We tend to be a society driven by the concept of “hustle” – the need to climb higher, make more money, and achieve professional success. Too often, though, the means to achieve those goals come at the expense of our bodies, mental health, and overall well-being. We can simply push too hard. That’s why the concept of self-care has become a popular topic lately. A quick Google search will point you to a long list of books, podcasts, documentaries, YouTube videos, and self-care experts, all of which will reveal the secret mantras and routines you need to employ in order to take care of yourself.
For business leaders who shoulder the responsibility and stress of entire teams and companies, practicing self-care is particularly important. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” If you’re not intentionally refilling yourself on a regular basis, you’ll inevitably run dry and be unable to perform and meet the monumental responsibilities you face. Practicing a healthy amount of self-care will make you a better and more effective leader.
So why do we often find that leaders are the ones who are the most resistant to self-care? Unfortunately, recognizing your needs and taking the time to tend to them is somehow misconstrued as weakness. Leaders often feel they are too busy to reflect on their own needs. They feel they should be able to be strong and power through for the sake of their team. However, recognizing and tending to your own needs is not a weakness. It will make you a stronger and more compassionate leader for your team. If your team doesn’t see you value your own self-care, then what perception does it give them about your valuation of their own well-being? If you are letting your needs go unmet, then I assure you that you are not leading others to your full potential. As much as you may feel you should push through, exhausted leadership is often ineffective leadership.
What are some ways leaders can practice effective self-care?
I know, I know…you’re busy. I won’t let you off that easily, though. Regular self-care doesn’t have to equate to impossible-to-meet daily time investments. If you don’t have a lot of time, or aren’t ready to embrace the concept of incense and meditation, that’s okay! There are still some powerful things you can do. Understand that self-care is entirely individual. The concept is all about recognizing YOUR needs. Here are some general self-care starter pointers:
1. Take breaks.
If you think you don’t have the time for a break, then consider this: research has proven that taking even small breaks can increase motivation, prevent decision fatigue, increase memory and learning retention, and increase overall productivity! With that increased productivity you might find that you have more time than you think! Breaks can encompass anything from taking a lengthy vacation to a five-minute step out for some fresh air. Take the effort to schedule some breaks into your day. Don’t wait for the opportunity to arise. It may not. Control your day and your time instead of letting it control you. Schedule in a few regular breaks, and then take those breaks as scheduled.
2. Be mindful.
You need to be mindful of your needs. Start each day by asking yourself what your current needs are, then answer yourself honestly. Don’t fall into the trap of confusing your needs with either your wants or your idea of what your needs should be. There are no right answers, so be honest with yourself. Contemplate your own individual needs and reflect on how you can fulfill them. Throughout your day, stay mindful. Live in the present and be aware of the situation around you. Stay focused. Being mindful will help you tend to your own needs and will make you a better, more compassionate leader overall. In a 2017 article published by the University of Colorado Law School, mindfulness is specifically linked to an improvement in lawyer decision-making, ethics, and leadership. To truly be mindful means that you should keep a flexible state of mind that is focused and sensitive to the present situation.
3. Set boundaries.
Setting boundaries is a way of protecting your own needs. Defined boundaries can serve to protect the areas you decide are most important to you. Along with boundaries, you can set expectations for others. Once you know where you draw the line, you can make that clear to others, thus lessening the need to either continuously say “no” or get sucked into situations that do not gratify your needs. For example, if you decide that you function best when you eat a healthy lunch daily, then you need to protect your ability to partake in a daily healthy mid-day meal. Set that boundary and block that time out on your calendar. Let others know that you are not available during that time each day. The consequence of not setting and protecting that boundary is that not only will you function at diminished capacity without your lunch break, but you will ultimately begin to resent individuals and activities causing the interference.
4. Diet and exercise.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least once that self-care should include making good choices for yourself. Research has linked a healthy diet and regular exercise to better mental function and increased productivity. Specifically, the food we eat has a direct link to cognitive performance. A study published by the British Journal of Health Psychology concluded that consuming more fruits and vegetables increased engagement and creativity among participants. Eat what you like, but make smart choices. Self-care should include equal parts of doing and consuming the things that both bring you joy and are good for you. A smart diet can offer a way of practicing good self-care that doesn’t require any additional time in your day.
5. Set a good example for your team.
As I mentioned earlier, practicing a reasonable amount of self-care should not be perceived as a weakness by your team. Rather, it sets a good example. Your team needs to know you value well-being, both yours and theirs. Creating a workplace culture that includes and promotes both emotional and physical well-being will ultimately lead to increased performance of your team. That culture starts at the top. As a leader, it is your job to set that culture. Set the example from the top that recognizing and protecting your needs is a crucial element of strong performance. Allow your team to practice self-care and expect high performance in return. Part of being a great leader is having high expectations: high expectations of yourself and your team. Therefore, keep those expectations high, but consider self-care to be a tool you and your team need to practice in order to live up to those high expectations.
Don’t shrug off self-care as nonsense or a momentary fad. It’s not. The practice of self-care and the benefits it provides are backed by loads of scientific research. As leaders, it’s when we learn to manage our whole selves better that we become capable of true leadership. We can’t get there without putting in the work in every area of our lives. Once you begin your self-care journey, you may just find that taking care of yourself means you can take care of everything else.