In my work with high-performing executives, a critical issue that comes up routinely is that of self-care. I hear over and over again that my clients feel they have “no time” to get to the gym, take some downtime with their spouses, get together for coffee with friends or just plain relax. Always, the excuse for this is work. However, when we start to dig deeper in the coaching process, what invariably rises to the surface is one dominant issue: a failure to put oneself first.
As executives and other high performing individuals in today’s market, we have been trained to believe that every waking moment we must be on the clock. We check our blackberries the minute we get out of bed in the morning and end up skipping a workout to respond to the latest purported crisis. We take client phone calls late at night, or sometimes even in the middle of it when international time zones mandate. We answer our cell phones when we are out to dinner with friends. We cancel date-night with our partners due to last minute issues on the job.
To be sure, some of these events may on occasion be mandatory. Some, however, may not, and part of the coaching work I do often uncovers that what appears as a crisis is frequently something else (more on that in a later blog post). What is never mandatory is back-burnering your own health and well-being for the sake of the job.
As we all know, continuous failure to take time for your body, mind and spirit results in burn-out, physical decline, stress in one’s personal life, and sometimes far worse. In my coaching practice, some of my highest performing clients arrive at my doorstep recovering from clinical depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction and divorce at least in part as a result of basic and routine failures to address necessary issues of self-care.
The importance of setting strong boundaries around one’s own self-care should not be underestimated. Here are a few strategies to help you reprioritize your life and protect the time you allocate for yourself.
- Allocate at least fifteen minutes a day where you put yourself first. This means setting boundaries around that time that you do not break—particularly with technology. When I was a Wall Street lawyer, this meant that under no circumstances did I check my blackberry before getting my workout in first thing in the morning. Some of my clients get out of bed a half-hour early to meditate and start their day quietly before checking email. One client takes fifteen minutes before bed every night to reflect on what he is grateful for in any given day in a journal. While these practices may seem trying at first, in a short while they will become a part of your daily routine. Allocating a short period of time for yourself every day, and shutting down your blackberry during these moments, will allow you a much needed break to restore your sanity and health.
- When you are out to dinner with your spouse or partner, or playing with your kid at the nearby playground, leave your smartphone at home. However scary it may be at the start, you and your relationships will be rewarded for it. It is amazing how many times during the day I see a child upset in a stroller while its parent is desperately engaged in text or email. That’s not good for your kid, and it’s not good for you. Whoever it is that purportedly needs you while you’re swinging your kid on a swingset or engaged in intimate conversation with your spouse at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night can wait a little while, believe me. Leave your phone at home once, and you will find that even if you bring it along the next time, it will be a lot easier to choose to not respond immediately to purportedly urgent matters in favor of enjoying the present moment with your partner or family, and for yourself.
- When you’ve accomplished a major task at work, REWARD YOURSELF. This is a critical form of self-acknowledgement and self-care. Too many of us simply go from one high stress assignment to the next without acknowledging what we’ve achieved and taking some downtime. For women executives, this may mean scheduling a day at the spa after you close a big deal. For men, a night out with buddies for beer and football, or an afternoon spent in the park with your kids, may be all you need to honor your hard work. Failing to acknowledge your accomplishments on a regular basis devalues your self-worth, and makes it all too easy to take on more stress and more work. Stop and pay attention to your achievements on a regular basis.
- For those of you who feel that you don’t have enough time no matter what to fit in a few daily, weekly or monthly minutes of self-care, I recommend to you, and to my clients in the same boat, that you track your time, minute by minute, hour by hour, for an entire week. Seeing how you spend your time in writing is an incredibly fruitful exercise. Despite your worldview, you will be amazed by how much time you spend on Facebook, watching reality television or surfing the web that could instead be reallocated to your own well-being. Once you recognize these pockets of lost time, your next step is to set boundaries around time-sucking activities and reallocate the remainder to your own self-care.
Do these exercises just once and you will be shocked by how easy they are to execute and what a difference they make in your life. What may shock you more, however, is what WON’T happen: the world won’t end, your job won’t disappear, your best client won’t fire you. This is the first step to recognizing that your boundaries are yours to set and yours to maintain, and that in the end your life is yours to design. Lay down a few boundaries to preserve your self-care, and you will be surprised by how easily the world accommodates you.
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