“Self-care” doesn’t mean scented candles.
19 April 2022
Leaders often pride themselves with being tough, hard-working and willing to go the extra mile, and that is often true. We are very familiar with everyone spending late nights and early mornings, sacrificing and taking on extra responsibilities.
But what place does taking care of oneself have in our work culture?
To work well, to learn and expand our capabilities (never mind having a shot at being happy), we need to rest, disconnect, and consistently spend time away from work that is different and separate from the office. This idea is not anecdotal, it’s proven.
But the idea of “self care” is unpopular in American work culture (among others) – it evokes scented candles, bubble baths, junk food and “just laying on the beach.” Most leaders reject this kind of behavior because it doesn’t fit the stereotype and especially since it’s not rewarded or encouraged. How often do we hear, “She never answers her phone or email after 5:00, she’s an amazing asset to the team?”
That’s right, never.
However we regularly hear praise and support for working long hours, answering emails at any hour, eating at our desk, making Zoom calls during our PTO, carrying our work phone during our kids’ games – the list is truly endless as it is insidious.
You know what else we don’t hear? We don’t hear about the connection between the lack of self-care and high blood pressure, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, mental health, failed relationships, burnout and performance. That’s right, you perform better at work when you take care of yourself.
So how can you take care of yourself and avoid the scented candles and bubble bath?
- Consciously decide: The first step in taking care of yourself is making the decision to do so. While that may sound so obvious that it’s unhelpful, we must be aware that we are making changes to our behavior in order to achieve some goal. Our target is an absence of negative effects from overwork, and an ability to engage and enjoy being alive. Remember that.
- Disconnect regularly: Why don’t elite-level weightlifters lift weights continuously, all day, every day? Why don’t writers like Stephen King write every moment that they are awake? It is because being alive and healthy is a balance between effort and rest, just as the day is part light and part dark. We grow and adapt from stimulus when we aren’t experiencing the stimulus itself. If you don’t have that time, you don’t grow.So disconnect from the stimulus of work – regularly during the day for small breaks, every night, and for days during the week. Consider making a digital sabbath a regular part of your weekly rhythm.
- Reduce Inputs: Last night when we were recording our podcast Driving Leadership, co-host Shaun Peet had a great way to describe rest – “reduce your inputs.” This is an incredible way for us to measure how we define time off. Instead of messages, email, to-do lists, meetings, calls, people stopping at your desk, and stacks of paper, what if your inputs for a day were just the sounds of the forest?Measure your days off in terms of how many inputs you allow yourself to experience.
- Set boundaries – and then keep them: Overwork is normalized today, and being “so busy” is usually a badge of honor instead of a confession of poor time management. It’s a fallacy that being a productive team player means never saying “no.” So start saying it by being realistic about your capacity and your health when you answer queries about taking on more responsibility or an additional project.Also consider the height and strength of the walls that determine your boundaries. Do you answer a work call when you’re engrossed in a woodworking project? Do your kids take it for granted that when _______ calls you “just have to take this for a minute”? The exceptions to the line that you draw are – in reality – very, very rare.
- Examine your load: It’s common that we write down everything we eat and drink for a week before we start a new diet, so we get a baseline of what we are really doing. Do the same thing for your time and levels of stress, and spend a week writing down in an eyes-only notebook or digital file everything that you did.Everything.Your commute, the phone calls, sorting the problem on your website, the unexpected problem, time figuring out someone else’s Excel file, and time on social media. Everything.Look at your week. Would you make someone who you loved and were responsible for do all those things? If so, carry on. If not, start to figure out how to make changes, and even small changes help.
- Commit to something else: Normalized overwork and the absence of social support a balanced life makes engaging in life outside of work seem frivolous if not difficult. (”Yes, I went to the islands for a week, but I haven’t taken time off in three years.”)So it might not feel comfortable or easy at first, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t follow your interests and be healthier. What counts as “something else”? I have no idea what that is for you, but you do.I can tell you what it’s not though: social media, passive watching the screen (yes, even documentaries), or working on skills that are related to, well, work. What interested you as a kid? What does your YouTube video history look like? What would your best friend or spouse say? Follow those – there is no success or failure, there is no test, and there’s no reason to rationalize whatever it is that you decide to do. But do it.
Leadership is hard work, and the energy it takes is unpredictable. Please give yourself what you need – the care that you need – to be successful for the people that you serve.
And if taking a bubble bath with scented candles is your thing, feel free to add that in to your time away from work. (Maybe don’t tell anyone except your closest friends though.)
We discuss Burnout and what to do about it during this Driving Leadership Podcast episode.
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