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How to make space for self-care when you feel maxed out

When the demands from life and work get crazy, the first thing that often falls off our plate is self-care. Somehow, it’s easier to let ourselves down than it is to say no to anyone else.

As women, we’ve been told repeatedly from a young age that it is our job to take care of others. So, putting ourselves first often feels like a selfish thing to do for many of us. We can’t put ourselves first, not when there isn’t enough time in the day to take care of our work, parenting, domestic and social responsibilities!

Yet, we all know that we can’t pour from an empty cup, that we cannot take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves. Easier said than done, right?

Well, I have been on a journey to prioritize my well-being and I’ve learnt a few lessons along the way. In this blog, I’m sharing five strategies that have made the biggest difference for me in my journey. I hope you find some pieces that are helpful and applicable to your own journey.

1. Identify your true motivation

Motivation is an essential prerequisite for any lasting change, because any change worthy of making requires persistent efforts. The mistake that many of us make is to not dig deep enough to identify our true motivation.

Your true motivation must go beyond what’s important to the external world (your image, reputation, wealth, or social status) and get at what is important to YOU.

Your true motivation must state a positive thing that you’re working towards, not something that you’re trying to avoid or run away from.

To identify your true motivation, try this line of questions:

  1. What does making this change mean for me?

  2. When I make this change, what would it give me?

  3. Let’s say you answered “physical fitness” in question B. Continue asking yourself: If I have “physical fitness,” what would it give me that is even more important than that?

  4. Repeat step C until you get at an answer that truly touches you or moves you. Congratulations! You’ve found your true motivation!

Here’s how it went for me:

When I make this change, what would it give me?

  • Physical and mental well-being

If I have “physical and mental well-being”, what would it give me that is even more important?

  • I would keep depression at bay

  • I would have more patience for my son and my partner

  • I would have the stamina to keep doing the things I love for longer

And if I have all of those things, what would it give me that is even more important?

  • I can be the mom, partner, and professional that I want to be ← this is my true motivation.

So, whenever I feel that I need to skip a workout/walk/run because I have too much to do at work or at home, I remind myself that going for that workout/walk/run makes me a better mom/wife/worker, not the other way around.

2. Start small and start now

Start small and start now. Instead of saying, “when this really crazy project is over, I will start working out 3 days a week for at least an hour each time”, try saying “I will start going for a 10-minute walk once a week, starting today”. While I can’t predict the future, I know that more often than not, something else would come up after this crazy project that would keep you just as busy, if not more. So, instead of waiting for a time that may never come, start with a goal that is realistic and achievable, considering your current reality.

For me, I started with a 7-minute workout using the downdog app, twice a week. Now that I work from home, this means I can just change my top, workout, and change again within 10 minutes. I cannot come up with any excuse why I cannot spare 10 minutes during my day to do something that would help me be the mom, partner, professional that I want to be. It’s a no brainer.

3. Identify your prime time

If you’re one of those people who wake up at 5 am to fit a workout in, good for you! That does not work for me. Also, when I’m feeling stressed out and overwhelmed by work and life, the last thing I want to do is to get out of bed at 5 a.m. to go for a jog when it’s so cold and dark outside. That does not fill my bucket.

Instead, I chose the path of least resistance to fit a workout in the day. I looked at my day and identified three windows of time where it’d be easiest for me to fit in a 15-45 minute break, depending on the day. For me, the first window of time is around noon, when I reliably have childcare and the least chance of having a meeting booked. The second window of time is about an hour after dinner, on the days that my husband is on bedtime duty (we always alternate days for bedtime duty). The third window of time isn’t a specific time of day but a criteria that I set for myself, whenever I find myself scrolling mindlessly through social media for more than 10 minutes, it means I have time to go for a walk. Surprisingly (or not), this happens quite often and works very well to help me shift from a numbing activity to a healing activity.

4. Adjust your goal as needed

A big part of what makes a goal achievable is that it takes into consideration the ecosystem that you’re operating within. And we all know that life is anything but constant. Your kid may get sick. Your mom may have a serious fall and needs more help. Your work may ramp up because of new opportunities or unexpected absences. The point is, what is achievable in one week may not be for the next. So, when life happens, be ready to morph your goal in a way that honours your commitment and supports your long-term progress.

Minimally, my goal is to move my body and have some dedicated alone time at least twice a week. How that may look can vary depending on what I have going on each week or each day. Some weeks, I may go for a walk or run every day. Other weeks, I may only squeeze in the minimum. Similarly, my choice of activity can range from a 7-minute workout to an-hour long walk or a 20-minute sprint around the block, depending on the time I have and how my body feels that day.

5. Choose the right frame of comparison and celebrate!

A big part of sustaining a change is to acknowledge and celebrate various milestones along the way. Make sure you choose the right frame of comparison to acknowledge your milestone.

For me, this means choosing a wider timeframe to compare and see how far I’ve come. If I were to compare myself this past week to the week prior, I may feel deflated because I’ve got a few curve balls thrown my way this past week. However, if I zoom out and compare myself this month to three months ago, I’m kicking ass!

And to celebrate, I’m going to reward myself with a pair of merino thermal pants so I can continue to walk and run throughout the winter months.

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