We have all experienced a year like no other. We went from offices to our dining tables, from morning catch-ups over coffee to booking in ten-minute virtual conversations two weeks in advance. Before March 2020, I had no idea Zoom existed. By the end of the year, I was exhausted. Not from travel or physical exercise but because I didn’t look after myself or put myself first. What I lacked was self-care.
I have spent over a decade studying psychology, specifically researching leadership and wellbeing for my PhD. This research has led me to work with elite athletes and people in business, preaching and teaching about how wellbeing is the bedrock of performance. In 2020, I did not practice what I preach. Therefore, I want to share what I learnt and how you can apply this learning into your work and personal life to enhance your wellbeing and performance.
What really is self-care?
The three things that cause us the most stress are uncertainty, uncontrollability and unknowns. Do they sound familiar? In 2020 I felt all three most of the time. Humans are highly resilient but sometimes the best thing to do is to sit down, put on Netflix, have a takeaway, turn off your phone and take a deep breathe. However, it should never get to the point of wanting to collapse on the couch and escape from reality. We should have the ability to take a ‘break’ before we really need one. This is self-care – it’s self-compassion. Sometimes self-care is tough, but it shouldn’t be something we resort to because we are so absolutely exhausted that we need a reprieve from our own relentless internal pressure. It needs to be a habit that we do without thought and effort. An analogy I use is a frog in boiling water. Place a frog into boiling water and it will jump straight out, but place a frog into cold water then slowly heat the water to boiling point and the frog will not realise it’s in danger until it’s too late. This can easily happen to us.
Five aspects of self-care to stop yourself getting to boiling point
Physical: Eat, move and sleep: these are the three key areas to focus on. Self-care is not bubble baths and chocolate cake – it is preparing a healthy meal, going out for a walk (even when the weather is bad), and not looking at your phone before you go to sleep. How often do you cook a nutritious meal when your stress levels are high and you are short of time? Real self-care is making sure you are getting the food you need to fuel your body and mind. But avoid mindless snacking – having a glass or refillable bottle of water on your workstation at all times can help. Small, manageable and controllable changes can make a big difference. Physical exercise is vital, but it doesn’t have to be all high intensity movement. It can be getting out in nature for a walk or doing 15 minutes of yoga – even just standing up out of your chair every 30 minutes is a starting point. Get creative with the environment and space you have, and most of all, make it enjoyable and fun. We are more likely to repeat an action if we find it intrinsically rewarding. Finally, and probably most importantly, is our sleep, and in this area we should focus on quality rather than quantity. Sleep is the number one way for us to recover, allowing our brain to recharge and our body to reset. The three rules of quality sleep are: no phones or devices in reach (read a book or listen to music instead); reduce your cognitive load by talking about or writing down any concerning thoughts; and finally, create a good, cool sleep environment and a sleep routine that starts an hour before bed.
Emotional: Stress is a performance enhancer when it's in small doses, but when we have too much stress over a long period of time this causes burnout. During periods of stress, our brain becomes flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone, which activates the part of our brain that regulates our emotions, the amygdala. With small doses of stress, the amygdala sharpens our thinking, releases adrenaline and provides us with a fighting boost. However, when our amygdala becomes overloaded, we can’t manage our emotions and actions become less considered. Self-care is checking in with our emotions, noticing when they start to shift, and taking action. Reduce the load on your amygdala by exploring your stressors and what causes them.
Psychological: How do you talk to yourself? Are your thoughts kind and encouraging or are they negative and challenging? Our inner voice is very important to our psychological health. In sport I use a technique called self-talk with athletes. This technique helps increase focus during times of high pressure or stress, when our thoughts might naturally become more negative or unfocused. To counteract negative thoughts, first you must have the ability to notice when they pop into your head and what triggers them. Often, we can’t control the trigger, but we can control our response to it. Secondly, after noticing the trigger, notice how you respond to it. The way we talk to ourselves in these moments is important for our confidence, identity and ability to take the correct action – this is where self-talk comes into practice. Think of a word that you would use to help somebody else out in this situation, that is personal to you. Repeating this word in your head provides you with positivity. The word I use is ‘breathe’, and repeating it allows me to feel centred, present and calm under pressure. The more we use this word when our thoughts shift, the more in control we feel. This technique takes practice but give it a go – speak to yourself like you would a loved one.
Purpose: What gets you out of bed on a Monday morning? There is no better motivator than purpose; it allows us to take actions that are based upon our values and beliefs, and it drives our ambitions and aspirations. It can take a lifetime to find your purpose, but I believe that mine, right now, is to help people unlock their true potential in whatever their line of work is. This fuels me through the good days and the not-so-great days. It also provides me with a fantastic way to check in with my own self-care, prompting me to question, ‘Is what I am doing right now aligned with my purpose?’ When it isn’t, I know I need to make a change. Three years ago, at Learnfest, Impact’s very own learning festival, I heard a talk by Richard Leider, the author of Power of Purpose. His formula for finding purpose was called the napkin test, and it has stuck with me. Leider argues that to find your purpose you have to first understand what your passions are, then you have to evaluate what gifts and core strengths you possess, and finally, write down your core values. Now add these three things together and you just might find your purpose.
Professional: Our professional environment plays a key role in self-care. In fact, the workplace is statistically the most likely place to disrupt it. Furthermore, our relationships with those we work with is often underestimated. Through my PhD research, I discovered that when organisations create a culture of belonging and togetherness, employees feel significantly less stressed, more supported by colleagues, and have higher job satisfaction. However, there is a dark side to this: I also found that people are more likely to go the extra mile for each other, not for personal gain or reward but because they want to help others, even when it will consume a lot of their time and energy to do so. Self-care is knowing when to stop and to be selfish. Being a superhero might feel great in the short term, but in the long run it will only deplete your energy and your ability to be the best version of yourself. Help others, but know when to say no.
Liberating human potential is what we do at Impact. It starts and ends with people and helping people to change, innovate, challenge and more. Self-care is the performance and wellbeing enhancer we all have access to. Unlocking it is often the hardest part, but Impact are here to partner with you to find the key. Get in touch about how we can work with you to liberate human potential.
Stuart Kelly is a Performance Psychology Consultant at Impact UK. You connect with him here.