Practicing Self-Care
Kathy Paauw

This Valentine's Day marks the 20th anniversary of my father's death. When people ask how he died at such an early age (he was 47), I usually say that he died of a broken heart. I attribute much of my father's heart disease to the high stress he was under, as well an unwillingness to honor his own needs for self-care. It's ironic that he died of a heart attack on the day that we Americans plaster hearts all over everything as a way to recognize those we love.

In Cheryl Richardson's book, Take Time for Your Life, she suggests that we practice "extreme self-care." Many of us have been raised to believe that this is a selfish act.  Quite the contrary! It's important to remember that when we put the needs of our work or of others before our own personal needs, we put ourselves at risk. And when we neglect our health, well-being, and our relationships, we become less available to assist others and less effective professionally.

Do you recall the instructions given on an airplane before takeoff? "In the unlikely event that the cabin were to depressurize, please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others." Why? Because if you don't take care of yourself first, you may not be available to assist others.  My father's untimely death brought this lesson home to me!

I often hear clients say things like, "I'll take some time off after I finish these projects." But if completing everything on the "to-do" list becomes a prerequisite to relaxing or practicing some self- care... well, that day will never come! Besides, have you ever known anyone on their deathbed to say, "I wish I had spent more time at the office!"?

Stop the Insanity and Reclaim Your Life!

The first step in reclaiming your life is to make proactive choices, rather than being reactive to your external environment and allowing the events in your life to dictate your priorities.

Being proactive requires you to be conscious and intentional. A body that's used to running on high levels of adrenaline is like a car engine that has the idle set too high. It will take time to retrain your mind and body to slow down in order to make choices that will help you practice better self-care.

Instead of impulsively responding to a request of your time or automatically launching in to work on an unfinished task, learn to stop and ask yourself what's most important. Do you really need to take that phone call right now? Will the world come to an end if you wait until tomorrow to check your email? How about if you turn your pager and cell phone off? Is it critical to clean the house before you go out for the evening?

Are You Running on Adrenaline?

For most Americans, adrenaline has become the drug of choice. Adrenaline is what keeps us going at breakneck speed. When we use adrenaline as our main source of energy, our body's adrenal system -- the system which produces the "fight or flight" response that is supposed to prepare us for battle -- never has a chance to rest.

If you can relate to some of these common behaviors and symptoms, you may very well be using adrenaline as a main source of fuel:

You finally have time to relax. You feel so anxious about unfinished business that, instead of relaxing, you end up doing something on your "to do" list.

You feel exhausted but you cannot fall asleep because you have so many thoughts racing through your head. Or, you fall asleep but awaken during the night thinking about all the unfinished business that needs your attention.

During the workday you find difficulty concentrating on one project because you feel so distracted by a multitude of other projects or tasks you need to do.

You check voicemail or email multiple times a day and feel a rush of anxiety each time you do so. (That's your adrenaline saying "Get ready for battle!").

You typically skip lunch and stay late at the office to try to catch up. No matter how much you do this, you just can't seem to get ahead.

Recharge Your Battery

As technology increases and the pace of life speeds out of control, our adrenal system responds to what our bodies perceive as "danger" by staying in a constant state of readiness. Over time, our bodies get used to staying in this hyper-vigilant state of "fight or flight," making it physiologically difficult for us to slow down. Eventually we work ourselves to exhaustion.

One of the problems with overextending ourselves is that we grow accustomed to getting our energy from adrenaline rushes. So how do we begin to recharge our battery from a healthier source of energy when we get stuck in this chronic state of running on adrenaline? Here are some suggestions to help reduce your reliance on adrenaline so you can take better care of your spirit, mind, and body. Choose one or two of these ideas at a time and practice them for 21 days... the amount of time it takes to form a new habit:

Schedule some time to relax. You may find it stressful to keep these relaxation "appointments" with yourself at first.  Start small -- let's say 15 minutes at a time -- and build it up to larger stretches of time for relaxation.

