We have all heard how important self-care is, and we know what we “should” be doing to take care of ourselves. Oftentimes, however, we don’t take care of ourselves. We focus on the work we are doing, the people we are helping, we go, go, go, and then crash at the end of the day. As people invested in helping others, we need to start with taking care of ourselves.
A Stressful Time
A few years back I was working in a non-profit that helps prepare youth for transitioning out of foster care. We had a surprisingly high number of foster care youth for the area, but only a few employees. Every minute at work was spent visiting, calling, emailing, or taking notes, and it was incredibly busy; and working with people in a helping capacity takes time. I couldn’t be meeting with a young adult while looking at my watch worrying whether I would have time for notes. I had to be present with the client, focused on helping them in any way I could.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t give my clients as much help as they needed. They needed more than a visit once every three months and a couple of phone calls. They needed someone invested in them, talking to them regularly (multiple times a week!) to help them identify and take steps towards achieving their goals. Our program just wasn’t designed to do that, and wasn’t contracted for that kind of investment in the clients.
From a time-management standpoint, we were stressed to the max. And from a “pouring-into-the-clients” standpoint, we were also giving it everything we could. During all of this, what did I need to focus on the most at the beginning and end of each work day? Me.
I needed to invest in myself. Getting my planner written neatly for my peace of mind. Organizing my desk for a clearer workspace while sipping coffee. Spending time on my day-preparation and day-ending routines at work.
Now you may be thinking, how selfish, spend that extra 20+ minutes with the youth that need your help, or help your coworker with her larger case-load. Unfortunately, if I didn’t take care of myself the way I needed to, I would have been in total despair. If I couldn’t take care of myself, how was I supposed to help my clients take care of themselves? How was I supposed to be present with the client for the few precious minutes I had to help them? How was I supposed to keep track of all the crazy notes I was way behind on?
Self-care isn’t selfish, it allows you to continue being self-less when you need to.
How I Approach Self-care
Self-care is finding out what you need to “fill up” so you can “pour out” again in your work. Non-profit work in any capacity is taxing, so finding out what you need is important to continuing to work as your best-self. Two areas to explore in self-care are your motivations and the techniques you use to take care of yourself.
Some of you may be intrinsically motivated to take care of yourself in all the ways you know you “should.” This isn’t me. I have to find motivation that will help me do the things my ideal self would do that my real self might not. The following are some of the motivations I have found to work for me.
I have a few future goals in mind, like being debt-free from student loans, and having children at some point. These future goals help me to take care of myself today. For example, I know for the health of my budget eating out is not ideal, but I’m not a huge fan of cooking for myself, especially with how I seem to mess up every single dish in the kitchen. So, keeping in mind that without student loan debt I will have more freedom with my finances, I cook huge batches of food in a crock pot and freeze them to eat later. That way I don’t have to cook during the week, but I still have something to eat that’s quick and easy (and healthy).
While not all of my work is rewards-based, anything extra gets an extra treat. I have a couple things in mind that I will do each day, and if I get done early and cross off another to-do, I get an extra cup of coffee. This gives me something to look forward to, and is a little pat on the back for doing a good job.
One of my main goals in life is to use my skills to help other people. I know that I can’t do this unless I take care of myself- and trust me- I have tried. When I first found out I have several food allergies I only ate plain salad (lettuce) for about a month. I didn’t know how to eat without the allergens yet, and everyone around me was suffering because of it. I wasn’t taking care of myself properly at that time, and I was pretty much the worst version of myself 24/7. It was a hard lesson to learn, and luckily my family still loves me, but it helps to know firsthand that when I take care of myself I am better equipped to help others.
Using my motivations, I have a few go-to strategies that help me keep stress levels down and continue being motivated in my work. While some are unconventional, others follow the “should” rule book. I am not saying you should do any of these, just saying what works for me.
Automate My Life
Bills? Automatic. Savings? Automatic. Dishes? Dishwasher, mostly. The less I have to think about and remember, the less I have to worry about. This includes my clothes. I have go-to outfits where I really just have to pick out a shirt and the rest of my outfit is already decided. I’m still working on automating, but the less decisions I make on day-to-day things, the more brain-power I have for what’s important.
Get Rid of Useless Junk
During one of the more stressful times of my life I started getting rid of junk. I began reading one of my favorite blogs (Zenhabits.net) and decided to become a minimalist. When I started getting rid of things I didn’t even know where half of the stuff came from. Since then I have continued pairing down and it has significantly benefitted my life. One of the reasons I was able to move from Texas to Colorado in 10 days (with 5 of them spent just with family) was because I don’t have a lot of stuff. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, a trip to donate stuff to Goodwill helps me feel a lot better.
Yes, clean. While it sounds counter-intuitive to clean to relax, cleaning signifies that I am important, my living space is important, and my mental health is important. For me, a messy apartment is like physical stress that wrinkles my forehead and gives me knots on my shoulders. I see my shoes all over the floor and there is a sense of panic within me. Cleaning helps me take time out of my day (or every other day) to say that I’m not too busy for myself, and that I can take care of myself.
When working, I like to give 110%. I like to push past the boundaries and create something above and beyond. So the concept of “good enough” is helpful for those things that aren’t necessary at the time. I clean, but only until it’s “good enough.” My energy is precious and fleeting, so I’m not going to be scrubbing baseboards (although one time I did dust them). While “good enough” doesn’t apply everywhere in my life, it applies to the non-essentials and helps me utilize my energy on things that are more important to me.
We know burn-out is all too common among our non-profit peers, sometimes even crouching at our door. As non-profit employees we give and give and give, even if there is limited time, a limited budget, and limited will-power at the end of long days. By spending some trial-and-error time in figuring out what motivates our self-care and the techniques we prefer, we can start focusing on what we need in order to continue giving.
What motivations and techniques have worked in your self-care routines? Please share in the comments below!
YNPN Denver would like to thank CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs for supporting our 2015 programming. Thank you!