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Let’s admit it. Some of us think self-care is optional. We think it’s what we can do if we get everything else done. But that line of thinking is a set-up for burnout. You’ve surely heard the expression, put your oxygen mask on first before you help someone else. Is intentional self-care just as important as breathing, and if so, how do we make it happen?
Reframe what intentional self-care is
If someone asked you to define self-care in one word, what would you say? And what if you were allowed to choose from only two words: “indulgence” or “discipline”?
Given those two choices, I suspect that most of us would say “indulgence.”
It must be an indulgence, right? Otherwise, why would we delay self-care, or give it a low priority (or maybe no priority) on our weekly calendar, or consider it, um, you know, optional? You might even think it’s something you don’t deserve.
In her 2017 Forbes article, Tami Forman insists that “The way self-care is portrayed today is completely and utterly backward.” She argues that self-care is usually thought of as an indulgence, but it’s actually a discipline that requires “tough-mindedness, a sense of priorities, and a deep respect for yourself.”
The idea of intentional self-care, really, is to create a better body, mind, and soul for yourself. It’s not about luxuriating just for the fun of it. It’s not indulgence; it’s maintenance.
Use categories to jump-start your self-care
Most of us have a very narrow view of what constitutes self-care. If I’ve had a massage or a pedicure, I assume I’ve done self-care. That’s true, I have! But self-care is much more than that.
I’m a long-time user of (and now a coach for) the Full Focus Planner. Each week, the planner outlines five different categories of self-care and provides a space where we can write possible activities for ourselves. Using those categories, I’ve generated a few examples of intentional self-care for you.
Sleep is more than the absence of activity. Many restorative functions happen when we sleep. And we should all understand how sleep affects productivity.
Here are some ideas for how to improve your sleep.
- Start with some easy stuff. Plan to go to bed at least 15 minutes earlier than usual. Use a sleep mask to block out the light. Try using an app like Calm to fall asleep or stay asleep.
- Resist using your electronic devices. They emit blue light that interferes with melatonin, which influences sleep.
- Consider putting a little lavender oil on your pillowcase. It promotes relaxation. I do it frequently.
- Try hypnosis for sleep. I have used many apps, and have enjoyed all of them, paid and free.
- In the morning, refrain from hitting the snooze button; it’s a form of procrastination.
These habits and others can ensure that your sleep is part of your intentional self-care.
Is eating related to goal achievement and productivity? Well, maybe! Some foods make us more lethargic. Overeating or eating refined sugar can create big swings in the body’s glucose levels, and hence, it can affect our concentration. Here are a few ideas:
- Set up an accountability system to track your intake in relation to your body’s calorie range.
- Have a meatless meal at least once each week.
- Create a system to eat at least five fruits and vegetables each day.
- Check out this new gizmo that claims it will hack your metabolism. I haven’t tried it, but I’m curious!
Food is your fuel source for everything you do, whether it’s productivity or play. So make sure your fuel is contributing to your intentional self-care.
Seriously. Do we need any more science or any more public health directives to convince us that moving is important?
In the true spirit of James Clear’s book Atomic Habits and Stephen Guise’s book Mini Habits, I would discourage you from starting by saying you’ll run 3 miles each day if you haven’t been off the couch in decades. Try starting with just some simple things.
- Take a walk every day when the weather is fair. (Later, go on a cold day. A few blasts of cold may be good for us. Studies by Nadkarni and colleagues and Buijze and colleagues shed some light on depression, wellness, and possibly productivity.)
- On days when the weather is too foul for your taste, run up and down the stairs 12 times.
- Do stretching exercises. That’s something we don’t talk about very much. Check out the scientifically documented benefits of stretching. I have a client who loves to do TRX stretching.
Whether it’s strenuous exercise or just a bit of light activity, your intentional self-care routine should absolutely include some motion.
Psychiatrist Dr. Jim Dhrymes insists that humans are not meant to be alone. Certainly, in the recent past with COVID-related restrictions, we’ve all realized how important it is to be with one another.
Even before COVID, however, we’d put off connecting with family and friends. Schedule time to connect with others. Don’t leave it to chance. It’s a vital part of self-care.
While connecting with other people is one important aspect of this kind of self-care, it isn’t the only one. There’s also spiritual connection, a connection to a higher power. We don’t usually think of “family” as synonymous with “prayer,” but in some ways, it is! Maintaining your connection with your faith is just as important for self-care as maintaining your connections to other people. You might find that higher power in a church or through private worship, by communing with nature, or many other ways.
You should also focus on your connection to yourself, and one great way to do that is through mindfulness. A study by Michael Mrazek and colleagues showed that mindfulness training can improve cognitive function in as little as 2 weeks. It’s not just living in slow-motion and noticing what’s around you — it’s a way to keep in touch with yourself.
If you are connecting with other people, a higher spiritual being, nature, your empowered self, you’re “connecting,” and that’s a vital part of intentional self-care.
Most of us know some simple activities to reduce stress and promote relaxation. In Psychology Today, Barbara Markway, Ph.D., suggests that activities such as aromatherapy or massage “encourage you to zone in on your senses.”
Consider taking up a new hobby or reviving an old hobby. A while ago, a colleague of mine who was approaching retirement encouraged me and others to focus on a hobby. Someone asked him, “How can you find a hobby if you don’t have one?’ He suggested recalling and reviving a hobby you liked to do as a kid. (He had already decided to take up guitar lessons again.)
Here’s one for you! It’s often tough, but man, it works! This is perhaps the most effective form of intentional self-care. It’s about setting boundaries, for example, saying “no” to a request from someone, even a family member. It might save you hours of stress!
Commit to doing intentional self-care on a regular basis
You might not want to go to the gym seven days a week. But can you commit to going to the gym three times a week? Regularity is important.
Doing intentional self-care when you are already exhausted, spent, and at your wits’ end doesn’t work. You wouldn’t wait to weed and care for your garden until weeds have already strangled the vegetables, right? Right. Because then it would be too late. Same idea here.
Don’t confuse productivity with getting more stuff done. The never-ending hustle is a huge fallacy.
Value self-care and find a way to make it happen on a regular basis.
How do you build in time for intentional self-care? What are your favorite methods of self-care?
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