My name is Betsy Hodges, I am the mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I take care of myself. I sleep, I exercise, I drink water, I stay in touch with people who love me and whom I love, and sometimes I take time off from work.
Just writing that feels like a confession. I think it says a lot about our culture that I worry about what my constituents will think when they read that I take time to take care of myself. I fear they will assume I don’t work hard, that I am not dedicated, that I am not getting anything done. It’s not true. I still work long hours, I am deeply dedicated to the success of Minneapolis and its people, and I get more done rather than less because I take care of myself. Self-care just allows me to be happy, present, and effective while I do it.
When I started this job of mayor in 2014 I learned after a few months that I just couldn’t function on five hours of sleep, that I am a caged animal if I go more than two days without exercising, and that my thinking slows down if I don’t have a little time with my friends.
So I took the risk of self-care out of necessity. What I found surprised me, though it tracks with what all the research tell us: when I started taking better care of myself, I became easier to work with, more creative, and I got a lot more done in a lot less time. The risk paid off, too. I got paid sick leave, which we refer to as earned sick and safe time, for people who work in Minneapolis, passed a long-term funding package for Minneapolis streets and parks, fundraised and opened a signature park in downtown Minneapolis, led the most progressive policing initiatives in the country, and I could go on. All of that and I got some sleep, too.
Here are my recommendations for the busy elected official, executive, manager, line-worker or parent who is thinking about taking the risk of self-care.
Twice a day I read poetry — for a few minutes in the morning over breakfast I look at the poetry foundation’s app or website and read a few poems at random, and in the evening before bed I read a few poems from whatever volume I am working through. Right now I am reading Lisel Mueller, before that Nikki Giovanni, before that Gretchen Marquette.
I also occasionally take a minute between meetings to check my Neko Atsume yard — an app where you lay out toys and food for cartoon cats and they come and play and eat. That’s it. Nothing bad ever, ever happens in the Neko Atsume yard, the cats are cute, and my mind breathes for a minute before jumping back in to the hustle of life.
Pro tip: these things don’t have to take long — they shouldn’t or you won’t do them — but they should refresh your mind and spirit if only for a moment.
2. Own your schedule no matter how far in advance.
At the beginning of the year I sit down with my team and we schedule my time off for the next year. Mid-year we sit down again and do the same for the next twelve months. My guide is my discomfort. I have not scheduled enough time off until I am distinctly uncomfortable with how much time it looks like on the page. I rarely take more than a day or two off at a time and that’s usually around the holidays. Once a year my husband and I will get out of town for a true vacation. But days off and weekends away are possible, and knowing they are on the calendar helps keep me on an even keel the rest of the time
Pro tip: schedule plenty of days off. If your job is like mine, you will end up needing to work on at least a third of them. Schedule enough that you actually get to take some of them even when you take that into account.
3. Set your goals as needed, but set your goals.
I am an exceedingly goal-oriented person. I know they say what you do every day matters more than what you do every once in awhile. But daily goals for me just don’t always work as well as flexible persistence. Instead of saying “I will work out for an hour every day” I say “I want to work out (walking, running, biking, lifting, taking a class, stretching) for at least an hour six times this month, for forty-five minutes eight times, for a half hour eight times, and for at least twenty minutes three times.” I know that if my goal is daily prayer and meditation, there might just be days I forget, or a crisis in the city has me out of bed early and in bed late. I aim for twenty-six or twenty-seven days a month — keeping it real and adjusting as needed has made me far more motivated and regular in my daily practice.
Pro tip: set yourself up for success. If you know December has your year-end budget process and the holidays, aim to work out fifteen days instead of twenty or what have you. But set the goal — just set one that seems just a little past what you think you can pull off. Then go ahead and do it.
4. Take the risk and see what happens.
It is completely possible to be in a high-powered executive function, or a busy manager, or a parent, or all three, and take care of yourself. It requires taking some risks, however. You have to risk that things will be OK if you take your foot off the accelerator, not once, not twice, but regularly. You have to risk testing the hypothesis that things will go better, rather than worse, if you take care of yourself.
If your life right now does not have self-care built in, it can feel like a fool’s errand to take time out of your day for a doctor’s appointment — it can feel like an impossible task just to make the call to set up the appointment. You will feel scared that things you care about at work or at home will fall apart because you are not pouring all of yourself into them. It is a risk worth taking, because the pay-off is big.
Pro tip: try it and see. Give it a real go, though. Don’t try once, find out it feels scary or hard, then stop. Start small, be persistent, and find out the impact.
I am living proof that the risk is totally worth it. I lend my voice to the chorus that says you will be more effective in your work and happier in your life if you take the risk of self-care.