7 ways to prioritize self-care and avoid burnout

When daily responsibilities pile up and there’s hardly time to break for a meal, it’s natural to start living in reactive mode: snacking on whatever’s around because you missed lunch, staying up past midnight to finish work assignments or help kids with school projects, then having extra coffee the next day to make up for the loss of sleep.

Sound familiar? This way of life may work short-term, but experts caution it’s not sustainable. Your body is strong and adaptable, but it has limits. If you’re living in that reactive mode, often foregoing your own basic needs to tend to others, then you’re building yourself up for a breakdown.

“That’s when things continue to go downhill and you snap,” says Shannon Ehrhardt, performance dietitian manager. This affects not only your general well-being, but your relationships, interactions with kids, your job, and your emotional regulation, she explains.

Realistically, the chaos of life and impending responsibility won’t change. But the way you prepare yourself for it can. Carving out time to prioritize your own needs will help you better manage other responsibilities in your life and give you the energy to deal with unexpected situations.

Here, our experts share seven techniques for prioritizing self-care, even on the busiest days, and how each will help you feel more balanced.

1. Pace yourself.

When you can predict the ebbs and flows of your typical day, your time management skills get more effective. “Think of it like creating a budget for your time,” says Anthony Hobgood, a performance manager at EXOS.

Set a flexible daily or weekly schedule, including how you plan to manage work and family responsibilities. Include at least 20 minutes of daily personal time — something that’s enjoyable and will recharge your mood, for example, going for a walk or a swim, meditating, or reading a book. For more time-management tips, check out our schedule guide.

2. Prep your meals.

There are blogs, books, and shows dedicated to meal prepping — and for good reason. It saves time and money, and it helps you avoid the midday snack attack that commonly results in shoveling processed foods that can cause inflammation and increase stress levels.

Set aside time each weekend for prepping (be sure to include it in your schedule from step one). And then during the week you can reheat a well-balanced meal without wasting time or mental energy. Check out these 12 meals you can make from stuff likely already in your kitchen.

3. Keep the carbs and fats.

Your brain will thank you. Why? It relies on healthy carbs and fats for fuel. And healthy carbohydrates like fruits, veggies, oats, and whole-grain bread support serotonin production, which will help you naturally feel calmer and happier.

Start your day off with a healthy breakfast with carbs and protein. We like oatmeal with nuts and seeds. For lunch and dinner, fill half of your plate with colorful veggies, a quarter with an animal- or plant-based protein, and a quarter with healthy carbs like sweet potato, quinoa, or legumes.

“If you're properly fueling your body throughout the day, it will release that regular feel-good hormone and you're going to be naturally calmer,” Ehrhardt says. 

4. Remember to hydrate.

We’ve said it 100 times, and we’ll say it again: hydration matters. More than half of your body weight is water, making it vital to proper function. And hydration levels affect mood, energy levels, reaction time, and sleep.

“A dehydrated brain doesn’t function very well,” says Ehrhardt. Drink a full glass of water first thing in the morning when you’re the most dehydrated. Carry a water bottle with you and continue to drink water throughout the day. Since this is so important, check out the full article dedicated to hydration tips.

5. Track your sleep cycles.

There are 5 stages of sleep during a sleep cycle. Stage 1 is the lightest stage and doesn’t last long. Stage 2 is still a light sleep, but it’s steadier, and breathing and heart rate starts to slow and muscles relax. Stage 3 you enter a deep sleep, and Stage 4 is the deepest stage where breathing, heart rate, and body temperate are at the lowest. The last stage is known as REM sleep, and it’s when you’re most likely dreaming. These stages allow the mind and body to recover from the stress of the day. 

A normal adult typically needs to complete four or five sleep cycles per night, or six to nine hours of sleep. “If you’re not hitting all the stages and/or not experiencing enough sleep cycles, your body isn’t recovering to the best of its ability, and you’ll feel less energized and recovered in the morning,” says Ehrhardt. The more irregularity happens, the harder it is to recover from it. Ideally, we want to spend about 20-25% of our time in REM sleep, 20-25% in deep sleep, 50-60% in light sleep (stages 1 and 2).

Wearable products, such as the FitBit, Whoop Band, Oura Ring, and Apple watch, have sleep tracking features to record your sleep stages and cycles throughout the night. If you need help getting to those percentages, this can help you plan a more effective sleeping routine.

6. Move it.

Your body that is. As little as 30 minutes of movement a day can help transfer the good feelings from your exercises into other aspects of your day. Exercises that elevate your heart rate and stimulates muscles is ideal. The key to success: sustainability. Make sure you’re choosing a routine and schedule that works for you. And you don’t have to take on a heavy sweat session to find success. Simply make it a priority to increase your physical activity and increase intensity over time.

Getting up every two hours and increasing your heart rate for just two minutes can improve blood flow and have a positive effect on your mental focus and productivity. Try doing jumping jacks in place, working in your garden, or having a walking meeting with co-workers if you’re back in the office. Do what feels good to you. (Need ideas? Try one of these 5-minute movement breaks.)

“When you get active, your body produces these endorphins that are feed good medicine,” Hobgood says.

7. Take a deep breath.

Just breathe! It’s simple, free, and effective. All you need is a few minutes a day to breathe or meditate to improve focus, patient, and sleep. And if stress has already taken hold, it can calm your mind and help you regain control of your emotions. Use this quick breathing exercise: Inhale slowly for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds. Check out our breathing guide for more tips.

Looking for more ways to take care of yourself and manage stress? Try these tips to fit in more relaxation and recovery.

About the Author

Lauren Katims

Lauren Katims is a Northern California-based writer and editor.

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