The next time you are asked to take on a new project, sleep on it and give them your answer tomorrow. This is a simple way to keep someone else's urgency from becoming your next crisis, while giving yourself the time and space to sort out how the request fits with your other priorities. Be more selective as to when you say yes. "No!" is a complete sentence.

Delegate whenever possible. Hire an assistant, request support from your boss, or decide to let go of certain aspects of your work.

Turn your pager and cell phone off after work hours. If you are "on call" 24 hours a day, it's time to renegotiate expectations! The world will not fall apart if you take time off.

Do some deep breathing. When we're running on adrenaline we have a tendency to do shallow breathing. Practice deep breathing while driving or at specific periods throughout the day. Consistent and frequent deep breathing will improve the health of your nervous system.

Eat regularly--three meals a day plus healthy snacks--and make choices that offer a proper balance of nutrients and food groups.

Wean yourself from caffeine. Although a morning cup of coffee or midday soda may give you a jolt of energy, it wears down your adrenal system over time and actually depletes your body of energy. Caffeine can also make you feel jittery or nervous.

Exercise regularly. A brisk walk is one of the best ways you can reduce stress and restore health to your adrenal system. Walk to work, take the stairs, or use part of your lunch break to get your body moving.

Instead of checking your email multiple times throughout the day, schedule two or three specific times for this. Then let others know that you do not live online so they can adjust their expectations if they're used to an immediate
response from you.

Have a set time for returning phone calls instead of being available all day to take each call as it comes in. (That's what voice mail is for!) Again, let others know when you'll be returning calls so they can adjust their expectations.

Clear your desk and work on one thing at a time. Organize your time and space to focus on your priorities.

What's the Bottom Line?

When faced with a stressful situation, put things into perspective by practicing something called "bottom-lining."  A powerful aspect of bottom-lining is that it bypasses the comments of your gremlins. (Gremlins -- a term taken from Richard Carson's book, Taming Your Gremlin: A Guide to Enjoying Yourself--are those inner voices which conspire to keep you from being happy.) Our gremlins would have us believe that nothing we do or say is good enough. When we go right to the bottom line, there's simply not space for our gremlins to take center stage with an insistence that we "should," "gotta," or "have to" do something.

The Gremlin

Here's a bottom-line question to ask yourself as soon as you start feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or burdened by an unexpected request: What's really at stake here?

Unless someone will die because of your inability to complete something right this moment, simply walk away, take a deep breath, and sort out your priorities. After all, the quality of your life is far more important than any task or responsibility you have agreed to take on. And not all tasks are imposed by someone else. Be aware of those self-imposed deadlines that you've created for yourself!

Are Organization and Time Management Part of the Problem?

So many people seem unhappy in their professional lives.  Very few connect that dissatisfaction to being disorganized, which can make a good job seem unbearable. The good news is that it's easy to correct. Some of my executive clients are effective decision-makers on a higher level, but they have difficulty managing the hundreds of micro-decisions they must make daily, often in the form of paper -- memos and letters to read, phone messages to return, mail to sort, reports and proposals to review, and to-do lists a mile long.

"It's not the tigers that eat us alive... it's the gnats!"

Do you put "getting organized" on the back burner because of more pressing things which need your attention? Until you consistently pay attention to non-urgent but important tasks--tasks such as getting organized, weekly planning, self-care, and other preventive kinds of activities--the urgent tasks will continue to multiply, often to a critical state.

You may put off getting organized because you don't have the time. Or perhaps you'd like to hire a professional organizer, but you don't want to part with the money.  Unfortunately, you may already be spending that money now in less tangible ways.

To calculate the costs of disorganization, for the next month keep a log of the costs of doing "business as usual."  Once you have kept this log for a month, multiply the total by 12, and you'll have an annual estimate of what disorganization costs you or the company for which you work.

Kathy Paauw.  Kathy, President of Paauwerfully Organized, specializes in helping busy executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs declutter their schedules, spaces and minds.  She is a certified business/personal coach and professional organizer.


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