Confession: I suck at self-care.

Big time.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone. Lots of people suck at self-care. Between working long hours, having other obligations, and being ridiculously tired by the end of it (and repeating the cycle), we tend to put our mental and physical health last.

Why is that? Arguably, our ability to work and, well, function, is pretty damn important. Yet we run ourselves ragged day after day, vowing we’ll change soon.

That’s not a sustainable way to live.

I learned that first-hand last year after a serious bout of burnout which resulted in making some major lifestyle changes, but I’m still learning, which is why I’m writing this.

So, what in the world is self-care, and why does it matter?

Self-care isn’t just an oh I’ll do this one thing and keep doing it and I’ll feel better scenario. It’s an ongoing process to improve your physical and mental wellness which evolves the deeper you go.

Becoming more aware of how to prioritize my needs and wants has greatly increased my happiness and my health. Instead of letting life simply happen to me, I’m much more proactive in how I approach each day when the focus is on myself.

However, self-care typically gets thrown to the wayside in favor of the day-to-day grind. We quickly lose sight of what matters as we get buried under a mountain of responsibilities, requests, and tasks. Work, family, and other mundane (but necessary) crap demands our focus and attention, thus taking our spotlight away.

This begs the question: how can we become better at prioritizing self-care when most of us naturally suck at it?

Here’s what I’ve learned in my quest to put myself first.

How I Suck(ed) at Self-Care

Actually, before I expand on what I’ve learned, I should probably shed some light on where I’m coming from.

Proof of sucking at self-care: I can easily go a week without leaving the house because I’m too consumed by work. (I’m self-employed and work from home.)

Yes, I just admitted that, and yes, I’m ashamed to admit that. But we have to start with the truth, right?

A lot of people think being self-employed somehow means working less (or only when you want to), but the reality is reflected in Parkinson’s law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Being self-employed is a double-edged sword in that you make your own schedule, and most people are absolutely horrible about this. Working from home also makes it hard to disconnect and separate personal life from work life. It’s very, very easy to get sucked into working whenever, and that can mean all the time.

Sooner or later, you start to feel the effects of this. For example, you might get so deprived of human interaction you start talking to your cats as if they’ll respond. When they don’t, you’ll start questioning your life decisions and consequently fall down a black abyss (where you hope to meet cats that want to conversate with you).

Jokes aside, it’s a dangerous slippery slope, and I’ve been down it a few times now. Unfortunately, overhauling your work schedule can be overwhelmingly difficult. Any time I’m not working I feel an insane amount of pressure because that means I’m not making any money. It also means my to-do list is probably growing.

It took years for me to come to the realization that money isn’t everything, and it’s certainly not more important than my sanity or my health.

The other realization? Work is never going to be 100% done. Ever. Cloning myself wouldn’t even help. (But it would be awesome.)

My journey to self-care started when these finally clicked in my brain, because these realizations gave me the permission freedom I needed to pursue more time for myself.

I was also sick of being known as a workaholic – even to people I’ve only met a handful of times.

This isn’t exclusive to those who are self-employed, either. The pressure to bring home a paycheck is one almost everyone can identify with, and work is arguably one of the biggest sources of unhappiness for a lot of people (hm, wonder why).

With that out of the way, let’s explore some other lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Why “No” Should Be Part of Your Vocabulary

From personal experience, I think the biggest reason so many of us are awful at prioritizing ourselves is because we don’t say “no” nearly as often as we should.

Maybe you’re a people-pleaser. Maybe you operate from a scarcity mindset and you’re afraid to say no to anything. Maybe you don’t like confrontation. Maybe you don’t want to be labeled as selfish.

There are plenty of reasons to rationalize saying “yes,” but at the end of the day, almost every time you say “yes” to someone else, you’re saying “no” to yourself.

That leads us to say “I have no time!” to a bunch of great things like reading, writing, exercising, dating, or quality family time.

Instead, all we have to look forward to are a bunch of obligations that may very well be taking us away from what we truly want in life.

Is it any wonder why burnout occurs so often?!

I’m not arguing that saying “yes” has no value, but we should be more thoughtful when we choose to say it (choose because yes, we have a choice).

So here’s the deal: start saying “no” more often, and stop being scared of what may happen as a result.

People-pleasers: I get it; I am one. But creating happiness for others doesn’t always create happiness for yourself. And when you say “yes” too much, you run the risk of stretching yourself really thin. You’re not a superhero. You’re one effing person. No one wins when you run from task to task and end up too tired, half-assing the last thing on your never-ending to-do list.

Instead, try and say “yes” only to things that elicit a HELL YEAH response from you – something you’d work on for free because you’re super passionate about it. Then be very aware of how much bandwidth you have at all times and schedule accordingly. Leave yourself with room to breathe.

Scarcity mindset: Oh man, this deserves its own post. I get this one, too – I was there when I first started freelancing. You think if you close one door, that’s the only door you’ll ever see again and omg why did I do that I just sentenced myself to a lifetime of ramen noodles!! NO. Totally not the case. (Unless that sounds like a good time and you really like sodium.)

