Self-care is having a moment. According to one study, 97% of Americans believe it’s important to make time to care for themselves. That’s good, because more than half of those survey respondents felt burnt out in 2023.
When I’m having a really crappy day, I turn to YouTube and pull up a video of the outtakes from a sketch of John Oliver and Cookie Monster delivering the news. Or one of a flash mob performing a version of “Do Re Mi” at Central Station in Antwerp. Or one of the other 200 videos saved to my “Rainy Day” playlist. If the situation is dire, I camp out on my couch for a marathon of White Christmas, Noises Off, and Joe vs. the Volcano. And if I need the nuclear option, I hop in my car, brave the traffic on I-5, and make my way to the coast. There, I put my feet in the cold sand, breathe in the scent of the Pacific Ocean, and stand in awe of Haystack Rock, which never fails to remind me that I am but a speck of dust in the grand scheme of things.
If you would ask me what I do in terms of self-care, these are the things I would tell you. But I would be a very poor example.
You see, my modes of self-care are all reactionary. Notice how I started off with “When I’m having a really crappy day…” Not “To keep myself healthy…” or “To make sure I can show up as my best self for my team…”
Like me, so many people see self-care as the spa treatments, personal indulgences, and compulsive compensations that make up for the all-too-common ways we overextend ourselves. I’ve worked overtime every day for a week, so I’m getting a massage on Saturday. I’ve been so busy doing laundry and packing lunches and carting kids from one activity to another, and I need a break. I’m spending the weekend at a hotel with a pool and no cell service.
But is this really the best way to care for ourselves?
Self-care is simply care—the care we often instinctively show others but deny ourselves. It’s checking in to see how you’re doing, making sure you’re getting enough rest, and offering yourself some compassion in the midst of a challenging time.
When done in a healthy way, self-care isn’t the reactive indulgence of the overworked and under-resourced. It’s not a quick reprieve or a temporary fix. Self-care is the proactive prioritization of intentional acts that ensure long-term well-being.
What Self-Care Might Look Like:
- Getting enough sleep, whether you need five hours or nine
- Using food as fuel
- Moving around enough to keep your muscles limber and your blood flowing
- Practicing gratitude
- Saying “no” when needed
- Spending time with friends and loved ones
- Engaging in hobbies outside of work
- Creating a meditation or mindfulness practice
Self-Care for Leaders
Self-care may look a little different in your role as a leader than it does in the rest of your life. In life, you may turn to true-crime podcasts and Mexican food, whereas in leadership, you may look to setting healthy boundaries and realistic expectations. That crunchy chicken taco may be delicious, but it’s not going to inspire confidence from your team unless you share. And even then, the inspiration won’t last very long.
For leaders, self-care is an investment in productivity, longevity, and effectiveness. It allows you to model the behavior you want from your team—i.e., healthy ways to cope with stress, increased emotional intelligence, and a high value placed on personal health and well-being. In short, your investment in self-care gives those in your sphere of influence permission to take care of themselves.
When you improve how you lead yourself, you’ll improve your ability to lead others. Self-care leads to self-compassion, which enables every leader to excel without the need to be perfect.
What Self-Care for Leaders Might Look Like:
- Creating a workspace—at home, in the office, or on the road—that energizes you
- Establishing daily routines to help you set the right mindset
- Taking breaks
- Finding a change of scenery
- Delegating tasks that don’t require your direct involvement
- Setting healthy boundaries
Self-Care Is Primary Care
It may be having a moment, but self-care is anything but a fleeting trend. For leaders, it’s a strategic advantage.
Once assumed by many, like me, to be merely an acceptable reaction to overwhelm, illness, or crisis, self-care is primary care in that it ought to come first. When we are proactive in practicing self-care, we can build capacity, increase productivity, and create happier, more fulfilled, and healthier lives.