A Practical Guide to Self-Care for Busy People

When it comes to self-care, sometimes a baby step is all you need. And sometimes what feels like a baby step is actually a monumental, life-changing leap forward.

You might feel as though you just don’t have the time to invest in your well-being. I mean, who has the time to take care of their mind, body, soul, and mental health every day while working, parenting, being a good friend, nurturing a relationship, doing the dishes, and all the other random, daily things we might have to do?

The answer?Well, all of us.

The problem is never that we don’t have the time; the problem is that we don’t think the time we have is sufficient to make a meaningful difference in our lives.

I often feel this too. But I’m wrong.

More and more research is revealing that even small amounts of certain positive practices can have a disproportionateeffect on our health and well-being.

Most times, focusing on time-consuming commitments, such as spending an hour at the gym each day or committing to meditation for 30 minutes every morning, can be difficult to find the time for, and, therefore, difficult to sustain. Shorter commitments are not only easier to sustain, but can sometimes bring us similar results.

Putting our health last on our list of priorities is not just unproductive, but downright dangerous. If we do this, we’ll increase our chances of burning out, and recovering from burnout will take a lot more time than we would have spent taking care of ourselves in the first place.

Committing to a self-care routine, no matter how busy you think you are, is, in the long run, just good time-management.

A Twenty-One Minute Self-Care Routine

When I’m talking about self-care, I’m focusing on science-backed practices that are quick to perform and lead to greater levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and lower levels of stress.
I’ve created this little exercise as a way of showing you the difference you can make in your life with even a negligible amount of time. This 21-minute routine includes four practices that can be performed in any order and either all within the same 21-minute block or sprinkled throughout your day.

Practice #1: Spend just 2 minutes writing a positive message to someone you know.
Happiness researcher Shaun Achor says that social connection is “the greatest predictor of long-term happiness,” and that the connection between the two “is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.”

Spending just 2 minutes writing a positive message to someone you know each day can have amazingly positive consequences on your happiness levels. Achor writes,

Start Work By Writing A Two-Minute Positive E-Mail Or Text Praising Or Thanking One Person You Know. And Do It For A Different Person Each Day

Example: ‘Hey friend! I’m thinking about you today. I just wanted to drop you a quick note to tell you I love how positive you are. You really inspire me. Have a great day!’

Practice #2: Spend just 5 minutes communicating what you’re grateful for.

Studies show that being grateful for just 5 minutes a day can make you happier and more resilient in the face of stress and trauma.

I’ve found gratitude to be one of those practices that provides an immediate positive effect. And I’ve found it even more powerful when I stop and recognize that I’m grateful for something or someone when it’s happening or when I’m with them.

Most people choose to journal what they’re grateful for. This is probably the best place to start in order to develop a consistent, daily practice. But some people may find it even more powerful to speak their gratitudes out loud to themselves or to share them with a friend.

Practice #3: Spend just 7 minutes in prayer or meditation.

Meditation is everywhere. It’s one of the most common pieces of self-care advice. Unhappy? Try meditation. Sad? Go meditate. Poor? Close your eyes right now and count your breaths!
Although it’s true that meditation won’t fix all your problems, it can certainly help you find peace of mind and a sense of calm that can create a chain-reaction of positive outcomes.

Meditation is an essential ingredient in this stack because it only takes a few minutes to experience its positive effects. A study at Wharton found that just 7 minutes of mindfulness practice a day improved mental health and could “make students and employees more productive in their work.”

Do you pray?

Research is showing that people who practice prayer experience effects similar to those who practice meditation. Shayla Love writes in Vice:

Dozens Of Studies Have Found Changes Before And After Prayer Or Meditative Activities In The Autonomic Nervous System, Which Controls Relaxation And Arousal, In Parasympathetic Activity, Which Can Decrease Heart Rate And Blood Pressure, Metabolism, Or Respiration. Measurements Of Hormones And Immune Function Have Seen Changes In Cortisol, Noradrenaline, Endorphins, Sex Hormones, And Growth Hormones. Brain Studies Have Implicated Activity Changes In The Frontal And Parietal Lobes, The Thalamus, Limbic System, And Brain Stem, And Show Increases In Grey And White Matter In Certain Areas Of The Brain

Every minute I’ve ‘wasted’ meditating has probably saved me 2 minutes that I would have spent procrastinating or stressing out.