Having a scarcity mindset only serves to hold you back, and it forces you to focus on the wrong stuff. There are many opportunities out there, but you need to free up the space to take advantage of them. As long as you’re being proactive, making connections, returning favors, and being a good person, you probably won’t be hurting for opportunities. And if it came to it, you could probably make your own.

Confrontation: I am not one for confrontation, but I’ve found that honesty (or some dose of truth) can help diffuse any hard feelings that may arise.

If your boss/manager/other superior person at work is asking you to take something on, then be honest. Tell them: “I’m working on X, Y, and Z right now. How would you like me to prioritize this task given the others on my plate?”

This reminds them of what you’re working on, and makes them reflect on how important this other task is. Maybe they decide to assign it to you and assign task Y to another co-worker, or maybe they realize it can wait.

If all else fails, be crystal clear: “Okay, I can take this on, but that means the deadline for task X/Y/Z will need to be pushed back.” Set expectations accordingly so you don’t end up stressing out and overworking yourself.

You can also ask for help – “Okay, I’ll take this on, but it would really help if [co-worker] could collaborate on it with me.”

As for personal life, I operate on an honesty policy, but I know that doesn’t work for everyone in every situation. Something along the lines of, “Hey, I’ve been feeling really run down lately, and I’m trying to take some time for myself. Can I take a rain check on that?” is fairly neutral and shouldn’t ruffle feathers.

Being selfish: I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting yourself first once in a while. I know that’s easier for me to say (I’m not a parent and no one is truly dependent upon me), but that’s the philosophy I’ve held over time.

At the end of the day, you need to make sure you’re taken care of before you can take care of anyone else. Similar to the people-pleaser, if you’re running on empty, you’re (probably) no good to anyone. Taking time to recharge and reflect is essential for growth, which hopefully leads to being a better person. That’s not selfish.

Figure Out Where You Want to Spend Your Time

Hmmm, this is starting to sound like the system I use to manage my money. Coincidence? Not really – the system just happens to work well. 😉

Knowing how to say “no” can be extremely valuable, but it also helps to know when to say no. That’s where knowing what you want to spend your time on comes in.

In other words, it’s easy for your days to get overrun with things when you don’t know what’s a good use of your time and what isn’t.

Create a list of things that you would like to spend your time on, and then write a separate list containing things that you currently spend time on. You can even go so far as to track your time to make sure everything is accounted for.

Go through the list of current tasks and mark an “X” next to anything that doesn’t bring you happiness. Is there any way to get rid of it? Can you outsource it, minimize time spent on it, or approach it differently? It’s worth looking into; don’t accept it as something you simply need to do (unless, of course, that’s true).

Here’s an example – I absolutely hate grocery shopping. HATE. Aisles are too small, people don’t know how the hell to navigate said aisles, the self-checkout thing never wants to cooperate with me, and lines are annoyingly long. I actually leave grocery stores unhappy. That’s not the best use of my time, is it?

I’ve strongly considered using a curbside pick-up program, or a delivery program, despite the added cost. It would be worth it for me considering the (ridiculous) mental energy spent on this task. There are better uses of my time.

That’s not something you’d typically think of as outsourcing, but there ya go.

Okay, let’s circle back to the first list – the things you want to spend your time on. The things you wish you had time for.

Prioritize. What would you like to accomplish? Can you break it down into more manageable time slots? Were you able to delete anything from your second list to free up more time?

As you can tell, this might take a bit of experimenting. The point is to figure out a way to shift your schedule so that it reflects more stuff from list #1 than list #2.

To that point: your first list is the reason why you’re saying no. So the next time someone asks for your time, see if what they want you to do fits with that list. If it does, say yes. If not, say no. Sometimes, it’s a matter of knowing the trade-offs.

This will probably always be a work in progress, and there will always be things you don’t necessarily want to do that you have to do. But the more you get used to identifying what you should spend your time on, the happier you’ll become.

Here’s another personal example: recently, Kayla, Chonce and I made the joint decision to end our podcast. It was (sadly) taking up more resources and time than we had to spare. In lieu of podcasting, we each explained how we’d be using our time. In my case, I wanted to get back to blogging. And here I am.

By the way, the stuff you want to spend time doing doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘productive.’ I know we’re constantly bombarded by the message that we can do more with our time, but remember: the goal is self-care. That might mean dedicating time to a hobby you love, or to naps. Your choice. But it shouldn’t mean dedicating more time to work (cough – side hustling – cough) unless you want it to.

One last point I want to make: your time is your most valuable asset. Once you spend it, you never get it back. Let that sink in for a second.

The next time you’re unsure of whether or not to dedicate your time to something, remember: you’ll never get that time back. Guard your time carefully – and stop feeling bad about it.

Mental and Physical Self-Care

I covered a lot more ground than I thought I would, and I still have so much to share. This is a topic I feel strongly about (if you couldn’t tell).

My journey to taking better care of myself has been a long one – lots of internal battles have been fought, especially when it comes to mental self-care. And it’s an extremely important topic that doesn’t get enough attention.

So, I’m going to make the executive decision to leave it for another post.