Many years ago, taking care of my health and well-being was down my priority list. I ate ok, generally slept well and got a modicum of exercise. Nothing was entirely out of balance, nor was it humming along perfectly.
I regularly cancelled a gym session because of meetings or snacked late at night because I hadn’t eaten well during the day. Sadly, it took until I started to work for myself to realise that this approach couldn’t work. Why? I finally realised that the work wouldn’t get done effectively if my health didn’t work. The two weren’t loosely correlated but strongly correlated.
Consequently, I flipped how I saw self-care. I no longer saw it as a luxury and, therefore, optional but as essential to my ability to do good work. It had become mandatory.
So often, I see leaders who are running their day on adrenalin. When they come to me for support, they are often so busy with a long list of priorities they find it challenging to allocate time to care for their mind, body and spirit. They forget that putting their self-care needs first is a critical act of leadership.
Ask yourself honestly:
- How much time do you devote each week to looking after yourself?
- Do you feel guilty when you take time out to prioritise your health and well-being?
- Do you regularly cancel exercise because of other priorities?
- Are you last on your ‘to-do’ list, either professionally or personally?
If your answers reveal that self-care is low on your to-do list, you will likely feel run-down, tired and overworked. You may say to yourself, ‘I’ll get on to this tomorrow’, but tomorrow never comes. Instead, one day you’ll wake up and find that exhaustion, adrenal fatigue or some other health issue has stopped you in your tracks.
Caring for others is impossible if you’re not caring for yourself, whether that’s in your role as a parent, friend, leader, colleague or something else.
Yet, we often feel guilty about taking time out for ourselves. Self-care isn’t selfish. You don’t recklessly discard the feelings and concerns of others, but you recognise that you matter. Your needs matter. In most situations, if you don’t care for yourself, you can’t be your best for those who need you most. And if you don’t prioritise you, who else will?
If you seek to balance the pressure better, here are six steps to putting self-care back on the top of the agenda.
Find your Goldilocks Zone
A certain amount of pressure is good for you because it helps motivate you to act and keeps you focused. When you experience the right amount of challenge and interest, chemicals are released in your brain (noradrenaline and dopamine), making you more alert, motivated and ready to learn.
Researchers and educators often refer to this as the Goldilocks zone. This is the zone of optimal performance where you are working on a task or learning something that is neither too hard nor too easy. Like the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it’s ‘just right’.
Taking care of yourself isn’t about removing all the challenges and pressure from your day, but about checking that you have the optimal balance between stretch and stability.
Pick your frame
You can’t control what happens to you every day. You can, however, choose your response by noticing your feelings, reactions and where you focus your attention. You can reflect or ruminate.
Whilst both practices require you to look backwards, the emphasis and focus differ.
When you ruminate, you run the scenario in your head repeatedly – trying to rewrite the event and its ending. Your thinking process doesn’t conclude. Research shows that rumination can lead to various adverse outcomes: depression, anxiety, and over-eating and drinking, for example.
When you reflect, you think about the situation, focus on uncovering what you have learned, how you were feeling and identifying what you would do differently next time. It requires a growth mindset so you generate insights into the cause of the situation and is outcome focused.
During the day, consider in what direction you are focusing your energy. When you spend too much time fixating on things you cannot change, you will be wasting energy that could be devoted better elsewhere.
You need to set two types of boundaries – the ones you establish with yourself and those you put in place with your boss and work colleagues.
Talk to your boss about boundaries and get clear on their expectations. For example, agree on protocols for handling calls and emails outside standard work hours.
Set boundaries with yourself about how you work. If you consistently work long into the evening and answer emails late at night, you create a pattern of behaviour for yourself and those around you.
It can help to have routines that signal the end of your working day. It may be going to the gym, meditating or catching up with a friend. Also, have your phone automatically switch to ‘do not disturb’ and turn off social media push notifications and email alerts at set times. Use the technology settings to help you switch ‘off’.
Build healthy habits
Your self-care plan should include a healthy range of activities that pep you up, calm the pressure and give you time to rest and revitalise.
Firstly, get physical because exercise and moving help to shift your state, releasing the brain’s happy chemicals. Establish regular sleep patterns and use meditation practices to manage your mood and elevate your coping mechanisms.
Seek out simple pleasures that make you feel good. For example, patting a dog, watching a dog run around the park, or any other activity that puts you in touch with an animal can help as it’s proven to help you destress. So too, spending time in nature.
Focus on your breath. Breathing is the body’s natural mechanism to help regulate our nervous system. In states of stress, our breathing is shallow and shorter. Focus on slow and deep breathing. You can use practices like single-nostril breathing and meditation.
Connection is at the root of all human existence. When you have good relationships at home, in the community and at work, you have trusted friends with whom you can discuss your challenges and get advice.
As I’ve written before, (Are you trying to go it alone?) without connection, we feel lost and isolated, which impacts our mental health and well-being.
Find time each week (and, if possible, each day) to connect deeply with others. Whether it’s phoning a friend, going for a walk or catching up with a friend you haven’t seen recently.
Make it matter
Above all else, you need to make self-care matter to you. If you don’t, no one else will do it for you. Get specific on why it matters to you. Set goals and build daily habits so that, over time, you’ll see that self-care has moved up your priority list.
As the author Iain Thomas said: “And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.”
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.