Tool: I’ve found the Waking Up app by Sam Harris to be a great way to start a mindfulness meditation practice. (Not an affiliate link.)

Practice #4: Spend just 7 minutes breaking a sweat.

It turns out you don’t need to hit the gym for an hour to get the benefits of exercise.
Researchers at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida created the popular 7-minute workout. The workout is a type of High-Intensity Circuit Training. HICT is a…

“combination of aerobic and resistance training in a high-intensity, limited-rest design.” Studies show that it “can deliver numerous health benefits in much less time than traditional programs.”

You might not get jacked on this workout, but if you’re busy, it’s a research-backed, timesaving way to take care of your physical health and boost your mental outlook.

Here’s a sample 7-minute workoutfrom the study:

Exercises are performed for 30 seconds, with 10 seconds of transition time between bouts. Total time for the entire circuit workout is approximately 7 minutes. 

1. Jumping jacks Total body 
2. Wall sit Lower body 
3. Push-up Upper body 
4. Abdominal crunch Core 
5. Step-up onto chair Total body 
6. Squat Lower body 
7. Triceps dip on chair Upper body 
8. Plank Core 
9. High knees/running in place Total body 
10. Lunge Lower body 
11. Push-up and rotation Upper body 
12. Side plank Core

For image references of the movements, see the photos in the study.

If you have the time and you want more of a challenge, just repeat the circuit 2–3 times.

Got more time? Try these slightly longer, science-based practices.

  • Spend 10 minutes talking with a friend:Althoughit’s beneficial to invest as much time as you can with friends, even small amounts of time can be powerful. According to a recent study, even as little as 10 minutes “of social interaction a day helps improve the wellbeing of people living with dementia in care homes.”
  • Spend 18 minutes walking in nature:Research shows that people who spend 120 minutes/week (or just less than 18 minutes/day) “in nature are far more likely to report being in good health and having higher psychological well-being, as compared to those who don’t embrace nature.”
  • Spend 20 minutes writing in a journal:You may have heard that journaling is beneficial, but a study showed that after three consecutive days of just 20 minutes of journaling, people medically diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder reported significantly lowered depression scores.
  • Spend 45 minutes making art: According to a study in Art Therapy, “45 minutes of creative activity significantly lessens stress in the body, regardless of artistic experience or talent.”

You Can Create More Time

We shouldn’t assume our busyness is only caused by necessary, helpful things. We might be legitimately busy with many important commitments, but chances are, we also have some negative habits that are draining our time and energy.

Track your time

One of the most powerful things you can do to create more time is to find where you’re wasting it. Spend a few days tracking the time you spend on things. Try to notice what you spend your time on when you’re not doing things already written in your calendar. This might show you that you have more time than you think.

Stop unhelpful habits

As you track your time, you may find things that are counterproductive. Here are a few examples of things we can STOP doing that will give us more time for the helpful things we want to do.

  • Spend 15 minutes and 45 seconds less complaining: There’s a 10-year-old article in the UK newspaper, the Daily Mail. It claims that the average adult spends this much time each day complaining about things like the weather, the restaurant service, whatever. Cut this down and you’ll have more time AND you’ll increase your well-being.
  • Spend 20 minutes less sitting: For the average person, “only 20 minutes less sitting per day is enough to maintain good health and muscle mass,” according to Finnish researchers. You could try using this time for your walk outdoors or your workout.

We can create more time by becoming aware of, and stopping, bad habits that drain our time and energy.

The Takeaway

When you’re busy, it can feel next to impossible to make time for your own well-being. We often feel overwhelmed and think we don’t have the time to take care of our mind, body, soul, and mental health.

But this simply is not true. Here’s what is:

1.You have the time, you just don’t think it’s sufficient to make a meaningful difference.

2.But it is. Research reveals that many self-care practices only take minutes to have a positive effect.

3.Here’s my daily, 21-minute self-care regiment: Spend just 2 minutes writing a positive message to someone you know, 5 minutes writing down what you’re grateful for, 7 minutes in prayer or meditation, and 7 minutes breaking a sweat. This can be performed in any order, any time of day, all together, or spaced out. Pushed for time? Try that.

4.Still think you’re too busy? You can create more time by 1) tracking what you’re spending your time on, and cutting out bad, time-wasting habits.
Taking care of yourself is productive and smart. What’s not smart? Drowning in busyness, neglecting yourself, and burning out. Recovery from that burnout will take longer and be much harder than 21-minutes a day.

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