilities are worn. Your skills aren't as sharp. You lose focus. You might think you're working hard, and maybe you are in some ways, but you're not working efficiently.
Self Care Isn't Just Important, It's Crucial
It's easy to neglect taking care of ourselves because when we're busy and overwhelmed, even a small reprieve feels like a luxury. So actually taking time to eat lunch, exercise and hang out with friends? That just feels like slacking.
That mindset backfires, though. Self care actually helps you make progress faster for a few reasons:
- Self care prevents "overload burnout": We've all been there — you push yourself to the point that you can't take any more so you just give up. Self care helps you avoid getting to that point.
- Self care reduces the negative effects of stress: A small amount of stress can serve a purpose, but after a while, it just breaks down your mind and body. Taking care of yourself means keeping your stress from taking over so you can function at full capacity.
- Self care helps you refocus: When I was stuck on a complicated maths problem in school, my teacher would suggest walking away and coming back — taking a break, basically. Breaks are the epitome of self care, and studies show they're great for helping you perform better.
Sometimes I treat self care as a reward. I'm so hungry I can barely think, but I'll force myself to finish a batch of work before I eat lunch. What I'm really doing is making my job more difficult by allowing myself to run on fumes.
In other words, self care is not a reward. It's part of the process. Sometimes we get so used to "rewarding ourselves" with lunch or even a trip to the bathroom, though, that we forget exactly what it means to take care of ourselves.
Make Time to Eat Well and Exercise, Even If You're Busy
It's easy to neglect exercise when you're overextended because, well, exercise requires time, energy and often a change of clothes or trip to the shower. It's daunting, messy and uncomfortable.
It's important, though, so you want to make time for it in your daily routine. Consider teaming up with a workout buddy or a group to hold yourself accountable. If you're busy, try an app like Sworkit. It suggests specific exercises and routines based on how much time you have, even if it's only five minutes. Or, find a gym that's close to work, or better yet, along your commute. This way, you get a workout and you beat traffic. Of course, no matter how busy or unmotivated you are, sometimes you just have to get up and do it.
Everyone wants to eat well and find food that's good for them, but it's hard to cook or plan meals when you're busy. When I have three deadlines on my tail, I'm much more likely to reach for leftover pizza rather than make myself a salad.
It's also hard enough to eat healthy in a world filled with processed food, though. Start small, as our own Beth Swarecki suggests. Do you want to eat less sugar? Control your carb intake? Focus on one area at a time rather than trying to overhaul your entire diet at once.
Also, sometimes eating junk feels like self care. I often "treat" myself with a handful of Oreos. Nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, but in contrast, I think of healthy food as the enemy, so I don't eat it as much of it as I should. This really involves changing the way you think about eating well entirely, but you can start by experimenting with healthy foods you might actually like, and not trying to force yourself to eat stuff you hate just because it's healthy.
Practice Good Emotional Hygiene
The physical aspect is obviously important, but when a lot of people talk about self care, they're talking about emotional health: dealing with stress, anxiety, sadness, depression. And that's probably because we tend to ignore it more. As psychologist Guy Winch asks, "We brush and floss but what daily activity do we do to maintain our psychological health?"
When you're feeling any kind of intense emotion — stress or anger, for instance — it helps to take a quick break to process it. What exactly are you feeling, and why? It might help to run down a list of feeling words to help better pinpoint your emotion.
For a long time, when I'd feel anxious or stressed, I'd work right through it, frustrated the entire time. For example, if my boss asked me to fix something I worked hard on, I'd get upset and stressed out, rush through it, all the while beating myself up for being a failure. I was hurt and frenetic — not the best conditions for getting stuff done.
Instead, I now try to set aside a minute to acknowledge my feelings, even if it's just admitting to myself that I feel rejected. I simply stop what I'm doing, walk away for a second and pinpoint my feeling. Acknowledging it serves a practical purpose. For one, it forces me to slow down and think more rationally. It's like taking a break. It also keeps my emotions from taking over even more. My boss tells me to fix something and I feel rejected, but now I know that. So when I start to tell myself I'm a failure, it's a lot easier to remind myself, "You're not a failure, you're just feeling rejected about this project right now."
Keeping a journal is a good idea, too. It's cathartic. And in a study from the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment researchers found that journalling for 15 to 20 minutes helped study participants cope with traumatic, stressful or emotional events.
It sounds very touchy-feely, I know, but that's sort of the point of emotional hygiene. You want to take time to deal with your feelings so you can control them and get back to work. Controlling them means acknowledging and understanding them.
If your emotional pain is especially difficult to manage, you might consider finding a good therapist or counsellor.
Protect Your Schedule
A few years ago, I was consistently working 50 to 60 hours a week and, predictably, I was stressed, irritable and unfocused. This is common, according to research from John Pencavel of Stanford University (PDF). He found that after about 50 hours of work, employee productivity and output plummets.
The Deferral: "I'm swamped right now, but feel free to follow up."
The Referral: "I'm not qualified to do what you're asking, but here's something else."
The Introduction: "This isn't in my wheelhouse, but I know someone who might be helpful."
Of course, sometimes you just have a boss or manager that asks for too much. In that case, you may need to schedule time to discuss your workload and your responsibilities. It's easier said than done, and not all bosses will understand the need for self care, unfortunately. However, it's a better option than simply continuing to say yes.
Maybe you're the one squeezing too much in your schedule, though. One way to combat this is to add empty events in your schedule. This way, if a task takes longer than expected or something else comes up, you've budgeted the extra time for it.
Finally, squeeze some time in your schedule for yourself. Create some down time in your schedule to devote to activities you enjoy: reading, catching up on game highlights, looking at the clouds. Block that time in your calendar, too. Then, do everything you can to defend that time.
Spend Your Time (and Money) on What Matters
Sometimes being busy feels good. When I was working 50 to 60 hours a week, I felt successful just because I was constantly working. I wasn't necessarily getting anywhere, though. It was the illusion of progress. In fact, I put off a lot of goals I wanted to accomplish in exchange for the satisfaction I got from crossing stuff off my to-do list. Sometimes, real progress means being unproductive. It can be hard to put tasks and obligations on hold, but sometimes that's exactly what you have to do in the spirit of self care.
Focus on the "one big thing" each day that will make you feel accomplished, as business coach Mark McGuinness suggests. This way, you're aware of what really matters to you, which makes it easier to prioritise your time accordingly.
And your money is a lot like your time. We all spend it wastefully every now and then, and that's to be expected, but ultimately, you want to spend it on what matters to you. When we're stressed, it's common to spend mindlessly. That usually makes things worse, because money is a huge source of stress for a lot of us.
Learning to manage it is another way to embrace self care, and you can start by creating a budget with a purpose. Even if the purpose is getting out of debt, it helps to declare why getting out of debt is important to your bottom line. Maybe you want to travel. Maybe you want to feel secure. Either way, make the goal about you, and not only will you feel better about it, you'll also be more apt to stick to it and therefore less stressed.
Taking care of your basic physical and emotional needs should really be the backbone for getting stuff done, but ironically, self care is usually the first thing to go. If it's gotten to the point that you've perhaps even forgotten what it means to take care of yourself, these points should help you recover.