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Working for Social Change? Make Self-Care a Priority

A bunch of matches. One of them has been burnt.

When you focus so much on changing the world every day, it’s easy to forget the small things you need to do to take care of yourself.

Self-care is about taking the time to focus on your own well-being so that you are emotionally, mentally, and physically energized around your personal and work life. In the past, I’ve gone through periods where I am super busy at and outside of work, and wake up wondering why I’m feeling fatigued, emotionally drained, or overwhelmed. And then after stepping back and looking at the bigger picture I’ve realized that it’s because I haven’t stopped to focus on myself.

Here are four tips to keep you on track in creating your own space for self-care:

Find your self-care network

“You can do it all yourself, but you don’t have to.” Surprisingly enough, I pulled this quote out of an Ikea catalog right around the start of the new year. It immediately made me think about one of my most important support networks – my friends – and how they’ve given it a deeper meaning for me (beyond room decoration tips). One of them recently started an email thread where we can all share tips for self-care in the form of healthy food recipes, exchange updates about accomplishing goals, and check in since some of us live in different states and aren’t always able to connect.

I’ll admit that I still haven’t tried any of the healthy meals they’ve sent photos of, but I feel inspired by how much and what they are accomplishing, and their passion for what they do. It keeps me motivated and accountable to myself, and them, to really make sure I am taking time out to focus on myself and my ambitions. It also helps me stay connected to the group of people who guide and encourage me when I need it most.

Start building your own self-care network by getting in touch with a few friends or colleagues who you can relate to and feel supported by. You don’t always need to talk about work, but maybe you have a common interest you’d like to pursue like finally reading books on your to-do list, or just want to set aside time for brunch once a month to catch up. Connect with each other at a pace that works for you and focus on what you feel is most important.

Develop a new hobby or talent – or rekindle an old one

There is more to you than who you are at work! Hobbies and talents can help you discover what you’re truly passionate about and are great ways to relieve stress by doing something that you find fun and interesting. After finally getting used to my schedule following a new job and moving last summer, I spent a while trying to figure out what I could do with my free time. I wanted to be a part of something that was challenging, available on a flexible (and affordable) basis, and fun! Ultimately, I decided to continue taking Italian language classes again after a four-year hiatus.

Now, nearly three months later, I’m still excited each week to attend class and work on a skill that’s just for my own personal development and interest. Yes, it can be difficult to complete assignments after a long day at work and really stay focused in class when there is so much happening around me, but it helps me escape from the stress of work and reminds me that there is more that I want to learn and do outside of my job! Two great resources to check out for free/low cost classes and developing new skills are Coursera and Meetups.

Learn how to identify and nurture your needs

I recently attended a training on Adaptive Leadership, which provides individuals from a range of sectors with the tools they need to adapt to and prevent challenges through various levels of observation, reflection, and feedback.

How did this training help me? It made me realize that I need to take time out each week to really reflect on my work and the ways I approach it. I’ve finally embraced the fact that I feel less stressed when I have a sense of control. Taking time to look at the bigger picture each week has helped to reduce the anxiety I used to get when I would look at the long to-do lists and priorities for coming weeks. It’s also helped me to think more carefully about what I want my days and weeks to look like and what it takes to get there, so that when there are things outside of my control, I can manage it in a more productive, panic-free way.

Identify your needs by taking time out each week to reflect on your most difficult moments. Ask yourself: What made this a challenging situation for me? What changes do I need make to manage this or other challenges more effectively? And, what are the steps I need to take to really apply these changes? The more you look to yourself and how you approach your work, the better you will become at identifying your needs and making the right decisions in times of crisis. And it always helps to get feedback from someone you trust to help you think about your approach and identify areas of growth you may not be able to see on your own.

Try as much as you can to take a break and set boundaries

This is perhaps the most common piece of advice when it comes to self-care because it’s true: you need to set aside time away from work.

Ever have that moment where you look at the clock and realize that you’ve been crossing off items from your to-do list or responding to a last minute emergency for the past three or four hours without pause? It’s not a surprise that this is a common way of working in the public sector. We usually have very personal connections to our causes and are extremely passionate about what we do. Not to mention, there is a greater need for the services we provide than we can often keep up with within a typical workweek.

Here’s how I take a break:

I try to make the most out of a hectic day by only checking my email while at work since most of the time, checking email while I’m at home only adds to my stress. It also reinforces my working hours with colleagues. We’re in a world where everyone is constantly connected via phone and email, and it’s easy to develop the habit of responding to every email or call you get, no matter what the time of day. But, this can blur the boundaries between work and personal time and set up the expectation that you constantly focus on work, even when you shouldn’t have to.

I also make it a point to step away from my desk for 5-10 minutes to get my energy flowing. I work at two different offices each week, so sometimes this means catching up with colleagues or students who I haven’t had the chance to speak with. Or going outside for some fresh air and sunlight.

And finally, I always use my vacation time. It’s like hitting pause on the long days/weeks and I’ve found, really important to prevent burnout. If you feel guilty about taking time off, plan ahead (giving your team as much notice as possible) and let your team know when/if you will be available.

If you are still feeling guilty, ask yourself, “Can I truly continue to be productive and energetic at work without taking a significant break?” Really think about this. Just because you’re in the office, doesn’t mean that you’re operating at your best. The people and communities who benefit from your work need you to take care of yourself first and be at the top of your game before you can focus on supporting them.


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About the Author | Pamela Dicent is the Program Director of Exploring Leadership at Coro New York Leadership Center where she empowers high school students to create meaningful change in their school communities. When she’s not at work, you can find her planning her next getaway or working on her Italian skills.

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