Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, I put aside work, family, and a long list of to-do items and go to the gym for a CrossFit workout. (On Thursdays, I head in the other direction — toward the ocean — and spend at least an hour surfing.)
These daily workouts cut into my workday and make my afternoons more rushed, but I make them a priority, often shoving other things to the bottom of my long to-do list in order to fit in this hour for myself. I could spend this time volunteering in my kids’ classroom or working or folding laundry, but instead I devote at least an hour a day to myself.
Although it could be easy to see this self-care habit as selfish, my family does benefit from my exercise habit. When my kids get home from school I’m energized and less anxious, I’m rarely sick, and my kids are growing up with an example of someone who treats exercise as a daily habit.
Self-care is difficult. It’s hard for everyone, not just parents. If you have trouble prioritizing your own physical and mental health, here are three strategies for putting yourself first — as well as the reasons why self-care is essential.
1. Schedule Your Self-care
We all know what happens to things that aren’t scheduled — they get pushed aside or don’t happen at all. When thinking about how to fit self-care into your life, pick a time of day that works for you most of the time.
For me, noon is a great time to exercise because I do my best writing in the morning, and around midday I’m usually looking to take a break. My late afternoons and evenings are busy with kids’ activities and dinner prep, and I like to be around at the start of the day to help get the kids ready for school.
Treat your exercise (or meditation or stretching or even bedtime) as seriously as an important meeting. Put it on your calendar and set reminders until your self-care appointment becomes an essential part of your day.
2. Choose an Activity You Enjoy
Cycling is not my thing. Sure, I ride my bike to the gym every day and pedal leisurely around the neighborhood, but I do not enjoy mountain biking or road cycling. If that were my only exercise option, I’d probably never work out. I also know many people look at what I do — throw weights around in a gym with loud music and no mirrors — and think, “That sounds terrible.”
You don’t have to hate something for it to be beneficial. Don’t look at exercise as punishment but rather a celebration of movement, of your body’s capability and its potential. If you haven’t found something you love, keep looking! Try new things and take new classes until you discover an activity you enjoy.
This approach applies to more than fitness. For you, “self-care” might mean a weekly art class, a book club, or daily meditation. Whatever it is, pick something that benefits your physical or mental health (and eating potato chips while watching Netflix does not count as self-care).
3. Let Others Care for You (and Loosen Your Grip)
Committing to self-care often means giving up some control and letting others care for you. If you’re overwhelmed with responsibilities and can’t figure out how to find time for yourself, you probably need to ask for help or readjust your priorities.
It’s okay to let the laundry pile up or walk past the coffee table clutter on your way to a yoga class. Put your health and wellness before household chores. The minor tasks will get done eventually.
Get in the habit of asking for help so you have more time for yourself. You might ask your spouse to take over dinner prep or trade childcare duties with a friend so each of you can get in a workout.
If you can’t figure out how a friend or loved one might help, you can start by being vulnerable and sharing your struggle. Maybe your friend is secretly struggling with the same thing, and the two of you can find a solution together.
It’s Okay to Take Care of You
Making time to take care of your physical and mental health is not a selfish act. If you’re the leader of a household, your morale has a strong impact on those in your care. Your family and loved ones will suffer if you’re overburdened and unhealthy, so taking time for yourself is an act of generosity, not selfishness.
Modeling healthy behavior is also the best way to get those around you to live a healthy life. A 2014 paper from the journal Pediatrics found the children of sedentary mothers are less active than children with active mothers. This study focused on women, but modeling healthy habits isn’t limited to mothers or parents. Your healthy lifestyle has an impact on everyone around you. You never know who you’ll influence or inspire with your healthy exercise, nutrition, and well-being habits.
Pro-Tip: The six-week Whole Life Challenge provides structure and support that can help you develop self-care habits. If you’ve been struggling to put yourself first, participating in the Whole Life Challenge is a great way to start.