First, Understand What Is Self-Care and What Isn’t
“The way I define self-care is the intentional, proactive pursuit of integrated wellness that balances mind, body, and spirit personally and professionally,” says Paula Gill Lopez, PhD, an associate professor and the chair of the department of psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
It’s about more than taking care of your physical health. “Just eating healthy isn’t enough anymore,” Patel says. “Things are moving so fast around us that we need space to self-care and slow down to rest from all the busyness in our lives.”
And just because a behavior is “good for you” doesn’t make it self-care, explains Brighid Courtney, of Boston, a client leader at the wellness technology company Wellable and a faculty member at the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA). You need to get some sense of gratification out of it for it to be self-care, she says. “Although activities such as running or meditating may be good for your overall health and well-being, if you hate them, then they are not considered self-care.” (If you do find those activities energizing and fulfilling, however, they are potential self-care practices.)
A 5-Step Approach for Creating (and Getting Into) a Self-Care Routine
Follow these five steps to adopt a sustainable self-care practice.
- Find what makes you feel centered. Gill Lopez, who leads self-care workshops for students, professional groups, and community groups, says she exposes participants to different types of self-care because one size doesn’t fit all. “I go through all different kinds of things that might appeal to people in hopes that they'll find something they can do on a regular basis,” Gill Lopez says. Start by writing down as many things as you can think of that bring you joy, whether it’s the color purple, receiving back rubs, springtime, certain smells, or essential oils.
- Brainstorm how you can incorporate those things into your daily life. It could be in the background (such as filling your space with the colors and smells you enjoy) or it could take up a more prominent space in your daily routine (such as designating a set amount of time for a certain activity), Gill Lopez says. Starting small may make the habit easier to get into. “Pick one behavior that you would like to make part of your routine for the next week,” Courtney says.
- Set goals for incorporating self-care behaviors every day. Once you decide what self-care practices you’d like to incorporate into your life, come up with goals for how often and when. Make your goal realistic and measurable, Gill Lopez writes in a 2017 article published in National Association of School Psychologists Communique. (1) For instance, if you’re trying to unplug from electronic devices in order to be more present, start with a short amount of time, like 20 minutes during dinner. When you successfully stick to that for a week, you can set a more challenging goal.
- After seven days, evaluate. Once you’ve completed a seven-day streak, Courtney says to reflect on how you’re feeling and note any positive benefits. “Use this as fuel to maintain the behavior throughout the month,” she says.
- Adjust and tweak your approach as you go. It’s okay if there are bumps along the way. “We're talking about a practice, we're talking about trial and error, and we're also talking about our needs changing over time,” says Ellen K. Baker, PhD, a psychologist based in Washington, DC. “What might be self-care in one period might be less so in another period.”
Some examples of easy-to-adopt self-care practices include: reading a book to your toddler (or yourself) every night; taking a 10-minute walk outside; going to sleep earlier; powering down your devices in the evening; cooking with more nutritious ingredients; and surrounding yourself with things that make you happy.