There’s no denying it: we all need to take care of ourselves. Especially if, like me, you tend to subconsciously gravitate toward the American ideal of being super-busy and super-productive at all times. Somehow, we learned that life is all about hustle and hard work. It leaves the matter of self-care off the table, and the question of how to begin self-care out of our minds altogether.
Looking at self-care from this angle makes it seem like a chore. You already have a looooong list of things to do every day. Who has time to prep healthy meals for the week? Go on a two mile jog every day? Frankly, who wants to spend an hour each day without screen time?
I want you to throw out everything you think you know about self-care. At its heart, self-care is about meeting your needs, not creating new ones. It’s also not about impossible standards or tedious new routines with the vague promise of long-term payoff. So if you want learn how to begin self-care and truly start easing your burnout, read on for a five-step process for finding, and acting on, self-care goals that are actually restorative.
1. Figure out what needs you’ve been neglecting.
If you aren’t used to taking care of yourself, figuring out exactly what’s wrong could be difficult. Maybe all you know is that you feel tired, overwhelmed, and burned out. Putting your finger on why can be more complicated than you’d think.
For one thing, often what people need isn’t what they think they need. I know this from plenty of firsthand experience. Are you worn out because you truly need a job change? Or is it because you haven’t been investing enough in your relationships outside work? That’s a big question that you should preferably answer before making decisions.
Free journaling is a great way to build insight into yourself. You don’t need a fancy journal (though they always help!), just a pad of paper and pen. Start writing about how you feel, and see where it takes you. If you get stuck, consider asking yourself questions like: “When am I happiest?” “When do I feel my lowest?” “What makes my good days good, and my bad days bad?” Use a lot of specific feeling words. ‘Sad’ is a lot harder to work with than disappointed, lonely, or bored.
Consider your physical needs, too. Physical illnesses and unmet physical needs can create emotional stress, and vice versa. Have you been to the doctor lately? Are you taking your medications consistently? Been active enough? Learning how to begin self-care, for you, means doing a lot of internal reflecting.
2. Identify the barriers to meeting those needs.
This might be easier than the previous step, if you’ve done it thoroughly. Maybe the reason you haven’t met these needs is because you didn’t realize you had them! Or maybe you just didn’t realize how important they were to your wellbeing. Now that you know, is there anything else stopping you from making needed lifestyle changes? Be wary of chalking it up to things like “not enough time.” You want to take power back over your schedule, and framing it in such a way takes power away from you. Instead, think of that barrier as “how I prioritize my time.”
3. Choose what you can replace.
You can’t create more time in a day. You also can’t sacrifice sleep. That’s rule #1 of self-care: never, ever decide you’ll just get by with less sleep to practice it. You’ll eventually fail, and before you do, you’ll start resenting your new self-care habit. You’ll be tempted to quit self-care altogether instead of making reasonable adjustments.
What activities are you investing more time in than you need to? Remember that you need awake rest time, too, not just sleep. Don’t automatically start thinking of which leisure activities you might be able to do without. Think outside the box: maybe you can “multitask” and start drinking your morning coffee outside, if fresh air and nature is something you’re missing. Or do those chores at odd times, if not doing the chores is causing you stress; i.e. as soon as you get home from work or just after you wake up in the morning.
Sometimes, unfortunately, it comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. If you’re spending a significant (relative to your schedule) amount of time on leisure activities, think about how much it’s costing you to do that instead of something else. Then think about the benefits you get from spending that amount of time on leisure. Is it worth it? If not, don’t cut it out entirely. Just reduce the amount of time spent doing it.
4. Start small with 1-2 new habits
Don’t start with too many goals, because you’ll just get stressed over too much change at once. If you have a pretty packed schedule and making time for self-care is difficult, you especially need to avoid too much change at once. Start with one or two changes that seem most important, based on the work you’ve already done above. You can always add more later, but it’ll take time. It often takes several weeks, at least, to develop a new habit.
This isn’t an area to be impatient in, though. You probably want to start seeing the benefits right away, but the chances of that happening aren’t worth the risk of you quitting altogether.
5. Create accountability
There are definitely going to be times you want to skip your developing habit. It’s a slippery slope, though! There are several ways you can create accountability to make sure you follow through with your goals. Here are some ideas:
Involve another person. Ask them to check with you every day about whether you did your self-care activity.
Join a group. If your self-care goal was to exercise more, take a class (if it costs a little money, all the better) or make plans with a friend (then you have the risk of disappointing that friend).
Keep a daily checklist. But don’t stuff it away in a planner you never use. Keep that checklist on the fridge, your wall calendar, or someplace where you can see it often. A little guilt is not a bad thing here!
Because let’s face it, until you really start seeing and feeling the benefits of your new habits, your motivation is going to wax and wane. Accept that it’s normal and prepare for it now. Then, when push comes to shove, those setbacks won’t be anything more than temporary.
Have you had success building new habits? Do you have advice on how to begin self-care? I’d love to hear about it in the comments! Thanks, again, for reading.