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Making Yourself a Priority: A Guide to Self-Care Planning

As fall gets underway, we can easily get lost in the shuffle of work, school, transitioning kids, unpacking from a move….. you name it. The “To-Do List” gets long and goals seem to become endless. We can easily get out-of-breath just thinking about the everyday hustle and bustle and perhaps seemingly relentless expectations of us. Taking care of ourselves can easily be an afterthought and move from the “must” side to the “optional” side of our task-list.

We can’t let this happen! Taking care of yourself is vital to keeping your mind, body, spirit, and mental/emotional health in tact. In fact if you are spread too thin, life can feel overwhelming, relationships can suffer and even your physical health can be affected.

So how do we avoid this potential but extremely important problem? The answer is to develop what is called a “self-care plan.” Developing a self-care plan is easy. It is also essential so that you can get a reprieve (even for 1 minute) from the daily grind and additional stressors in life. It’s SO important, in-fact, that I regularly ask both my clients and graduate students to create one to help relieve tension, learn about their everyday needs, and understand what brings them a sense of calm and security if even for a brief moment during the work-day. And guess what… I do my best to follow my own self-care plan to keep myself centered and give myself a break!

So what IS a Self-care plan?

The purpose of a self-care plan is to create a purposeful space to manage your thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions while generating a sense of calm, security, and sense of personal accomplishment. The process is a pathway of self-discovery to help you learn what may or may not promote these feelings and to understand what hinders your ability to focus on yourself when needed. You will learn what self-care goals work and what goals are too broad or unmanageable in the long-run. You will also learn what activities and strategies will help you feel better and perhaps what unforeseen pressure you maybe putting on yourself, or what is flat-out unrealistic, etc.

Your self-care plan must be first, and foremost a manageable action plan. The point is to create space that focuses on your needs within 3 or 4 general time frames: immediate, short-term, long-term, and maybe extended long-term (by the end of 6 months or a year). The point of the self-care plan is for you to feel prioritized and worthy of the time set-aside for you, thus creating peace and self-focus in that moment that develops over time. In order to make this goal manageable, the plan must concentrate on small, quantifiable ways to increase what is important to you and for you. This could be activities that enhances your feelings of personal relaxation, fosters social re-connection, or just overall mental well-being.

The self-care plan must be designed for your success! The plan must be realistic, and by definition, not lofty or complex. Yes, I am speaking to all people with type-A tendencies, who like to plan their whole lives in one afternoon and organize the parts by color. If your self-care plan is too difficult to follow, has too many parts, or is too intimidating to begin, then the essential point is missed. What we want to emphasize here is that even though a manageable plan includes short and long term goals, you may need to break them down further. Often times, we unknowingly set ourselves up for failure by thinking too broadly about our goals and ultimately take on too many things. New Year’s resolutions are the easiest example of this problem. People think about long-term goals like moving or losing weight, and decide that on January 1st, they will tackle it all with major force, and very quickly lose momentum. As a result, many people feel increased frustration, and revert back to old ineffective habits. In this example, one of the goals, “losing weight,” could be broken down into much smaller parts that could be added one at a time, like going for a walk 3 times per week. An effective self-care plan should make you feel proud, re-focused, more relaxed, and successful. If it does not, please consider how you could scale-down your goals so that you can continue moving forward.

In the spirit of manageability and success, your self-care plan should also be flexible. You are always growing and changing, so your needs will likely change too. Continue to evaluate the outcomes of your plan, learn from yourself, and adjust where needed. Do your current goals meet your needs? Do you feel intimidated or are you judging yourself harshly for not “accomplishing” a self-care goal? In other words, are your goals really taking care of you? If the answer is no, simply change them. You can adjust your plan to best serve your needs for that day, week, or month. Maybe the goal last month was to take a bath and read a book every Friday night, but this week, you would be better served by going out with friends.

What a self-care plan is NOT

A self-care plan is NOT like other action plans for work, school, or self-improvement. It is not solely a weight-loss, exercise plan, or academic/work plan. While a self-care plan may naturally include some components of these categories of self-improvement, it is not the main purpose of self-care. The goals in a self-care plan should come together holistically and be designed for your overall well-being. This means that the plan could include goals from many areas of life, not just physical appearance. Other goals might include decreasing work stress, increasing social time, taking a vacation, or becoming a yogi.

The self-care plan is a process, not a product. It’s a learning opportunity. Creating and implementing a self-care plan takes false-starts, hitting roadblocks, and understanding what is truly realistic for you. You will learn just as much about yourself and what creates an environment of personal self-care through critical examination of what strategies are working and not working for you as you go along. Please stick with it though, because you are important and worth making a priority.

The self-care plan is not an ultimate personal challenge. The self-care plan is not the space to require big tasks of yourself or for you to tease apart perceived “self-deficiencies” and climb the mountain to your ultimate personal goal in life. That’s a different plan for a different time. Your self-care plan can include gentle challenge and perhaps a slightly elevated sense of anxiety in order to try something new. However, we want to reiterate that it is NOT a plan that should create a sense of overwhelming anxiety or debilitating self-criticism. The world around us gives us enough challenges and struggles. Taking care of ourselves should not be one of them.

