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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 journaling for 15–20 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 counselor. If you can’t really afford one, try dialing 211, the FCC’s line that connects you to local community services.
A few years ago, I was consistently working 50-60 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.