Your full-time job calls for 40 hours a week but you find yourself working 50-60. A few days each week, you catch yourself eating what is cheapest or nearest to save time and energy. You skip your workout to meet an upcoming deadline. You realize it’s early November and you don’t know how time is passing so quickly.
Professional environments and contemporary culture, particularly in fast-paced urban areas, encourage us to work harder, better, faster, and stronger, often to the detriment of our health and wellbeing.
We assume we are superior to our inanimate tools like cars and machines by overriding our internal cues for resources. However, like the tools around us, the better we are maintained, the better we perform.
I imagine the above comes as no surprise. You may be very interested in integrating more self-care into your routine but are struggling to put ideas to practice.
The following 7 tips will help you initiate and maintain a routine.
1. Listen to the cues
Our physical and mental experiences are interdependent. Your body may be sending you messages about your stress level that indicate you are in need of more self-care.
Some signs include, but are not limited to:
- You have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- You feel fatigued most of the day
- Your appetite is much more intense or much less intense than usual
- You experience either constipation or diarrhea
- Your thoughts race or blur, making it difficult to focus
- You feel irritable or snap easily at co-workers, peers, or strangers
- You feel more impatient than usual
- You feel more nervous than usual, leading to increases in habits like biting your nails, tapping your pen or feet during meetings, or fidgeting
- You smoke, drink, or engage in other substance use more than usual
- You isolate or socialize significantly more or less than usual
- You begin feeling less interested in your daily activities, or wonder what is the point?
Some of these signs are more obvious than others. The first step is to objectively notice how you are feeling or behaving, how intense those feelings or behaviors are, and how often they occur.
Once you become more familiar with noticing these sensations, you may want to create a journal or use an app to track what you are feeling, thinking, and doing. Check out Refinery29’s suggestions for anxiety tracking apps. If you are more interested in tracking your sleep, eating habits, exercise, or other metric, a quick Google search can help you find the mobile tools for your needs.
By following the next two steps, you will create more opportunities to hear and listen to your particular body’s signs on your own.
2. Set aside 10 minutes in the morning
If we are not careful, we can miss what our body is telling us.
Mindfulness can help us hear and understand. Mindfulness is proven to lower stress, increase self-awareness, increase body awareness, improve performance, protect against mental illness, increase focus, improve emotional processing, help regulate emotion, increase compassion, decrease feelings of loneliness, improve sleep, and more.
With practices like meditation and mindfulness, consistency is key. Studies show that 10-15 minutes of mindfulness practice a day will lead to results.
I recommend setting time aside first thing in the morning. This is the time of day you have the most control over. Some people prefer meditating at night, or with a group at a particular time during the week. The time of day matters much less than regular practice.
I meditate first thing in the morning. I set my alarm for 15-20 minutes earlier than I know I need to prepare for the day. I do not check my email or my social accounts. I wake up, turn off my alarm, open Insight Timer (some people prefer Headspace), and meditate for 15 minutes. I then proceed with the rest of my day.
Note: You do not need an app or other materials to meditate. You only need yourself, a relatively comfortable seated position, and a relatively quiet, private space where you will not be externally prompted or disturbed.
You also do not need to be an experienced meditator. Apps like Insight Timer and Headspace provide guided meditations to ease you into the practice. Written and audio resources and in-person meditation groups may also guide you in the beginning of your practice.
Gradually, you will be able to practice independently of guides and tools. This practice will strengthen the communication between your body and your mind. Accordingly, over time, you will be more aware more quickly of the messages (like in Tip 1) that your body may send you about its needs before the needs become emergencies.
3. Invest in yourself
Sometimes, you need an external influence to help facilitate your self-care. The best approach to self-care is to initiate your practices and routines from a place of strength and stability to proactively prevent crisis.
A good therapist will help you familiarize with the internal roots and workings of your thoughts and behaviors. You will recognize patterns in yourself and better anticipate how your past and present impact you now and in your future. Therapy is not intended to eradicate all sadness or a full range of emotions. Rather, you will build the skills to observe, weather, and accept any storm.
If you are interested in therapy, based in the NY area, and looking for help in finding the right therapist for you, my team at My Wellbeing is happy to help.
If therapy is not your self-care method of choice, perhaps you would benefit from a personal trainer, a dietician, or a coach. As I mentioned in Tip 2, consistency is key. Devote a specific time and place weekly to check in with yourself and assess how you are doing and why.
4. Treat 2-3 workouts a week like work meetings
Regular exercise has been shown to improve your mood and decrease feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress, increase the production of endorphins, assist with weight loss and maintenance, strengthen your muscles and bones, increase your energy levels, reduce risk of chronic disease, improve skin health, improve brain health and memory, improve sleep quality and relaxation, reduce pain, promote a better sex life, and more.
Making time for exercise can feel next to impossible some days.
