When I begin working with women leaders, one of the first questions I ask is about their self-care routine. The typical answer I hear goes something like this….
Self-care? Sigh…I have such a hard time sticking to an exercise/eating/mediation/gratitude routine. I know it would make me feel better, but it’s just too hard when I’m so busy. Every waking moment goes to taking care of my family or my team or my community obligations. Lunch usually means grabbing a granola bar between meetings and a typical dinner is picking the leftover scraps off of my kids’ plates. I’m lucky if I can manage five minutes to myself in a day and more than five hours of sleep, never mind find time to exercise. I wish I could, but there’s simply no time for me.
Meanwhile, all the constant running around is leaving them rundown, uninspired and burned out. Their days are over-scheduled with obligations focused on everyone and everything but themselves. And despite all of this effort, their work performance is lack-luster, they aren’t showing up as the leader they want to be, and they don’t feel like they are killing it at home either.
I get it. This also used to be me. A number of years ago, I found myself near a physical and mental breakdown, pushed to the brink by a hectic work schedule. From the time my alarm went off in the morning until the time my head hit the pillow, I felt like I was constantly sprinting, yet not getting great results. One night after returning from a business trip where I delivered a pretty uninspiring presentation to our company’s senior leadership team, I broke down in a crying jag that left me dehydrated and depleted. Once I finally picked myself up off of the bathroom floor, I looked at my haggard face in the mirror and realized that something desperately needed to change.
I decided that I couldn’t keep operating on empty, feeling exhausted and resentful. I needed to find a way to fuel my spirit and recharge my energy. So I set a minimum standard of self care – the absolute minimum personal requirements I needed to give me enough energy to get through the day. I had let my beloved running routine slip over the previous year, so I made it a priority start my day with 20 minutes of physical movement, and follow that up with a healthy breakfast. Every day, no exceptions. And after a while I began to notice a shift. This self-care practice had a compound effect, and I starting to take care of myself in other ways – upgrading my sleep habits, beginning a journaling practice, and making more healthful food choices throughout the day. And as I started to feel better, my results also improved. I found I was achieving more throughout the day with the same or less effort, I was able to show up as a better leader for my team, and I was generally feeling more positive about my life.
My self-care routine has evolved over the years, and it ebbs and flows based on what is going on in my life and what I most need. But no matter what, I now make caring for myself my first priority because I know that when I take great care of myself, I have more energy and produce more output.
And you can too.
You deserve more than scraps.
You, with all of your amazing and unique talents, are your most valuable asset. But like any asset, you will wear out and break down more quickly if treated poorly. Take a moment to think about how you are caring for yourself. Are you treating yourself like economy class, cramming yourself into the middle seat with just a tiny bag of peanuts? Or are you upgrading your self-care to first class complete with the champagne toast, all the extra leg room and chef-inspired meal?
How you treat yourself is directly tied to the results you create. In order to take the lead in your career and in your life, you need to treat yourself like your most valuable asset. Now, this is hard to internalize because it goes against our social programming. We are raised to believe that we should sacrifice what we want and put others’ needs before our own. This message is especially pronounced for women. From the time we are little, we are told that our job is to take care of others and be pleasing, that it is selfish to take care of ourselves first. And this is a direct hit to our sense of worthiness, we learn to derive our value from what we do for others. But the opposite is true. When you treat yourself with care and respect, you will be better able to care for and give more to others. You will show up as a better leader and improve your performance in all areas of your life.
There is no one perfect way to practice self-care. The important thing is to find those activities that fill you up, generate energy and enable you to lead and function at your best. Here are five areas to assess and see where you have opportunities to upgrade how you are caring for yourself:
- What You Eat. We’ve all heard forever “you are what you eat”. The food you put in your body will determine your energy reserves. You are like a high-performance car – when you fuel up with premium gasoline you get better performance. So although that sleeve of Pringles may taste great going down, it is not going to sustain you with the energy you need to kick butt throughout your day. Notice which foods fuel you up, give you energy and feel good in your body, then make it a priority to eat those most of the time.
- How You Move. Slumping over your desk, spending countless hours on Zoom, and “running” from meeting to meeting without leaving your chair, all take a toll on your physical health. If you are working from home these days, the long commute from the living room to the kitchen doesn’t give you much opportunity to break a sweat. Exercise has countless physical and mental benefits. Just 20 minutes of movement a day improves emotional wellbeing, memory function and reduces anxiety and depression. So go find something you enjoy – take a virtual dance class, go for a walk or jog outside in nature, practice yoga – just get that body moving!
- What You Wear. The clothes you put on your body send signals to your brain about who you are and how you should act when wearing them. There’s a scientific term for this called “enclothed cognition” which means that our clothing actually impacts how we think. If you are just throwing on a ratty old t-shirt from the floor or a pair of outdated, ill-fitting jeans, you are sending yourself the message that you aren’t deserving of care. When you choose clothing that fits well, fabrics that feel good against your skin, colors that make you feel energized, you are priming your brain to see yourself positively. When you care for what you put on your body, you are more likely to treat yourself with respect in other aspects of your life.
- What You Think. How you talk to yourself matters. If you eavesdrop on yourself, what do you hear? Are you thinking productive, positive thoughts that are serving you, or is your inner mean girl on overdrive? The thoughts you tell yourself are the results you will create in your work and in your life. You may not be able to control the first thought that pops into your head, but you can always choose the second one. Make it a practice to observe how you are thinking, and consciously to talk to yourself like someone who takes exceptional care of herself. Journaling and meditation are two great ways to begin to observe and manage your thoughts.
- How You Structure Your Day. Set your own agenda and carve out time for yourself first. Even if it is only 20 minutes, it is critical that you schedule this time and commit to sticking to it. I highly recommend creating an energizing morning routine that sets you up for success. Rather than reach for your phone and start scrolling through anxiety-producing work emails before your feet hit the floor, leave the phone off and sit down and journal quietly with a cup of coffee. Or go for a run and get your endorphins flowing. Find little blocks of time throughout your day to check in with yourself and see what you need to keep your energy high. Cultivate a soothing evening routine that helps you to reflect and wind down from your day.
There is no one-size-fits-all for self-care. What matters is that you prioritize and practice it. Start by setting your minimum standard. Pick one small thing you can commit to and don’t skip it – no matter what. Over time, this will have a compound effect on your work and your life. Remember, you are your most valuable asset. By improving the way you treat yourself, you will have more focus and energy to lead others and make the impact you want to make in the world.