For so many of us, the idea of prioritizing our own needs can seem completely at odds with our instincts. We think it’s “selfish” or “self-indulgent” to put ourselves at the top of our priority list, so we don’t. The mistake we make is not realizing that when we ignore our needs and allow ourselves to be depleted to the point or exhaustion or burnout, everybody loses. Our friends, our family members, and our co-workers — everyone we’re putting first — don’t get the best of us. And neither do we.
There was a long period of time when I wasn’t making myself a priority, even though I couldn’t see it at the time. I held onto these ideas, like the mistaken belief that if I went to the gym regularly, it didn’t matter how much sleep I was getting (so I often didn’t get very much). The lack of self-care often made me tired and irritable, but other people in my life noticed that something was wrong before I did. They’d say things like, “You don’t seem like yourself; is everything OK?” But it felt like a failure to admit I wasn’t — until things got so bad that I had no choice but to face the reality, and start prioritizing myself.
Today I know that self-care should be everyone’s number one priority. Regardless of who you are or what’s going on in your life — from a high-powered job to stressful responsibilities at home — if you put everything else first, you are sub-optimizing yourself and everything you do. As the Chief Well-being Officer at Deloitte, I drive the strategy and innovation around life-work, health, and wellness to empower Deloitte’s people to be well in all aspects of their lives. And I encourage my peers, my team, and anyone who will listen to prioritize themselves regularly.
I know as well as anyone else: It’s not always easy. But living this way can change your life and give you the energy you need to show up for whatever matters most to you. Perhaps some of these tips that I’ve relied on myself will help you bring more self-care into your own life.
Ask yourself what you really need in the moment
A lot of us think that self-care has to look a certain way all the time. But depending on what’s going on in your life, self-care can take many different forms. Sometimes, yes, it might be going to the gym. For me, the gym is my sanctuary. It’s the place I go where I disconnect. But other times the most restorative thing you can do might be to sit quietly on the couch — no devices, no distractions, no doing, period. At home, my husband just bought me an amazing hammock for our balcony. When the weather is warm, I can go out there and spend time alone, sitting in reflection. It’s refreshing and renewing. I also make time to be with friends, where I can laugh and relax and have a good time.
Take a snowball approach
The biggest excuse for lack of self-care I hear is, “I don’t have enough time.” But you do. Try the snowball method: Start with one tiny action and build from there. Thrive calls this the Microstep approach — based on the fact that small, incremental, science-backed actions have both immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way we live our lives. Deep breathing for even 30 or 60 seconds, for instance, can help you find a calmer, more centered place. And all it takes is a few minutes to reap the benefits of time spent in nature — which research shows can have a positive effect on both mental and physical well-being. Why not start with a three-minute walk, then work up to five, or 15 — whatever your schedule allows?
Make it a daily habit
The phrase “self-care” has become a bit of a buzzword. People indulge in Self-care Sundays and Wine Wednesdays, or boast about their Self-care Vacations. These ideas aren’t necessarily bad, but here’s the thing: Self-care shouldn’t be an escape from a long week or exhausting month — it’s not where we go when we are completely burned out or exhausted. The truth is, when practiced regularly, self-care prevents you from having to escape life at all. It’s the little decisions and actions we make on a daily basis — like what time we go to bed and what we do in the hours after work — that allow us to feel well, be present, and show up for the things that matter in our lives rested and restored.
Put it on the calendar
A few years back, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I had no choice but to make self-care a priority. I was really diligent about acupuncture appointments, taking afternoon naps, doing the things that helped me feel better during that time in my life. I scheduled these things, put them on my calendar, and told people about it. Because I respected and honored these commitments, everyone else did, too. Once you start scheduling non-negotiable appointments (even with yourself!) for self-care, you may notice what I did: Other people aren’t the reason we don’t take care of ourselves, it’s us.
Say you planned to go to the gym, or take a few minutes to meditate or go for a walk — but for whatever reason, self-care didn’t happen. Instead of beating yourself up about it, or convincing yourself it’s never going to work, having self-compassion can motivate you to forgive yourself and simply try again tomorrow — no judgments or guilt trip required. In fact, research has found that having self-compassion promotes a ripple effect of healthy behaviors including good eating habits, exercise, sleep behaviors, and better stress management.
Let the benefits of self-care inspire you
It’s hard to deny that “putting my own oxygen mask first” (to use that often-repeated airplane analogy) puts me in a better position to help others in personal and professional life, and be present for their needs, too. Self-care gives me the capacity to be more empathetic and increases my willingness to truly understand what’s going on in the lives of people I care about. My work productivity has improved as well: When I do things that make me feel my best, it comes through not only in the work I produce, but also in the way I interact with and lead others. I have more patience and a heightened ability to think clearly and solve complex problems. On the other hand, when my husband observes I’m “not listening to understand, but listening to respond” — that’s when I realize I haven’t been as diligent about doing things for myself that I know make a positive impact.
Own your priorities
As a leader and a colleague, I am very open about what I do to prioritize myself. I share my strategies and I’m transparent about my workout schedule, doctor’s appointments, or any family obligations I have. I think being open about those things humanizes you, and also gives everyone else a sense of comfort and permission to do the same. I encourage others to take the time they need to do things that are important to them. If people come to me in search of advice, I’ll even offer to send check-in messages to help hold them accountable.
As leaders — in our families, our communities, and our workplaces — we can recognize the impact that our openness has on our people. What’s more, in doing this, we give others permission to take care of themselves, which comes with ample rewards for individuals and organizations.