I recommend finding a time in your schedule that you do not regularly have other conflicts. Say you meet with your supervisor on Tuesday evenings, your co-workers usually go out together on Thursdays, and your friends tend to gather on Friday nights. Commit an hour on Monday and Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon to do something active.
Put recurring events in your calendar. Treat appointments with yourself like work meetings. Incentivize your following through (for example, treat yourself to a smoothie after your workout, or put $5 toward the shoes you are eyeing every time you go to the gym).
5. Cook healthy meals in advance
Greatist outlines 45 surprising benefits of exercising and eating healthy. Among the many, eating well can brighten your mood, protect your bones, strengthen your fertility and immune system, boost your cognitive capacity, improve your skin health, heighten your sex drive, reduce insomnia, soothe sore muscles, give you energy, and reduce your cravings for unhealthy food.
Like working out, finding the time and budget for eating well can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Counterintuitively, eating well can save you time and money.
I recommend preparing a week’s-worth of healthy food at the onset of your week that you can easily reheat at work for lunch or after work for dinner. You can store a majority of this food in your freezer so that it will not spoil. While this may take a few hours upfront, you will eliminate the time barrier for the rest of your week, making eating healthy as easy as grabbing a pastry at the Starbucks downstairs.
Below are 5 healthy recipes from Eating Well you can try:
- Chickpea Curry
- Seared Salmon with Pesto Fettuccine
- Beet & Shrimp Winter Salad
- Chicken & Spiced Apples
- Mozzarella, Basil and Zucchini Frittata
One simple staple of mine is to make a week’s-worth of brown rice and steamed vegetables. I vary my vegetables week by week, depending on what I am in the mood for and what looks good in the produce section of the grocery store or market. I generally season the vegetables with garlic, salt and pepper, and a variety of other spices (not a very scientific recipe). I complement the vegetables with poached eggs, grilled chicken, grilled salmon, or grilled white fish. If I want to go meat-free, I use beans as the primary protein and top with chopped almonds. You can add extra flare with cheese or avocado.
I store 70% of this food in my freezer and prepare 1-3 meals-worth in mason jars or tupperware in my fridge to take with me for lunch for the week.
This saves you time by avoiding long lines and indecision at lunch time. You can use your extra time to connect with a co-worker, eat or take a walk outside, or chip away at the deadline you want to meet.
This saves you money by preparing healthy meals with groceries ahead of time that overall cost less than eating out. The amount you invest in the ingredients of each meal is up to you. You can use your saved money to reward yourself for following through, add an ingredient to your pre-prepared meals that is a little more expensive than usual, or save toward any other goal or investment.
6. Commit to something that brings you joy
Most self-improvement suggestions require an investment of hard work and money. This time, I recommend you commit regularly to something that makes you feel good.
Joy and laughter are medicinal. Medical Daily shares that laughter increases serotonin and endorphins in the brain, replenishes the lungs, relaxes muscles and eases tension in the body, reduces stress hormones in the body, protects the heart, strengthens the immune system, and functions similarly to a really good workout.
Laughter also relieves everyday worry and stress, adds positivity and resilience to life, improved overall happiness and mood, and helps ease worry, anxiety, and fear.
Your go-to joy may be Seinfeld reruns, playing with your dog, going on a date with your partner, catching up with a friend, or listening to music. Whatever it is, counter to what popular culture and professional environments encourage you to believe, investing in joy is not a waste of time. Ensure you have at least 30 minutes of joy on your calendar every week. Work up to at least 30 minutes a day.
7. Try and try again — with patience.
You may not yet know what stress management tools work best for you.
Humans are unique. What works for one does not always work for another. Often, variations to the mold are in store. Moreover, breaking old habits and creating new ones is often harder than we first think.
On average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit. Using the guidance above, choose one change you would like to commit to. Plan to implement that change for 10 weeks. After the 10 weeks, evaluate whether the tactic resonates with you.
Leaning on objective third parties and support systems is helpful during this time. A trusted friend, therapist, or coach can make all the difference in evaluating change, processing your learnings, and holding yourself accountable.
You may find the habit is so natural you have no desire to return to how you were doing things before. Or, you may find the new habit is harder than you realized or does not resonate with you. You may supplement the first choice with an additional shift or try something else entirely.
Throughout the growth process, practice patience with yourself. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are even harder to create. Change is challenging. Moments of joy and celebration may come with moments of frustration or doubt.
Do your best to accept the ride and trust that over time, you will come to better understand your unique set of experiences and needs.
Prioritizing time for self-care in a busy work week is a worthwhile challenge. By following these tips, you’ll be able to focus on your wellbeing and set yourself up for personal and professional success.
Keep in touch
Have a question or a suggestion for maintaining self-care during a busy work week that I did not mention? Leave a comment below, connect with me (@apetersel) or My Wellbeing (Facebook and Instagram: @mywellbeingtherapy and Twitter @findmywellbeing) on social, or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to connecting with you soon!