Self-care is also not an exercise in narcissism. Some people think that focusing on oneself is indulgent and disregards other important people around them. This is absolutely false. In fact, by creating a space for yourself to re-group, and allowing yourself time to relax and regain a sense of calm, you will be more available to others in your life because you will feel more energized and positive. It is akin to having a fuel tank that needs refilling, except yours gets topped off through taking the time to make sure your needs are met too.

How to create your own Self-care Plan

So let’s get started on you! First, brainstorm on what you need. Do you need more time for yourself? You want to feel more organized? You want to add a little exercise into your routine to relax and get moving? You want to decrease the chaos in your routine? Do you want to re-prioritize aspects of life in general to help you? May I also suggest two very important parts of a self-care plan: inserting more fun into your week, and connecting with others for meaningful, social interaction. If you are already a social butterfly, I suggest extracting a social commitment to promote less chaos and more quiet time into your week.

After you’ve brainstormed. Write down 3 segments of time, leaving room to write goals underneath. The three segments include: Immediate, Short-term, and Long-term. You can even include “Extended Long-term” (for goals to attain after 6 months or a year) if you’d like. Start easy, however.

For “Immediate” consider what you can do for yourself to relax, re-group, or reduce stress in that very moment. For example, if you are sitting at work, what can you do to re-center yourself? Perhaps you can get up from your desk and walk down the hall to look out the window a few minutes, make yourself some of your favorite tea, do some deep-breathing, or look at a few ‘funny animal videos’ on the internet. The purpose of the ‘immediate’ self-care exercise is to give yourself space, to relax, and to prevent further stress/anxiety, etc. Building self-care skills you can utilize immediately is vital in understanding what can help bring you comfort in a short period of time while under stress. It is also preventative in nature and helps from stress accumulating over hours at a time.

For “Short-term” consider what you would like to do for yourself for the week or over the weekend. Maybe you want to increase fun, friends, mobility (exercise), or whatever you would like to focus upon. For example, perhaps you’d like to exercise more this week. Perhaps you can try to go for a walk twice this week for about 10 minutes. Again, this is not a fitness plan, but rather a time to focus on yourself and to get some personal space, increase your heart-rate, etc. So start small and adjust as needed. Perhaps you would like to have more fun and connect with others on a weekly basis. A possibility here would be to invite 2 to 3 friends from your home country to join you on a ‘What’s App Group.” Another would be to send an email to a friend in your host country to schedule a coffee or lunch. I want you to notice here that the goal is to ‘send the email’ rather than actually ‘have lunch’ with the person. This goal is not intimidating, more likely to help you feel successful, and is a step towards more social activity.

For “Long-term” goals, consider what you would like to do for yourself in the next month to 3 months. Is there something you want to work toward? Perhaps you want to learn how to cook? Maybe you want to make a career shift in order to ultimately spend more time with your family? Or maybe you would like to spend some time with your spouse for a holiday weekend without your kids to improve your relationship? Long term goals are often more involved, so you can create two or three steps to help reach them. One goal for a weekend away could be to set aside 10 minutes with your spouse one evening to explore your options. Or you could decide to send an email to a travel agency for help. You could also set a goal to decide which weekend you are leaving, and one for a deadline on purchasing hotel rooms, airline tickets, or just for packing an overnight bag. Just make sure that your goals are attainable in the time frame you have designated.

As an option, you can include “Extended Long-term” tailored to your longer-term, self-care needs. Maybe you would like to take a family vacation for quality time with your children or perhaps you would like to move to a different home to decrease financial strain or to get a fresh-start. As with your previous self-care goals, break it down to manageable tasks to reach your extended self-care goals. For example, you may research obtaining visas for your family to travel, or set-up a few meetings with banks to discuss home-loan options and develop a financial plan to move forward.

Example of a Self-care Plan

This is an example of what a self-care plan might look like:

A. Immediate Goals

1) Decrease stress at work: I will set my watch timer for every 2 hours in order to leave my desk. I will either make coffee and talk to a co-worker, text with a friend in the common room, or read a magazine.

2) Relieve physical tension: I will practice progressive muscle-relaxation twice a day for 5 minutes.

B. Short-term Goals

1) Spend more quality time with kids: I will set aside a 2-hour ‘kid’s only’ time this weekend where kids select their choice activity we do together.

2) Get ‘disconnected’ from phone to decrease anxiety: I will leave my mobile phone in the closet beginning at 7pm for 2 nights this week.

C. Long-term (3 months)

1) Increase physical fitness for my health:

a. I will make an appointment with my doctor for a physical

b. I will research training plans for 30 minutes on the internet

c. I will walk a total of 50 minutes per week

2) Fun Activity for pleasure and stress relief:

a. I will plan a long-weekend to a new town I haven’t visited

b. I will research concerts/operas in town and purchase tickets

c. I will speak with friends regarding their adventure excursion and narrow down to a few options that sound suitable and appealing to me.

D. (optional) Extended Long-term: Job Change

1) I will research utilizing a head-hunter for a job change.

2) I will seek career guidance from 2 trusted friends

3) I will brainstorm on careers that meet my changed priorities.

A Self-care Challenge for you!

Now that you have learned all about self-care planning, give it a go! Grab a piece of paper or your cell phone and think about what your needs are right now. What is missing or lacking in your day? Do you wish you had more of something in your life? What would make you feel great? I challenge you to create your own manageable self-care plan that attends to YOUR needs and allows you the space to regain your sense of calm and your ability to cope more positively. I will check back in with you in a month and see how it’s going!


Dr. Sanness

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