“Put your own oxygen mask on first.” —Every flight attendant ever
In the nonprofit world, it’s easy to work yourself into exhaustion or even poor health. But that’s not good for you, your organization, or the people you serve. Self-care is vital to maintaining a healthy work/life balance, and the time you take to care for yourself will almost certainly pay off in increased productivity, efficiency, and ability to cope with stressful situations and come out ahead of the game instead of struggling to catch up. With that in mind, we’ve provided a few suggestions for successful self-care.
First and foremost, the “obvious”: Eat well, sleep eight hours a night, and move your body at regular intervals. Some things are cliche for a reason. People who eat healthier foods, sleep well, and exercise have more energy and are generally happier, healthier people. Science hammers it in at every turn, and we all have a lifetime’s worth of anecdotal evidence in our memory stores to back it up. But you don’t have to do CrossFit and eat a raw-food diet to experience these benefits. Start simple with small, easily-attainable goals.
Take control of your energy levels and successfully run the end-of-year fundraising marathon with your health intact instead of powering through the 5K of today running on caffeine and sugar—with a prompt crash at the finish line that leaves you dreading tomorrow. If you’re a coffee drinker, work on balancing your energy levels by cutting back on caffeine. “YOU MONSTER!” I hear you saying, but true fact—though some of us feel utterly useless without it, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Brew a pot of half-caf in the morning (find it at Trader Joe’s and other stores or make your own by mixing regular and decaf beans/grinds). Like magic, four cups of coffee by noon instantly turn into two, and you’re already feeling less jittery but still alert and productive. If you’re a latte person, start off with a half-caf latte and see how you feel. You may not even notice the difference! If you need a pick-me-up later in the morning, grab another at lunch or sip the office coffee until you feel (key word, here) you’ve had your fill. Just keep an eye on your intake. Intersperse your refills of coffee with a cold drink (preferably one without a ton of sugar). And of course, replace coffee and other caffeinated drinks with something else—anything else—after lunchtime or so (to help you get better sleep at night).
This brings us to water: chances are you need to drink more of it. Sparkling water is all the rage right now and makes for a nice treat in place of tap or even filtered water. Find a flavor you like (or drink it plain) and keep a cold six-pack on hand. Drink as many as you want—they’re zero calories and they keep you hydrated! We’re about to get into food, but here’s a pro tip: Sometimes what feels like hunger rising up in your belly is actually dehydration. So avoid overeating by drinking water first—you can’t fill a thirsty void with a spongy sandwich.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as well all know, but it needn’t be fancy and shouldn’t be heavy or full of sugar. Easy, healthy breakfast options for busy professionals include a combination of a banana or a handful of your favorite berries, a slice of multigrain toast, and a small bowl of low-sugar cereal or granola (find something with lots of nuts and seeds and avoid those with lots of starchy fillers). Protein bars are an easy go-to but beware of those with fifty-nine ingredients you can’t pronounce. Look for fewer ingredients (ones you can pronounce) and low-in-sugar options. Quick, easy food should still be real food. Lots of fillers and funky preservatives and the like can make your body work harder to digest your food, sapping your much-needed energy.
Lunch can be a rewarding part of any professional’s day, but only if you a) take lunch (and you really ought to), b) bring food to eat that you’re excited to eat, and c) don’t go out and stuff yourself with the mid-day comfort of a foot-long sandwich with bread sliced thicker than your protein and veggie fillings, a chocolate chip cookie, and a sugary soda. Ok, that last one is actually pretty rewarding, but it’s only temporary as it also brings that awful 2:30 (give or take) crash, leaving your body in that food coma state of trying to digest way too much food, starch, and sugar for the rest of the day. But lunch doesn’t have to suck. And if you like to go out to eat, and can afford it, go for it! Just make slightly different choices to scale back your carb intake. Many sandwich shops now offer thin-sliced, multigrain bread options and even lettuce wraps. Make it a burrito bowl instead of a tortilla-wrapped lunch. Add that sliced avocado for $1.50. And do yourself a favor by eating half (or a little more) of that lunch and saving the rest for two hours from now when you get peckish. Don’t knock the healthier options and opportunities ‘til you try ‘em. And when you try ‘em, check in to see how you feel and function when 2:30 rolls around. If you do feel sluggish mid-day despite your best efforts, get up, take a walk, and grab a cold sparkling water.
Just the word can evoke a cringe. But like the word “diet,” it doesn’t really mean what we’ve come to collectively think it means. Exercise can be a short walk, even just around the office or around the block. It can be a few jaunts up and down the stairs. It can be parking in the furthest spot from the grocery store—anything that gives you an opportunity to move your body a little more today. It can be taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It can be a contest with a co-worker to see how long you can balance on an exercise ball (at my old job we used a yellow one and called it Pac-Man Rodeo!) or a nerdy game of hacky sack with your office mates (the worse the players, the more fun). Get creative and think outside the box. Make it fun. And if it’s not fun? Notice how much better you feel when you move around throughout the day and then keep reminding yourself how much fun it is to feel better when you’re groaning up the stairs to your meeting.
No work should be taken so seriously that there’s no fun allowed between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day. And during your big membership drives, ramp-ups for Giving Tuesday campaigns, and end-of-year giving letters and efforts, let’s face it—you might not be having any fun for 50 or 60 hours per week. That’s unacceptable, and it’s not healthy. When you feel good in your mind, body, and spirit, you perform better. So take that big roiling pot of stress you’re stirring from October to December, put it in the seat next to you on a flight to Vegas, and practice putting your oxygen mask on first. The stress monkeys stewing in the pot will look at you with big, pathetic, teary eyes as if to say, “How could you put anything before me?” And then you can explain to them that if you can’t breathe, you can’t do anything for them. That’s just science.
So take the afternoon off and rest when you’re on a deadline. Not every time, but sometimes. Plan to not do any work whatsoever a weekend here and there. Take a three-day weekend once in a while and get out of town or have a staycation. Schedule a massage. Take that improv class you’ve been curious about. So what if you can’t make every class because you’re in the busiest season of the year at work? Make as many as you can and don’t apologize for those you miss. Forgive yourself for not being able to do it all. And remind yourself daily that whatever you’re doing today seems like the fate of the entire world rests on your completing it—it’s actually not the end of the world if you can’t or don’t. In six months or two years, you’ll look back on today’s workload and think, eh, big deal. In the perspective of literally everything else, it’s actually pretty small potatoes.
With that in mind, close your laptop and silence your phone by 10:30 or 11 p.m., even if you’ll still stay up and read until midnight. Make a goal of a target bedtime and try to stick to it, at least most of the time. Try some melatonin or other natural sleep aid if you have a hard time falling asleep. Aim for a solid 6-8 hours of sleep and sometimes? Sleep in...just go for it. And don’t ruin it by feeling bad about it. Own it.
Put your oxygen mask on first in life by taking care of your body, mind, and spirit in mindful, intentional ways every day. And don’t be afraid to say no. No to your neighbor who needs help with her dog this weekend while she’s out of town. No to your brother who needs a ride across town during rush hour. No to a coworker or boss who tries to stick you with extra work when you’re already overloaded. And what’s more? Delegate. Take things off your to-do list by asking others to help you. You don’t have to say yes to everyone all the time to prove your worth or competence. They know. And you should never be afraid to ask for help. A healthy person will just say no if they can’t do it. Be that healthy person.