I’m Type A, anal retentive, and organized to my core. I have big ambitions and know it’ll take a lot of work to accomplish them.
Because of all that, I’ve been obsessed with productivity since before I even knew the word for it.
Take how, in middle school, I started doing my homework in little pockets of time between classes and on the bus so that I had more time to watch TV when I got home in the afternoon. (I’d later learn this is the journalistic approach to deep work.)
Or how, when I was recovering from ankle surgery in high school, I’d plan my homework and blogging schedule around when I would need to take my drowsiness-inducing medications.
I mapped out my medication schedule and created a homework schedule based on that. I might not have known it, but I was using classic calendar blocking in those pages of my Spongebob Squarepants notebook.
And I won’t lie. That natural tendency toward planning and systems thinking has served me well. It’s how I always found time for as many hobbies and side hustles as those big ambitions wanted.
But as you can imagine, eventually my obsession with productivity hacks caught up with me.
You see, I didn’t just have big ambitions, I also had big health problems my whole life – both acute and chronic, physical and mental. And my big mistake was thinking productivity could solve them.
That if I just planned well enough or got organized enough, I could somehow manage to push my body beyond its limits.
If you’re reading this thinking, “she sounds headed for burnout, hard and fast,” you’re right.
That’s exactly what happened, and it took me three years to bounce back. Now that I am, I’m determined not to make the same mistakes around lack of balance.
The Balance Between Productivity & Self-Care
For all the talk out there about work-life balance, I don’t think those are the right things to be looking at. Instead, I focus on the balance between productivity and self-care.
Work-life balance is confusing and can set unrealistic expectations.
Do you feel forced to define what counts as “work” and what’s “life”? But wait – isn’t work part of life?
There’s also an implied expectation they should be 50/50 and we should always have everything “together.”
There are just so many reasons that the hunt for work-life balance leads nowhere but burnout for so many people, myself included.
So instead, I propose an alternative: focusing on the balance between productivity and self-care. I like to think of work as a cycle between the two.
I try to be productive when I can be, and rest when I can’t.
No productivity guilt. No self-care shame. Just rest when it’s needed.
And to reach that level of balance, it’s crucial for me to take self-care as seriously as I take the rest of my work and productivity.
I call it making self-care your side hustle, because I’m finally treating it like the serious job that it is.
As someone who used to prioritize my career and productivity over my self-care and mental health, treating self-care like a side hustle – with planning, systems, and strategy – is a life-changing approach.
Here are a few ways I’ve learned to start treating self-care and productivity more equally.
I Take My Self-Care Systems Seriously
1. I Schedule Appointments With Myself
Any marketer who’s been in the workforce for a few years now probably has a slew of recurring events on their calendar.
From weekly department meetings to reminders to pull monthly analytics, you’ve probably figured out that when something’s on the calendar, it’s way more likely to happen.
The problem is, we tend to view our calendars as a work-only tool, so we end up filling it up with too much productivity and not enough self-care.
Time to change that.
I’ve started using my calendar to prioritize and block off time for important activities to care for myself.
Depending on what your own ideal self-care habits are, that might mean creating calendar appointments for:
- Planning out your week ahead of time
- Reflecting on recent goals and events
- Writing in a journal
- Meal prepping
- Spending time outside
- Reading “just for fun” books
- Taking real lunch breaks instead of eating at your desk
I started out adding one weekly recurring event for reflecting on my mental health and self-care on Sunday nights, and let my calendar evolve from there.
Now, my calendar reflects a fairly equal balance between productive work and self-care work.
2. Create Self-Care Checklists & To-Dos
Now that we’ve covered calendars, let’s talk to-do lists.
Did you know to-do lists and checklists literally save lives?
I read The Checklist Manifesto at a low point in terms of my health, and seeing how even the most complex surgical procedures could be made consistent routines through using checklists really stuck with me.
I knew that to-do lists helped me with my productivity and staying on top of my work, and already kept my Todoist app (pictured above) open at all times. But I’d never thought to use project management tools outside of my job.
So I created a new project for my health and started planning.
It’s now developed into a multi-project area of my to-do list, encompassing physical health, mental health, and self-care.
Just like with my calendar, I started with just one item and from there, improved the ratio of productive tasks to self-care tasks in my dashboard over time.
I’ve created to-dos for things I want to do regularly, like:
- Remember to take my medications on time.
- Eat breakfast before I get pulled into my work for the day.
- Check in with my therapist online between in-person appointments.
And turning them into actionable to-dos that I can get the satisfaction of checking off every day has made all the difference in both remembering and staying motivated to keep up these habits.
3. Take Advantage of Automation
Finally, let’s talk automation. As marketers, we know how much easier life is when important things are happening automatically in the background. That’s true whether we’re talking about marketing automation or self-care automation.
Because I was trying to improve chronic physical and mental illness, I learned about spoon theory and started looking for any way possible to save my spoons. And automating as many mundane personal tasks as possible helped me do that.
Here are some of the chores and errands I was able to put on autopilot:
- Switching to a pharmacy that automatically refills and delivers my crucial medications.
- Using ecommerce subscription services to automate buying household items like toilet paper, groceries, and toiletries.
- Remembering to make doctors appointments through an online booking service.
It’s now way easier to keep up with things that I used to spend significant time not just doing, but also thinking about and stressing over. The ones so many of us in the burnout generation spend time stressing over.
Start Working Toward Productivity/Self-Care Balance
We spend so much time working on our productivity, our marketing systems, and other areas of our work. But I’ve always found that when I make it easier for myself to work than relax, I end up working when I shouldn’t.
It was by creating these systems and habits that made it easier to relax and take care of myself, that the balance between energy draining and energy reviving hours in my day started evening out.
So to start taking your own self-care seriously. Think about how you can make it easier for yourself and treat it like you do the rest of your serious work.
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Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
All screenshots taken by author, May 2019