Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Scheduling Self Care: A #MindfulPhD Post

One of the truest truths of my professional life, especially during the PhD, was that the better I felt - physically, mentally, emotionally - the better work I did. The ugly dark side to that truth, though, was that even when I had fully accepted that feeling better equaled working better, I still struggled to make time for self care. When I get busy, or deadlines come up, my first instinct is to stay up later to finish that one last thing, or skip making myself lunch in favor of something quick to eat in front of my computer, or cancelling yoga class or coffee with friends to work more. 

I will probably work for years, if not forever, to counter my own anxiety instincts, but I do have some tips that have helped me make it much easier to take care of myself during busy and stressful seasons. 

  • Decide on your non-negotiable needs. Anyone who has lived with, or known me well, in my years on this Earth knows that I need my sleep - at least 6 hours, preferably 7-9. Without it, I'm foggy, cranky, irritable, and just generally unpleasant to be around, even to myself. So I have a set bedtime - I need to be upstairs, phone off, in my bed reading or sleeping, by midnight on "school nights." Other clients I've worked with NEED to work out, or NEED to eat well, or NEED to do several of these things, but making a list of the self care you want to do, and the self care you NEED to do can help you first orient your schedule around what NEEDS to happen. 
  • Use social pressure to reinforce new or vulnerable habits. Do you always skip your workout first? Do you always cut nourishing food out of your day? Find a way to make that activity public. Make workout dates with a friend so that you have to cancel them to a human to bail. Set lunch dates, or go grocery shopping together with someone else to make sure you've set time aside to prep and eat well. Post pictures of your lunch, workout, or sleep tracker on social media so that you can get some positive feedback and accountability. Especially for new habits you're starting to establish, or places where you know you the habit is vulnerable to stress, social pressure of a loving kind can be a great way to support you until the habit is more solid. 
  • Put it in the calendar. As part of my weekly set up, I like to schedule the yoga classes I hope to go to in my calendar, and block out time to connect with family and friends. Seeing the time visually in my calendar helps me have a more realistic sense of how much time I have available, and puts it on the same level of importance as meetings, appointments, and other commitments. Plus, I get reminders on my phone which can further spur me to get up and go for that walk, or call my mom. 
  • Track your data. I've written about habit tracking before, but I truly believe that seeing the data about HOW self care affects your work and wellness is the most convincing argument for investing time and energy into it. Once I saw the charts proving that I felt more centered, more productive, and happier when I was doing cardio exercise 3-5 times a week, it became much easier to justify the time and resources it took "out" of my schedule to do it. 
  • Change your thinking about "work" vs. "self care." I tend to make a false opposition in my head between "work" and "everything else" (see the last sentence of the previous bullet point for proof!) that ultimately is counterproductive. When I see self care, or any of the things I do to keep myself feeling well, healthy, and happy, as existing separately from my work, instead of supporting my whole life that includes work, it becomes easy to de-prioritize it. Self care isn't something extra I do, or a reward for finishing my work, or a job all its own that I can either succeed or fail at - it is a part of what I do as a human being with a mind and body. It's part of the whole picture, just like work is. 

It isn't easy to overcome the message that self care is a luxury to be earned. But scheduling time for self care, rather than "getting to it" after other things are accomplished can help establish the habits and patterns that will convince your doubting brain that a well mind and body support your whole life, including the work.