My first semester of grad school was really awful, and it was mostly my fault. I was taking classes in DC, and working and living on a university campus in Baltimore. I got up early and started work immediately. I would dive into my job and not look up until it was time to head to class. It was an hour each way, and a particularly arduous commute. Classes were long and I had little chance to transition between one task to the next. At home, I’d only face another avalanche of work, and then realize that I was starving. In my infinite wisdom, and more often than I would like to admit, I would grab a candy bar from the vending machine below my apartment and keep going. In the zingy sugar glow, I would work until I couldn’t anymore, and then at some point late in the evening, I would collapse, fully clothed, into bed. I felt like I was drowning. Please, please, please don’t do this.
Clearly, this was not a sustainable model. During the winter break after my first semester, I faced the fact that I had to make some changes. Today, I’m still not an expert at making sure that I am taking care of myself, but there are a few key things I’ve found necessary to avoid completely burning out.
When I’m busy, I can get in this weird mindset where I convince myself its okay to put my physical self last. I have to consciously work to reframe taking care of my body as not being selfish or as putting off “real work,” but rather as taking care of the equipment I need to get the work done. If my brain doesn’t function well, I can’t write, read, respond to emails, or help others. If I think of it that way, it’s easier to justify treating myself with kindness and compassion.
- Physical exercise. I do yoga, I dance, I run, I sometimes swim when I get super motivated, but no matter what I do something intense, regularly.
- Enough and consistent sleep. Lots of studies will tell you about why this is important, but seriously, it is so important. I just remind myself that sleep deprivation actually kills people [trigger warning: violence, animal studies]. Work with your chronotype, because it actually makes a difference to your happiness: if you are a late riser, don’t force yourself up every day, or if you’re an early riser like me, go to bed early enough. As would be expected, there’s an app (or two hundred) for that.
- No sugar (or whatever is your escape drug of choice). Personal but huge for me. What do you do that makes things short term better but long term worse? Is it caffeine? Alcohol? Other drugs? Not-so-wonderful relationships? I am super sensitive to sweet things. The sugar high only gets me so far, and when its over I’m just moody, groggy, fat, and nothing about my situation has changed. Treat yourself, but not with things that harm you.
There are definitely good ways and bad ways to approach what you have to get done. The following are the things that I need in order to not feel like I’m being crushed when my to-do list expands. This may not seem like self-care, but really, what could be more caring than respecting your own time and worth?
- Have a plan. Let me tell you about the Planner Pad. I geek out about it on the regular because it is so perfect for when you are busy. It has space to divide your tasks by category or type, then a section for daily lists, and lastly a section for appointments during each day. When I can look at a single page and get a snapshot of what is going on for the entire week, I do not feel buried. I also take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to figure out what my priorities are. I do the same at the beginning of the week, month, and quarter. I think about my goals and my progress and adjust accordingly. Having that time set aside means that I consistently update my plan and can handle curve balls with way more grace.
- Pomodoros! It may be geeky to keep a timer running in the background of your computer, but it keeps me from burning out. I love the Pomodoro Technique mostly because of the five minute breaks—just enough time to watch a music video or send a text or two to a friend, and keep myself from fizzling during a marathon work sesh.
- Know when you’ve done enough. What is the bare minimum you need to get done during the day to keep on track? Once I’ve passed this line, I congratulate myself, and decide whether or not I need to keep going. Thinking of working more as a bonus round keeps me from getting caught in the never-ending to-do list.
- Change what you can change. In my second year of my grad program, I got a different job without a commute and life got significantly better. I think overall it freed up another twelve hours per week to get other things done. Twelve whole hours. It was unreal.
- Write yourself a mission statement: Why are you doing what you do? Sometimes when I felt my worst, I would stand in the shower and pretend I was in a job interview. The (imaginary) person across the (imaginary) table would say, “Why are you in grad school?” I would have three minutes to explain, out loud to myself, exactly why I was studying what I studied. This distilled my purpose, and cemented my desire to get things done. If I couldn’t say why I was doing something, then I knew it was probably time to figure out how to not do it anymore.
Remember to take care of the other aspects of your being.
- Schedule time for yourself. Again, you are just taking care of the equipment that you need to get the job done. It’s like putting gas in your car. I save this time for reading and sewing and not working on my to-do list. I put this right in my calendar, because I am a geek and otherwise I wouldn’t do it.
- Have a support network. Who can you call to get away? Who can you call if you’ve got to cry? Who always finds the best parties/concerts/adventures? To whom can you speak your biggest fears out loud, and know that they will have your back? These people are magic and I keep mine on speed dial. If this is a professional, like a therapist or a mentor at work, even better.
- Don’t let the important things drop. My biggest regret from the busiest time in my life so far was not being part of a choir. This was the first time since 4th grade that I was not part of some sort of singing ensemble, and I could feel it. I would have been way happier if I had taken the couple hours a week or month to join some sort of group.
- Remind yourself of your power. Chances are, if you are doing a lot now, you probably did a lot to get to where you are. I have a good friend will simply reread his resume whenever he feels like he’s not doing enough. “Hah!” he tells the universe, “You think I can’t conquer this? Look at everything I’ve conquered in the past!”
When I’m at my busiest but make sure to take care of myself, I have this wonderful, bare bones, stripped down feeling. Treating myself kindly feels like flying. I am doing exactly what needs to get done, working at my most efficient, and making steady progress towards my goals. The days go quickly, and I can think and work hard. I love having a lot going on, but if I’m not treating myself with care, I can’t enjoy it.
Want more suggestions? Peruse these 55 gentle ways to take care of yourself.