It took me a year and a half to realize I’ve been doing self-care wrong. It’s taken me another three months (and counting) to figure out how to do it better.
I used to be on a self-care cycle that went like this:
- Get stretched too thin with responsibilities
- Make not so great choices
- Feel burnt out
- Do a few things for myself (i.e., self-care)
- Go back to doing what I’ve always done
Self-care isn’t always quiet and comfort. It isn’t always taking a break or pampering yourself. It is, however, taking care of yourself, every day, so that you have the practices in place to prevent burnout from happening. Or, you know, cushioning the blow of high-stress times, because we will always have those. (Unfortunately.)
But also? Taking care of yourself every day is hard. Like, really hard. Sometimes it feels selfish. (Saying no.) Sometimes it feels like a chore. (Cooking food.) Other times, it’s near impossible to put the phone or electronic device down and walk out the door.
We live in a culture that prizes busy-ness. We stuff our brains with information and facts, spending far too much time on social media. We fill our time with activities and things and stuff.
I started to wonder how a year had come and gone, and no matter which writing hack I tried to get myself going, I ended up watching Netflix. I went from writing 30 minutes every weekday morning to writing nothing at all, for long stretches of time. I did my fair share of self-care activities: I took Epsom salt baths, I gave myself “nights off” and the freedom to avoid my responsibilities. I devoured entire bags of chips because I’d had a rough day, and dammit, didn’t I deserve it?
The thing is, taking care of yourself isn’t a once-and-done sort of practice. “Talk a walk” or “Get outside” or “Try something new” all appear as self-care ideas on Pinterest. They’re not bad ideas.
But they’re not habits, either. And that’s rub. If you don’t address the habits leading you into burnout, you’re going to keep finding yourself there. You’ll be perpetually exhausted, feeling like you can never keep up. Simple tasks — normal “adulting” responsibilities — will feel impossible. (Don’t even get me started on doing dishes. Ugh.)
Part of the difficulty with self-care is determining what you need, every day, to properly take care of yourself. You’ve got to listen to your body, check in with your mood, and experiment until you find what works for you.
This is what has worked for me:
Make better food choices
I prepare breakfasts I can freeze and heat up in the mornings. I prepare my lunches a week at a time so I always have something to eat during the day. I’m never so great in the evening, but I’m getting there.
Just making sure I eat on a regular schedule goes a long way toward keeping me happy and healthy. But reducing the amount of sugar (and carbs) I consume also helps. When I eat crappy, I feel crappy. Food hangovers are real, and they do affect your ability to function.
On the weekends, I try to explore the world outside my house. The only goal is to leave the house. Some memorable explorations include taking my dog Scarlet to a local dog group meetup, going to a new-to-me brewery, and walking to a neighborhood festival. But sometimes venturing out simply means going to the mall or the grocery store.
Turns out, I thrive on adventures. I’m not always awesome with social situations (like the dog group meetup), but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to be social — even though I’m an introvert. Feeling like I’m part of something is essential to my self-care.
It’s terrifying how often I pick up my phone to look at . . . something. Anything. Whether it’s a fear of missing out or a crutch for boredom, my phone provides an easy way to occupy my brain.
It’s also a source of mental exhaustion and burnout.
I’m best at putting down the phone in the morning. I eat my breakfast outside on the porch (at least while the weather isn’t too cold), sans screen time. It’s amazing how eliminating the screen (both phone and computer) does a lot to ground me in reality. I still find myself mindlessly scrolling on occasion, but breaking the screen addiction goes a long way toward the daily self-care I truly need.
My dog Scarlet and I walk almost 1.5 miles every day. Having a dog helps with exercise. But one of the most beneficial habits I’ve started has nothing to do with Scarlet: nightly stretching.
Every night, before bed, I stretch. Throughout the day, my muscles get tight, and the act of stretching helps me relax and unwind. I end my routine with the corpse pose on my bed — which often results in me falling asleep while relaxing.
But sometimes? I drag myself out of bed to stretch because I’ve forgotten. Or I have to spend a few minutes convincing myself that, “Yes, Amanda, you really do have to stretch” because all I want to do is go to bed. This part isn’t easy, but it is vital. Especially if you sit all day. You’d be horrified to know how quickly you tighten up just from sitting . . .
Eight hours of sleep
Sleep is a necessary part of being healthy. My bed time? Usually before 10 p.m. during the week because that’s the only way I can get my eight hours. I function so much better with enough sleep, and it keeps me from catching every bug that goes around the office.
Shedding extra responsibilities
This? Possibly the hardest one of all. For me, it meant ending my freelance editing commitments. Editing never fulfilled me, but it didn’t occur to me that continuing to say, “Yes” to editing meant saying “No” to a lot of other things. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have the time to edit. I do. But it carried too much mental weight to focus on much else.
Using a planner
This is the latest addition to my self-care routine. I write tasks and events down. I cross tasks off when I complete them. This keeps me focused and helps me remember all that I have to do. Frankly, it makes it easier to adult when I have a list of to-dos and the specific days I plan on doing things.