Written By: Dr. Kimberly Sommers
Dr. Kimberly Sommers is a psychologist at the Minnesota State University, Mankato Counseling Center. Her work focuses on student development, multiculturalism, feminism, promoting mental health, and defeating mental health stigma.
As a psychologist in a university counseling center, I tell my clients to “go and engage in self-care” at the end of nearly every therapy session. It’s a corny way to remind them to prioritize their needs and work to make themselves feel better – usually the bulk of what we talked about in the previous hour. And then I turn around and do paperwork, administrative tasks, committee work, supervision, research, consulting with colleagues, problem-solving my over-packed schedule, making to do lists for work and home, and worrying about how I’m going to get it all done. Basically, I ignore my own advice.
If you are anything like me, you find yourself caught between the need to excel at work, especially if you are a new or young professional, and the need to take care of yourself to combat burn out and stress. When we are stressed the first things we cut are good sleep, decent food, and healthy movement and exercise. Remember being in college when you pulled all-nighters while sitting in your sweatpants from three days ago, eating pop tarts? We do some version of this when we are over-tasked or over-committed and this leads to poor health, burn out, frustration, and stress.
I’ve had to sort out what self-care looks like for me. I’ve discovered I love crocheting, weight lifting classes, reading novels, cooking overly complicated brunch foods, and going for really, really long walks with my dog. Putting these activities into my daily life has taken effort, planning, messing up, and getting restarted. It’s an ongoing process.
So how can you incorporate and prioritize self-care in your already packed schedule?
- Make a plan
To get the sleep, food, and exercise you need, you’re going to have to make a plan. This plan can look like anything. It is all about how you want to spend your time and/or your energy.
Make a weekly time schedule and write out when you want your gym time, laundry time, sleep time, etc. scheduled. Try to schedule it so you go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each day (even on weekends!). Make sure you have time planned to take care of all your human needs – showering, cleaning, grocery shopping, meal prep, etc. Make sure to plan time to meet your responsibilities so you don’t feel like you’re failing at something. If there’s not enough time in the 168 hours in the week, you’re going to have to let something go – hopefully, something that drains you, rather than energizes you.
If you want to think more about the ways in which you spend your energy, rather than your time – make a pie chart! Cut out a circle (or use a paper plate) and divide it up with the amount of energy you expend on your responsibilities now. For example, if you spend a lot of energy worrying about work – it gets a bigger slice of the pie; if you love work and leave it feeling energized – it gets a smaller slice of the pie. Then on the other side, divide the circle into the ways you ideally want to expend your energy. From there, start thinking about how you might change your schedule or your focus in order to become better aligned with your ideal pie.
2. Make it count
What are your hobbies? What makes you feel more centered and calm? How do you have fun? Sit down and really think about it. I’m guessing you spend plenty of time on social media, but is that really making you feel better? Figuring out how to spend your (limited) time is important. Develop a list of activities you can do on your own and with others. You need some activities you can do without planning and others, like vacations, that you get to anticipate with excitement, but can’t do on the fly.
I have had to examine my friends and social group, too. At times I found myself spending time with friends who were draining or not very fun just because they were available. But I have limited social time. So I’ve had to be thoughtful about whom I spend time with and what I do with those friends. I’ve said goodbye to sitting around watching movies and hello to going to art events and local breweries with friends I might not get to see very often, but who make me feel more like myself. Think about with whom you are spending your time. Do they make you feel tired or energized? Do they encourage you to be your best self or bring out the worst in you?
3. Reset and reevaluate your priorities
Where are you on your list of priorities? 1st? 47th? Didn’t even make the list?
I tell my clients that being selfish is NOT a bad thing. It can be a healthy choice. We have this negative connotation of selfishness because it is often thought about as a way of taking from someone else or not giving to others. When you prioritize yourself and become a little selfish, you can actually start to give more to others because you are no longer forgetting about yourself.
You will need to reevaluate your priorities regularly. If your big goal is to come more fit and active, working out and meal planning might be a big part of your focus for a time. But if your mom gets sick, family and taking care of her might become your #1 priority for a time and you might not get to the gym as often while you’re needed elsewhere. And that is okay. You’ll need to reevaluate your priorities when the crisis has passed and made sure you’re working towards goals you set for yourself.
4. No. Is a complete sentence.
And it enables you to say “YES!” to the commitments you really care about. Often we end up over-committed with our time and energy spread too thin for us to be really successful. Saying “no” to a new project can feel like you are disappointing someone or missing out on an opportunity. But if you can’t give a new project the time and attention it needs, you end up disappointing someone (or yourself) in trying to fit it into your schedule. Saying “no” allows the person asking you to find someone who can say “yes” effectively. Knowing your priorities enables you to say “yes” to opportunities important to you and keep other people from setting your goals and priorities for you.
5. Practice self-compassion
You are going to mess up. That amazing plan for self-care? You’ll forget about it at some point. Forgive yourself and move forward. It’s easy to get caught in guilt or shame and give up. You wouldn’t be mad at any one else for not going to the gym every day, so why be mad at yourself? The most important relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself. The hard work is in continuing to love you even when you make a mistake – and then get restarted. If your initial plan fell apart, reevaluate it by looking at your priorities and needs again. Go back to the beginning and make sure you are checking in with yourself and your feelings and needs.