As my summer comes to a close, I find myself thinking about the strides that I have made in self-care since starting my PhD program three years ago. While yoga instilled in me ideas of balance and self-care, it continues to be my duty to actually put these ideas in practice. I am going into the fourth year of my degree. I am done with traditional coursework and will spend the next semester developing a comprehensive outline for my dissertation. This is amazingly daunting, as you might imagine. Where will I find the time to develop my research project with rigor while also maintaining my yoga practice, blogging, cooking, getting certified to teach yoga, and doing all of the other little things that make me happy on a daily basis? The answer is that I have to actively make myself and my happiness a priority.
Though I have catered some of these tips specifically to grad students, as that is my current reality, they are easily applicable to anyone. As a grad student, I know that it can be hard to create boundaries between your work and your personal life because of our liberal schedules and ability to work from almost anywhere. Given the openness of the graduate student life, it is all the more important to inject your own structure as not to overdo it and burn yourself out. Here are some of ways that I have pushed myself to make time for myself despite the chaos that is #gradlife.
Take Self-Care as (if not more) Seriously as your Other Commitments – This point speaks more to the mental shift that we must make in order to properly take care of ourselves. When things get crazy, the little acts of self-care that keep us happy and sane are the first to go. Take personal care seriously and don’t let it fall to the back-burner, especially during stressful periods where it is most important.
Add Non-Negotiable “Me Time” to your schedule – The practical component to the above-mentioned mental shift is to actually schedule time for yourself same way you would any other appointment. Whether it’s time for a workout, time to meditate, or time to just sit around and “do nothing” online for an hour – make it formal. Write it down in your planner. Put it in your iCal. Set a reminder. Take it seriously.
Identify passions outside of your work – In order to live a fulfilled life outside of your studies, it’s important to cultivate other passions. Ask yourself: What activities do I enjoy? What do I like thinking about outside of my work? If you can’t immediately think of anything, I would suggest taking some time to really press yourself on this question and write things down. What are the things that you always say you’d do if you had time? Is there a topic that really interests you that’s not tied to your research? What always lifts your mood when you’re having a rough day? These are the things that you have to be proactive about incorporating into your schedule.
Make a List – You guys know that I’m big into list-making. In addition to the list suggested above, I would also recommend making a specific list of self-care related things that you would like to do within a certain period of time. For example, after I finished my qualifying exams, I wanted to be better about doing the things that I didn’t have a ton of time for when I was studying such as going for long hikes, improving my French, updating my blog more often etc. I made a checklist with blank lines for me to fill in when and how I had fulfilled these tasks – “April 3, 2016 Went on a hike with Sarah.” Not only is this a good way to “challenge” yourself to self-care but it’s also nice to look back at the end of the week or the end of the month and see all of the great things that you did for you.
Say “no” – This is a big one. It’s probably the thing that I struggle with the most with regards to self-care. I typically default to superwoman mode where I feel like I can get anything done. When someone asks me to add more to my already full plate, I often say yes without properly considering if it will be manageable. In the past, I have gritted my teeth and made myself follow through with things just because I said I would, even when they were not particularly important. It always felt awful to be doing something out of a feeling of obligation. Recently, I have tried to be better about signing up for things without thinking about how much time and energy they will actually take. I have also backed out of some commitments after having accepted because they ultimately caused me too much stress. Make sure you’re not operating to please or impress others but rather to preserve yourself and cultivate your own sanity and happiness.
Let Go of the Guilt – This is perhaps the most important advice that I can offer anyone. Whether you’re a grad student trying to build the foundation for a future career or an established professional, you cannot let yourself feel guilty about taking time for yourself. I know that as a PhD student, I have often been made to feel that I was somehow less worthy or less dedicated because I didn’t spend every waking hour thinking or writing about my topic. It took me quite some time to get over this and every now and then I still have to remind myself. We are human. We are complex. We have many needs and many passions. We require care and compassion from not only others, but from ourselves.
Hope this in some way resonates.