Self-care is challenging yet essential for almost anything you care about. In this post, I’m going to address why I think that’s true, and offer a few strategies that you can implement to manage yourself more deliberately.
If you’d prefer a more animated version of this post, you can find a recording of my talk on self-care at the Effective Altruism Student Summit 2020 at the bottom of this page.
Why it matters
By “self-care”, I mean paying attention to and supporting your physical and mental well-being. It’s a broad category, including things like the state of your mind, emotions, relationships, and resources.
Your physical and mental well-being matters both intrinsically and instrumentally. It matters intrinsically because your well-being is valuable in its own right. Whatever you can do to increase your well-being is a good thing. I emphasise this point because it often gets left out of the discussion around self-care, which typically centres around how self-care can make you more productive at work.
Besides, your physical and mental well-being matters instrumentally, as it’s arguably one of the critical ingredients to almost anything you may want to achieve in life. For instance, if you want to maximise your lifetime impact, you’ll find that hard to do while struggling with your own health. Instead, you’ll likely burn out and quit before you’ve reached the positions where you can have the biggest impact. This way, you’ll help others less overall and suffer yourself at the same time — a lose/lose situation.
One way to look at the instrumental value of self-care is through the frame of the cycle of sacrifice and renewal. It’s a simple model that has two parts: “Sacrifice” is any activity that burns through your reserves in the pursuit of your goals, and “renewal” is any activity that replenishes your reserves and builds capacity for the next sacrifice cycle. You need both parts for maximum effectiveness and productivity. How much you get out of each sacrifice cycle depends on how well you manage the renewal part.
This model shows that you can’t afford not to take care of yourself, and whatever you can do to renew yourself is itself productive work. Athletes understand this and plan their periods of stress and recovery accordingly. A few years ago, I started viewing myself as a “corporate athlete” because it raised the bar and evoked the right attitude and behaviour for me. A label that actually made me smarter.
Why it’s hard
Many factors push against good self-care, especially among altruistic and ambitious people. I’ll name a few factors to make a case for why it’s hard to look after oneself and to motivate the next section.
- Limited self-awareness: It’s hard to notice how you’re feeling and whether your needs are met — it requires the capacity for introspection and space where you can slow down and turn off external noise and distractions.
- Delayed consequences: Self-care habits compound over time, which means that the most significant outcomes lag behind. The lack of immediate results makes it hard to start and maintain good self-care habits and notice and stop bad ones.
- Achievement drive: Your internal ambition and drive can make you somewhat mindlessly focused on getting things done in the moment and cause you to lose perspective on how you manage yourself over time.
- Demandingness and social comparison: It’s somewhat common for people who discover effective altruism to feel like they now have to spend every waking hour toward helping others, continually feeling like they’re not doing enough. Social comparison with “the most impactful people” in the community can reinforce this dynamic and put altruists under a lot of pressure.
- Lack of supportive social cues: Many social environments don’t inspire and reward good self-care habits, but instead reinforce a sacrifice mindset. Moreover, what others are doing to take care of themselves is often invisible to you, leading to a false impression that “others don’t need it.”
- Biased view of future time slack: In general, people expect that they’ll have more idle time in the future than they do in the present, leading them to make more sacrifices now with the promise of investing more into recovery later. And when tomorrow comes, they repeat the same mistake.
How to start
Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, and I’m not giving medical advice. If you believe that you might have more serious mental or physical health issues, please reach out to a professional. As a threshold, consider whether your mental and physical health is interfering with your capacity to function in daily activities, both professionally and personally. You could reach out to Ewelina Tur who offers psychotherapy for EAs.
I believe that the best self-care strategies depend a lot on the person and their context. However, there are a few high-level strategies that seem robustly positive, which I’m sharing below. I encourage you to take them as a starting point for your reflection and experimentation.
- Set boundaries: The people I work with (myself included) are typically “happy workaholics” who love what they do and always have more work to do. They have a bias towards sacrifice over renewal, and they find it hard to strike the right balance in the moment. They need to make decisions about how they manage themselves in advance, by setting and enforcing supportive boundaries. Schedule time in your calendar for renewal every day, and treat it as if it was a work meeting.
- Establish self-care routines: Fill the space that you’ve created above with practices that reliably rejuvenate you. Those might look very different from person to person. The important thing is to find something that works for you, start small wherever you’re at right now, and do it consistently. Here are a few strategies that I’ve found helpful:
- Mindfulness: Create quiet moments in your day to tune in to what’s going on inside you. Regular practice increases your self-awareness, which allows you to make good choices about how you manage yourself. Any method that helps you to become aware and attend to your experience is helpful — it could be meditation, journaling, or an honest conversation with an empathic friend.
- Exercise: Exercise has a myriad of benefits. The key is to find some form of physical activity that you enjoy and can do regularly. It can be as simple as going for a walk after work or doing a 7-Minute Workout every day.
- Sleep hygiene: Sleep amplifies or diminishes almost everything else that you do. There are many articles out there on how to get a good night’s sleep, so I’ll only cover a few key points: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Do calming activities before bed and after you get up, such as stretching, journaling, or going for a walk. Pay attention to how your actions and environment affect your sleep quality and improve what you do over time.
- Seeking joy: There’s a risk that your self-care practice turns into yet another obligation, to the point where it feels more like additional sacrifice rather than renewal. To avoid this, deliberately choose to play a different game during your self-care time. Merely do what you enjoy, without aiming for some other outcome. Do whatever makes you feel alive in the present moment. Stop where it starts to feel like work.
- Reflect regularly: Reflection allows you to step back and evaluate how you’re currently doing, assess how effective your self-care strategies are, and decide what you might want to do differently moving forward. It allows you to monitor the changes in your life and stay tuned in to potential wake-up calls and notice early when you’re heading down the wrong path.
- Daily: Set aside one minute at the end of your workday to check in with yourself and deliberately choose how you’re going to use your downtime for renewal.
- Weekly: Look back and reflect on how you’ve managed yourself during the previous week. Look ahead and anticipate the demands on your resources in the week ahead, and make a plan for how you’ll manage the cycle of sacrifice and renewal.
I’d encourage you to take a few minutes right now to reflect on the following:
- What are your learnings and takeaways from this post?
- Based on those, what do you want to do differently moving forward?
- What’s one thing you can start doing today? What exactly will you do?
- How can you make sure that happens?
If you’d like to explore these ideas further, here are a few resources you might find useful:
- Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less – Alex Pang
- Desperation Hamster Wheels – Nicole Ross
- Work-Life Balance Is a Cycle, Not an Achievement – Harvard Business Review
- The Making of a Corporate Athlete – Harvard Business Review
- 6 Ways to Weave Self-Care into Your Workday – Harvard Business Review
- Rest in Motion – Nate Soares
- Making Self-Care Tactical – First Round Review