It's been a little rough lately – not terrible, just not great. I haven't been doing any of the things I know I should do to sustain my creativity and energy levels, and I've paid for it in lack of focus, lack of patience, irritability. When things get busy, it can be especially hard to make the necessary time for self care. But we know that if we aren't taking care of ourselves, we don't have the resources to take care of the other demands on our time and attention, no matter how important they are to us. As the old Zen saying goes, you should meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you are too busy – then, meditate for an hour. So I decided instead to practice the self care I preach, to be wiser and kinder and gentler with myself in order to be wiser and kinder and gentler in the world, too.
"Self care is care provided 'for you, by you,'" according to Fort Garry Women's Resource Center. "It's about identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them. It is taking the time to do some of the activities that nurture you. Self care is about taking proper care of yourself and treating yourself as kindly as you treat others."
Finding the time for self care can be daunting with the demands of paid work, housework, homework, family, community, and even, for many of us, pets, of course. But have no fear! Little changes can add to big relief in a relatively short time. If you're constantly worrying about work, there are tons of easy and even affordable self care activities you can do to clear your mind.
There are tons of little steps you can take in order to care for yourself better.
Most often in our hectic modern lives, elevated stress levels can be traced back to lack of sleep. Lack of night-time sleep is associated with a host of ills, from heart disease and obesity to depression and anxiety, to lack of focus and creativity. A National Institutes of Mental study found the risk of developing depression was nearly 40-times higher for those with sleep problems. Recent research suggests sleep may be a part of our body's natural cleaning and repair system. Without enough rest, our bodies aren't able to heal from the stressors and daily wear and tear of our regular routines. So, how to get more zzz's?
One way to get better sleep is to start saying no more so you have more time to rest. Try canceling one regular evening event, just for this week, and create an evening routine for yourself or with loved ones if they will be impacted. Explain that getting more sleep will help you to be more present with them. In my house, when we need an extra dose of self-care, we limit after-work events to every other night for a week or so until we're more rested. If you can't get to a flat-out no, practice saying some version of it that gets you the space and time that you need. Try, “I can't give that the full attention it deserves right now.”
Turn off screens an hour before your target bedtime. The blue light of our screens – including television, computers, tablets, and phones - mimics sunlight and signals our brains to produce hormones that encourage wakefulness, so pull out an old-fashioned paperback to read instead. Make yourself a cup of hot tea, and set a timer for two minutes to sit in silence and just breathe. Try to lengthen your natural breath so your inhale and exhale are steady and even for a four or five count. Then enjoy your tea, which should be perfectly steeped after your short meditation – choose something with no caffeine, or consider trying a specialty stress or bedtime blend! One consideration to be aware of is that some people are sensitive to catnip, which is in many of these blends, and it may have the opposite effect. Try to head to bed a good seven to eight hours before you need to be up.
Consider cutting back on caffeine altogether during this time, to give yourself the best chance of restorative sleep. Excess caffeine can also lead to jitteriness, especially when combined with too little sleep and can exacerbate stress and anxiety. I can't start the day without my morning coffee, but I generally stick to just one cup. Try green tea during the day, and chrysanthemum tea, or chamomile tea before bed, and limit caffeine after lunch. Remember caffeine isn't just in coffee but also found in tea, soft drinks, chocolate, and other sports drinks. Even some medications have caffeine, so make sure to check ingredients and talk with your doctor.
Sitting quietly for a few minutes each day is good for you on its own, and can be especially helpful in managing stress. Whether it's spent listening to your breath, or to a recorded guide, meditation trains your brain to calm itself, which can help to turn down all the chatter in your mind about that argument from earlier in the day, or all the things you have to do tomorrow.
Your body thrives on routine and giving it regular habits and patterns lets your brain know what to expect next and prepare for it. If you start winding down at the same time each night, after a few days you'll start feeling sleepy and ready for pajamas, a book, and a cup of tea without even looking at the clock.
If you can, try to get up a little early at least one day a week and squeeze in 10 minutes of a workout, like yoga or gentle stretching. There are hundreds of guided yoga sessions on YouTube for every level and every need. Your body and mind will thank you!
You may be tempted when feeling stressed to unwind with a couple drinks at the end of the day. While this may help you to feel more relaxed and sleepy, as your body processes the alcohol, it causes your system to warm up, disrupting the natural cooling down of your body at night, and can wake you up.
At the office, self care can take the form of prioritizing your must-dos over the many emergency fires that call for attention. Make a to-do list, put your phone on DND, and if you have one, close your door, or if not, pop in your earbuds. What are the top three or four things that have to get done today? Don’t write more than four, and rank them in order of importance. It can be helpful to make an Eisenhower Matrix, also called a Priority or 4x4 Matrix.
To make an Eisenhower matrix, draw a “+” in the middle of a piece of paper. Along the left side, at the bottom write Not Important, and at the top write Important; along the top edge of the paper, mark the left as Urgent, and the right, Not Urgent. Put each of your four to-do list items into one box. You only get one. The thing that is in the Important and Urgent box is your Number One Top Priority for today. Now, flip your to-do list over, and on the reverse side, write the Number One Top Priority, and break into smaller discrete tasks.
Email can be overwhelming, but you don't have to tackle it all in one day — just learn how to manage your inbox. Open your email and immediately make one folder titled Look at Today and one titled Look at This Week. Based only on the subject lines, quickly go through and moved each email into one of your folders, and delete any obvious junk. Set an away message saying that you’ll get back in touch within the week.
Get up and step away from your desk at least once a day. It hardly matters what you do, just so long as you give yourself a few minutes' break. Go get a cup of coffee or a glass of water. Stretch your arms over your head. Take a walk to pop in and say hello to your work bff. Go stand in the parking lot for a minute and get some sun. Whatever you do, just take at least a minute away from your desk to check in with yourself. Are you staying hydrated? Breathing enough? When we’re feeling stress, many of us have a tendency to hold our breath. Take a few deep breaths, in for a count of four or five, and out for the same count.
Okay, okay. This one does involve spending money. But it's money you would've spent anyway! The important thing about this one is where you spend the money, and how. Make sure you get up and go eat lunch for an hour or so away from your desk and electronics. Eat something that makes you feel good to eat, and that will stave off the mid-afternoon slump. Aim for a good mix of lean protein and complex carbohydrates. A turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and sprouts is a good and easy bet! Don’t eat at your desk, and if at all possible, leave the office. Go run that tiny errand that is nagging at you. Get yourself a frappe at your favorite coffee shop. Before you head back in, soak up another minute in the fresh air and sun.
Fifteen minutes before you leave, clean up your desk, put your notes and files away where you can readily find them in the morning. Make yourself a note of where you left off on a project, so you can easily get back into the swing tomorrow. Five minutes before you leave, write down your four item to-do list for tomorrow.
Remember that self care starts with taking care of the physical bodies we're walking around in each day, but it doesn't end there. Self care is about mindfully doing the thing that most and best supports your well-being. That might mean a bubble bath and a glass of wine at the end of the day, treating yourself to something special to help you get through a rough week, and saying no when you need to.
Remember that there's no way you can get it all done, take care of your family and your work if you're running on fumes. Take the time to recharge and set boundaries as necessary, guilt-free! You'll be more refreshed and more present for the times that really matter.
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines writes about work, life, culture, and fairy tales. Read more at a work of heart and follow @ThatKiyomi on Twitter.