NOTE: This post is about how to take care of yourself when you’re too pressed for time for normal self-care. But first, some back story.
In the summer of 1979, after two of my roommates were mugged and I narrowly escaped the knife myself, I left Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant for parts unknown.
I’d arrived in New York five years earlier with two books, two cameras, and a knapsack full of clothes, but by the time I left Brooklyn I’d accumulated a small U-Haul truck’s worth of possessions. With two Parisian friends, I loaded up my collection of books, tools, photography equipment, random bits of furniture, and a Yamaha 200 motorcycle into a rental truck. We drove across New York State to Buffalo, where I dropped everything off at my mother’s house – including the Parisians, who were continuing their trek across America.
A few days later, I flew to London to begin a two-month trip through the UK and Europe, to be followed by a three-month residence at an artist colony in Virginia, where I hoped to figure out where I’d settle next.
Two days before my return flight from Brussels, Belgium, the airline I had planned to take home went out of business. The next flight I could get a seat on was a week away, and I was short of enough American Express Travelers Cheques to buy another ticket.
But fear not! I’d worked my way through college and supported myself in New York City by doing a variety of construction jobs, and one of the trades I’d learned was roofing. And as it luck would have it – or so I thought – the brother of the friend I was staying with was a roofer.
When I left New York, I had sworn off construction work, figuring that if I continued I’d end up missing a thumb or walking with a limp. But this job was low stress, and actually fun. Although the Belgian materials and techniques were a little different from what I’d used, the work itself was essentially the same and within a day I was keeping up with the rest of the crew. I made more than enough that week to pay for the flight home.
Toward the end of my stay at the Virginia artist colony three months later, I was still without a next destination. An opportunity arose to extend my stay by helping to build new artist residences. “Why not?” I thought. Nothing bad had happened during my brief job in Belgium, and this job, too, looked like fun.
Three weeks into it, I had my answer in the form of two ruptured disks. The days of supporting myself with construction work were now behind me and I had to find another way to keep bread on the table and my writing and photography habit alive.
I’d spent my childhood as a kid scientist and my first year of college as a Cornell engineer. I knew that if push ever came to shove, I could work with computers. When I recovered from the back injury enough to become mobile again, I enrolled in a crash course in computer programming at Boston University.
And this is where mini self-care comes in.
The B.U. program packed a minor in Computer Science into one summer school session. Material for each course that would normally would have taken a semester to cover was squeezed into seven days. It was a brutal academic experience unlike any I’d experienced. Every day packed in two weeks’ worth of coursework: Each evening was our “weekend,” and each weekend a virtual semester break.
However, the program came with unintended benefits. Besides learning the fundamentals of everything from hardware architecture to LISP (the original language of artificial intelligence), I stumbled, inadvertently, on mini self-care.
Inside my maelstrom of computer intensity, in order to stay sane I looked for small, quiet spaces in which to recover. I took short walks from the computer buildings to the main campus, where for a few minutes I’d gaze out at the boats and ducks on the Charles River. I took five-minute coffee breaks. I brought a paperback novel with me and read a few pages during lunch. Unlike my classmates who lived nearby and spent most of the night toiling at computer terminals in the lab, each evening I walked back to Cambridge for a return to normality and a few hours of sleep.
Of the 24 men and women who began the program, I was one of only eight who completed it. I believe my improvised mini self-care had something to do with it.
Mini self-care is the abridged version of full-sized self-care.
Many of us have evolved a set of activities that help us feel balanced and relaxed and that allow us to recuperate from stress. We might have a hobby, take trips or vacations, practice yoga, meditate, binge-watch a television series, hike or take walks, swim, play a sport, garden, go for a ride, and so on. We do these things regardless of whatever else is going on in our lives, and they help to restore equilibrium when the tensions of work, health or family problems – or even a bad winter – wear us down.
But what can we do when we don’t have time for any of that? When even half an hour of yoga or a 15-minute walk seems like yet another burden in an already overburdened day, and a week-long vacation feels like an impossible dream?
We’re wired to handle short-term stress, but when stress is continuous for too long, the constant flow of the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine takes a toll. When we reach a point where there’s nothing left to give, we “burn out.”
Burnout leads to feelings of hopelessness, depression, apathy, and physical and emotional exhaustion. It hampers work, home life, health, and undermines most of what we find satisfying in our lives.
The optimal way to avoid burnout is to reduce the stress and weave back into our lives what we find restorative. However, when time pressures won’t allow that strategy, an almost-as-good alternative is mini self-care. Although mini self-care may not be as reinvigorating as the longer forms, it will help to withstand the stress.
- Self-care: You do yoga for self-restoration. Mini self-care: Pick one pose and do it for a couple of minutes two or three times a day.
- Self-care: You like to walk or run. Mini self-care: Take a five-minute walk around the block.
- Self-care: You like spending an hour at the end of the day reading. Mini self-care: Carry a book with you and read a couple of pages at regular intervals two or three times throughout the day.
- Self-care: You like to talk with friends on the phone. Mini self-care: Exchange short texts throughout the day.
- Self-care: You take two-week vacation trips. Mini self-care: Spend a night away on the weekend. If you can’t take a night, walk downtown and pretend you’re a tourist.
And so on.
Mini self-care isn’t a permanent replacement for the full version, but many find it helpful not only in warding off burnout, but in feeling more balanced in times of stress.
To create your own mini self-care plan:
- Make a list of the things you do that feel restorative
- Figure out the shortest version that still feels meaningful. The 80/20 rule often applies: you can get 80% of the benefit from self-care activities by spending 20% of the time you’d really like to spend.
- Decide when to do your mini self-care. Mini self-care is more effective if it’s incorporated into a routine. Schedule some activities for morning, do some at lunch, and do others in the evening.
- Add randomized mini self-care. Do one self-care activity randomly throughout the day. For instance, several of my clients who meditate use an app that makes a gong tone or buzzes to signal them to stop what they’re doing and take three long, slow breaths. The slow breaths interrupt what they are doing just long enough for them to get a fresh perspective. But you could instead stretch, go for a quick walk, drink a glass of water, or just zone out for a minute — whatever feels like self-care for you.
It’s been decades since I last nailed down a shingle or wrote a line of code, but mini self-care continues to be helpful in burnout prevention, which is common in my profession. Although I’m not as diligent as I could be about my morning, lunchtime, and evening mini self-care routines, when I practice them, body, mind, and spirit all hum along much more smoothly, regardless of the level or duration of stress.
David J. Bookbinder
P.S. This is a first draft of what will eventually be a chapter in a book. Responses, corrections, and any other observations are welcome, either via email or, preferably, as comments on this post.
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