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Why Intentional Self-Care is Important and How to Make it Happen

Two blue chairs sitting on sandy beach looking over body of water.

Let’s admit it. Some of us think self-care is optional. We think it’s what we can do if we get everything else done. But that line of thinking is a set-up for burnout. You’ve surely heard the expression, put your oxygen mask on first before you help someone else. Great idea, but that won’t magically happen. How, exactly, can you become more intentional about your own self-care?

Reframe what self-care is

If someone asked you to define self-care in one word, what would you say? And what if you were allowed to choose from only two words: “indulgence” or “discipline”?  

Given those two choices, I suspect that most of us would say “indulgence.”

It must be an indulgence, right? Otherwise, why would we delay self-care, or give it a low priority (or maybe no priority) on our weekly calendar, or consider it, um, you know, optional. You might even think it’s something you don’t deserve.

In her 2017 Forbes article, Tami Forman insists that “The way self-care is portrayed today is completely and utterly backward.” She argues that self-care is usually thought of as an indulgence, but it’s actually a discipline that requires “tough-mindedness, a sense of priorities, and a deep respect for yourself.”

The idea of intentional self-care, really, is to create a better body, mind, and soul for yourself. It’s not about luxuriating just for the fun of it.

Use categories to jump-start your self-care

Most of us have a very narrow view of what constitutes self-care. If I’ve had a massage or a pedicure, I assume I’ve done self-care. That’s true, I have! But self-care is much more than that.

I’m a long-time user of (and now a coach for) the Full Focus Planner. Each week, the planner outlines 5 different categories of self-care and provides a space where we can write possible activities for ourselves. Using those categories, I’ve generated a few examples of intentional self-care for you.

Sleep

Sleep is more than the absence of activity. Many restorative functions happen when we sleep. And we should all understand how sleep affects productivity.

Here are some ideas for how to improve your sleep.

  • Start with some easy stuff. Plan to go to bed at least 15 minutes earlier than usual. Use a sleep mask to block out the light. Try using an app like Calm to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Resist using your electronic devices. They emit blue light that interferes with melatonin, which influences sleep.
  • In the morning, refrain from hitting the snooze button; it’s a form of procrastination.

Eat  

Is eating related to goal achievement and productivity? Well, maybe! Some foods make us more lethargic. Overeating or eating refined sugar can create big swings in the body’s glucose levels, and hence, it can affect our concentration. Here are a few ideas:

  • Set up an accountability system to track your intake in relation to your body’s calorie range
  • Have a meatless meal at least once this week
  • Create a system to eat at least 5 fruits and vegetables each day
  • Check out this new gizmo that claims it will hack your metabolism. I haven’t tried it, but I’m curious!

Move

Seriously. Do we need any more science or any more public health directives to convince us that moving is important?

In the true spirit of James Clear’s book Atomic Habits and Stephen Guise’s book Mini Habits, I would discourage you from starting by saying you’ll run 3 miles each day if you haven’t been off the couch in decades. Try starting with just some simple things.

  • Take a walk every day when the weather is fair. (Later, go on a cold day. A few blasts of cold may be good for us. (Studies by Nadkarni and colleagues and Buijze and colleagues shed some light on depression, wellness, and possibly productivity.)
  • On days when the weather is too foul for your taste, run up and down the stairs 12 times.
  • Do stretching exercises. That’s something we don’t talk about very much. Check out the scientifically-documented benefits of stretching. I have a colleague who loves to do TRX stretching.

Connect

Psychiatrist Dr. Jim Dhrymes insists that humans are not meant to be alone. Certainly, in the recent past with the Covid-related restrictions, we’ve all realized how important it is to be with one another.

Even before Covid, however, we’d put off connecting with family and friends. Schedule time to connect with others. Don’t leave it to chance. It’s a vital part of self-care.

We don’t usually think of “family” as synonymous with “prayer,” but in some ways, it is! If you are connecting with a higher spiritual being, your empowered self, or communing with nature, you’re “connecting” and that’s part of self-care.

A study by Michael Mrazek and colleagues showed that mindfulness training can improve cognitive function in as little as 2 weeks.

Relax

Most of us know some simple activities to reduce stress and promote relaxation. In Psychology Today, Barbara Markway, Ph.D., suggests activities such as aromatherapy, or massage “encourage you to zone in on your senses.”

Consider taking up a new hobby or reviving an old hobby. A while ago, a friend of mine who was approaching retirement encouraged me and others to focus on a hobby. Someone asked him, “How can you find a hobby if you don’t have one?’

He suggested recalling and reviving a hobby you liked to do as a kid. (Had had already decided to take up guitar lessons again.)

Here’s one for you! It’s often tough, but man, it works! This is perhaps the most effective form of self-care. Just say “no” to one more request from someone, even a family member. It might save you hours of stress! 

Commit to doing intentional self-care on a regular basis

You might not want to go to the gym 7 days a week. But can you commit to going to the gym 3 times a week? Regularity is important.

Doing self-care when you are already exhausted, spent, and at your wit’s end doesn’t work. You wouldn’t wait to weed and care for your garden until weeds strangled the vegetables, right? Right. Because then it would be too late. Same idea here.

Don’t confuse productivity with getting more stuff done. The never-ending hustle is a huge fallacy.

Value self-care and find a way to make it happen on a regular basis.

How do you build in time for intentional self-care? What are your favorite methods of self-care?

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2 Comments

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Eleanor, thank you! Yes, it can reach more people. Forward it to your friends and colleagues, please!

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