Sometimes, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. As a psychotherapist, I spend a lot of my day encouraging my clients to focus on their self-care plan and make their well-being a high priority in their lives. And yet, when my world gets hectic (and trust me—as an entrepreneur with two young children, that’s pretty often!), my own self-care is often the first thing to go.
A few years ago, I had an episode of burnout and depression that knocked me off my feet and kept me out of work for 14 weeks. During that period, I realized that I needed to take a much deeper look at what self-care actually means—and how I could build it into my life in a way that felt simple, enjoyable, and sustainable.
What I learned then about myself and the tool I created for my self-care didn’t just get me through my mental health work leave. It’s also been useful in everyday moments of my life since. I can’t say I anticipated a global pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns when I created this tool, but I’m happy to say it has held up even through the past year.
How to Create an Actionable Self-Care Plan
These days there’s a lot of talk about how necessary self-care is for private practitioners. But when you’re working, caring for your family, and trying to find time for yourself, it can be overwhelming to take concrete steps toward a self-care plan.
I wanted to find easy, sustainable, and affordable ways I could practice self-care—even after I returned to work. During that time, I dove deep into the research about burnout and self-care, and the tool I’m about to share with you is a result of that research.
First, Create a List of What Energizes You
The first step to creating a sustainable self-care plan is to think about activities that feel restful and rejuvenating to you. This step is extremely personal, and can’t be answered by the internet or your peers. One person’s idea of relaxation may be uncomfortable, boring, or too similar to work for someone else.
What are your hobbies? What would you be doing if you had no responsibilities or extra time in the day? Think of as many activities as you can, and write them all down somewhere. When I say write them all down, I really mean all of them. Don’t stop to think of the logistics or the cost at this point—that comes later. This is your chance to simply get back in touch with yourself and rediscover what brings you joy.
I know how daunting it can be to create that list, so here are some ideas to consider.
Add something active.
If your self-care plan doesn’t have a physical activity on it, try adding something. You don’t need to suddenly become a marathon runner or join a gym if that’s not rejuvenating to you. But gentle movements like stretching or going for walks can be just as beneficial for your mind as they are for your body.
Add something spiritual.
This is another extremely personal item on the list, and will look different for everyone. For some people it may look like quiet time in nature. For others it may be meditation, prayer, or inspirational reading. Try to think of what connects you to your inner purpose and offers you a sense of quiet.
Add something creative.
You may not consider yourself to be very creative, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from tapping into your creative side. Art, music, cooking, writing, crafts, or building something with your hands are just a few examples of activities that can feel restful and rejuvenating. Many people also get hung up on how “good” the end product is, but creativity is just as much about the journey as it is the destination. The key to choosing these activities is it can’t feel like a chore, and should be separate from anything you have to do for work.
Next, Edit Your List
Now that you have your list (and I hope it’s long!) it’s time to narrow it down a bit. Ideally, you want to limit activities in your self-care plan that are dependent on other people—like tea with a friend. You also don’t want too many activities that cost money—like getting a massage or taking a trip. This isn’t to say those things can’t be forms of self-care because they certainly can.
But the goal of the tool we’re creating here is to build a self-care plan that can be used at any time, from anywhere, and for little to no expense. We want to make your plan as accessible as possible, which is what makes it more sustainable. If many of your activities do involve more planning or money, consider creating two lists—one that would require more planning and perhaps saving, and one that’s accessible for the day-to-day.
Take a look at your edited list, and see what really stands out as the most energizing for you. Which activities replenish you and connect you back to yourself? This is a difficult question for a lot of people, especially those have been neglecting their self-care. If that’s the case, it’s often easier to approach this question from the opposite angle.
Which of your activities would deplete you the most? Do any of them seem daunting even just looking at them on paper? For me, an example of this is eating junk food. It always feels comforting in the moment, but then leaves me feeling like my mood, my energy level, and my physical sense of wellness are actually more depleted. Because I know this about myself, I would prioritize eating healthy meals in my self-care plan, and focus on appreciating the nourishment I can get from them.
Create a Personal Acronym
So, you created a list and then trimmed it down. Now it’s time to turn it into something manageable and memorable. To do this, I’m turning to a tried-and-true favorite of healthcare professionals—an acronym.
Choose three to seven activities from your list. You want at least three so you have some variety to choose from, and no more than seven so it stays manageable. Arrange the words into an acronym that has a nice flow to it and makes sense to you. If you want, you can try to form a single word the way I’m about to demonstrate, but it’s not necessary—it could also be a sentence or a phrase. It just needs to be something that you can reference and is memorable to you.
Let me illustrate how this plays out with my personal self-care plan acronym—WRITE.
W – Writing and Reading
You can see I’ve taken a liberty here and put two related self-care activities into one line. I do quite a bit of reading and writing for my work, so I make sure that the version in my self-care plan is very different. This might look like writing silly limericks that make me laugh or reading fiction that provides me a form of escape.
R – Running and Exercise
Some exercises feel like a chore for me, so I didn’t include them on my list. But running, walking, and yoga really help me clear my head and tend to be things I look forward to, so they get a place in my acronym.
I – Inspiration
This encompasses a wide range of activities. It might be listening to a podcast that gets me thinking, thumbing through an art book, walking in nature, or finding quotes that speak to me. For me, this activity counts as something spiritual, because it helps me feel connected to the world beyond me, even if I’m alone.
T – Time Alone
This is by far the number one strategy in my self-care plan. As a psychotherapist and mom of two young children, I spend most of my time focused on other peoples’ thoughts, feelings, and needs. Time alone is my chance to reconnect to myself and my thoughts, feelings, and needs.
E – Eating and Cooking
I find cooking and eating to be very grounding experiences, and can also be a form of creativity. Not all of my food preparation experiences are satisfying self-care (can we say packing school lunches? No thank you!). But, the times I’m able to have some freedom and time in the kitchen to produce something new, I walk away feeling lighter and more energized.
I initially made this acronym for myself in 2018, but it’s served me very well through the past year of lockdown, as I didn’t need to cut or change anything. This has made me think more about the barriers many professionals have to self-care, and has pushed me to think more about accessibility and affordability of the tools we give ourselves.
If you create your own acronym for your self-care plan—and I hope you will—keep accessibility and affordability in mind as well. You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money, take time off work, or be away from your family to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.