Sitting next to my 9 year old this weekend on an airplane ready for take off, I listened to the pre-flight safety spiel for what felt like the millionth time in my life. And then it dawned on me: should there be a loss of cabin pressure, and those oxygen masks come swinging down, I just know that I would put hers on first. Despite all the times I’ve heard the spiel, and the even more times I’ve heard the cliched metaphor about taking care of myself first. Don’t get me wrong- I believe we need to help ourselves so we can help others. But do we? Instead, we beat ourselves up about needing to take time for ourselves, but having no time to give to ourselves. Or, when we do make the time, we feel guilty for any number of reasons: our kids haven’t seen us all week and yet, we took an evening to have dinner with a friend; our significant other hasn’t seen us for a week and yet, instead of a date, we are going for a trail run alone on Saturday afternoon; work is crazy and the team is counting on us (always) to do XY and Z, so how can we be so selfish to take a half day off to drink coffee and read a novel? The guilt often negates some or all of the restorative benefits of the self-care time.
Instead of failing at self-care, I propose you focus on getting your job done. Whatever your job is–it doesn’t matter. Because we are a nation of workers and do-ers, this is a far more comfortable concept to embrace. The best place to start is with a mini-strategic plan. What are your goals, what are the key activities required to reach them, and what are the tools needed to be successful?
Take for example a Director of a fast-paced organization who needs to enroll 300 new clients within the next six months. She is likely going to be focused on outreach and application processes. Her outreach requires strong relationships with contacts, and the application process demands authentic conversations with potential clients. Nobody likes to talk to bedraggled, incoherent, sleepless people who forget conversations because they are too tired to listen deeply. Potential clients are likely not going to be attracted to frazzled, caffeine-crazed people who are moving so quickly that clients feel like a number, and not a human. The thing is, you may tell yourself that you can function like this, but the truth is, you are not functioning at your best, and you are throwing energy out the window instead of into what matters. Our Director is an essential tool in this strategy, and how she shows up is critical to the success of getting her job done. Talking to 5 less potential clients today, and using that time strategically to sharpen the tool that is you, means you will be more on-point for extra clients tomorrow. You are not taking care of yourself…you are taking care of business. So, from 4-5 you answer emails. From 5-6 you go to the gym. It’s work. It’s part of your job. And you should start seeing it that way.
I am known for doing some “crazy” things in order to get the job done. On work trips, even when I don’t get to my hotel until 9 or 10, I go straight to the gym. Despite loving my margaritas, I don’t drink on weeknights, and especially not while travelling. Instead, I drink a cup of chamomile tea an hour before bed. This may all sound like frou-frou ways to pamper myself and maintain a svelte figure. You can probably conjure up images of me with a green face-mask, and pink bunny slippers. But you’re wrong. I learned the hard way that if I didn’t do these things when travelling, I wouldn’t sleep well or at all, I would feel like crap the next day, I often would come down with a cold, and I would be working at only a fraction of my capacity, making the whole trip less useful than it could be, at best, and a complete waste at worst (like that time I was so exhausted that I fell into a nasty sickness and spent an entire work trip unable to leave my hotel room. Yeah that was a great investment of time).
Martyrs rejoice! You can throw yourself in front of a bus over and over again when you embrace this methodology. You must work hard, grueling hours to ensure your toolbox is ready for the job. You must endure the task of relaxing–even put it on your to-do list (because it will feel double rewarding when you cross it off)–or you will be like a gardener trimming the bushes with chopsticks. You simply will do a substandard job if you don’t take care of your tools.
Of course, if you have embraced self-care, I celebrate you! In truth, I have come to love taking care of myself and have mostly escaped the guilt of it. But, if your instinct is still to put someone else’s oxygen mask on first, know that you do it at the risk of not getting the job done. And, when my job of the moment is to be a mother, it seems pretty critical that I show up to work.