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Self-Care Is Leadership by Example

It's the point in the year where you're likely tired and needing a break but probably not taking enough of one.

Happy Spring! The months seem to have flown by and now we find ourselves deep into our annual work groove. Have you taken a break yet?

We’ve reached that part of the year where we’ve worked enough that it’s taken a toll on us but typically have a fair amount of time left before the traditional summer vacation season arrives.

So where does this leave us? Tired and needing a break but probably not taking enough of one.

Let’s survey some opportunities that may encourage us to engage in better self-care:

First, it’s important to recognize that self-care is a required constant.

Second, realize that your ability to care for yourself (and therefore to care for others to whom you’ve chosen to be committed) is greatly enhanced by having an overarching vision and mission for your life. 

In fact, one of the most rewarding experiences that you can have on vacation is to engage in reflection and in re-envisioning your life (both personal and professional). As renowned consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox has observed, having such a vision for our lives is imperative to navigating them successfully, especially as we progress through the typical life stages. It’s up to us whether we choose to heed this wisdom: “Ageing is compulsory, but learning is optional.”

Which brings us to the signature example of strategic self-care: the vacation. Have you taken one yet this year? If so, where’d you go and what memories did you create that continue to nourish you now? If not, what’re you waiting on? The fact that you’ve been so singularly focused this year is evidence that the work will indeed be there when you get back: what’s keeping you from taking some time for yourself and your loved ones?

Further, what do you do on vacation? Do you unplug, go off the grid and just chill, or are you an active vacationer, exploring new peoples and places on your own and/or with loved ones? Hopefully, you do a bit of both, as the research suggests that both passive and active forms of physical rest are beneficial to us.

In fact, physical rest is just one of seven types of rest that we all need, according to Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, whose Ted Talk on this topic has been viewed almost 150,000 times. Additionally, she observes, we need to rest mentally, sensorily, creatively, emotionally, socially and spiritually, too. For example, while “Creative rest reawakens the awe and wonder inside each of us” and social rest encourages us “to differentiate between those relationships that revive us from those relationships that exhaust us,” spiritual rest enables us “to connect beyond the physical and mental and feel a deep sense of belonging, love, acceptance and purpose.” Each of these types of rest should be reflected in our self-care both tactically and strategically.

In alignment with these insights, Ms. Wittenberg-Cox has offered examples of areas of inquiry that will not only help us to rest but to strengthen our vision for our lives when we returned to work. For example, is there a passion in your life that you pursued ardently some years ago but have not engaged as fully in the past few years? Or is there one that you’ve always wanted to pursue but not yet made this investment in yourself and your own satisfaction? Committing to doing so will enable you to experience what she describes as “a shock of recognition” and a “sort of coming home to oneself” by engaging in these idiosyncratically meaningful and nourishing pursuits.

The key, Ms. Wittenberg-Cox advises, is to “leverage purpose with love and thereby multiply both.” What do you love to do and how often do you gift yourself with these experiences? Imagine if you chose to gain greater clarity about these opportunities and then to pursue them proactively: how much more fulfilling would your otherwise busy life be? And when you realize that inviting others to share these pursuits can deepen and broaden your relationships with them in mutually beneficial ways, you’ll understand that investing in your own care can be a way to care for others as well.

So, book a flight somewhere with loved ones in tow, invest some time in chilling, some more in re-envisioning and some exploring. In this way, when you return to work, you’ll be nourished by an experience that’s uniquely meaningful to you and that will offer memories to savor for years to come.

Taking periodic extended pauses in your work isn’t the only way to care for yourself; you should also engage in tactical efforts to complement this strategic self care.

For example, how often do you take breaks during your workday and do you do so on purpose and at scheduled times or irregularly? As Dr. Dalton-Smith points out, scheduling “short breaks to occur every two hours throughout your workday … can remind you to slow down” and achieve better focus.

In fact, taking this a step further, leadership expert and Prof. Mike Erwin has advised that consciously building multiple brief (i.e., 15-minute) periods of solitude into your day can create the “space in our minds to do the hard thinking that is essential to good decision making and leadership.” Echoing Dr. Dalton-Smith’s findings, Prof. Irwin notes that our ability to focus is affected by our level of busyness and that learning “how to be less busy” will actually enable us to accomplish more:

"One of the biggest reasons we struggle to focus is because we fill our schedules with too many commitments and we consistently prioritize urgent tasks over important ones."

Intentional schedule creation is just one of the ways that we can improve both our focus and productivity. It also enables us to say no to opportunities that may be attractive but ultimately are distractions that increase our workload and stress while diminishing our productivity. As a group of professors from leading universities around the country noted in a recent article:

"Having autonomy to decide when and how one engages in … work offers a sense of control in a potential reprieve from the emotional labor that … work often requires."

Not surprisingly, the professors also stress the rewards of rest and recovery, as the former “is critical for resilience to adversity. This includes taking time off from work when needed to prioritize mental health and well-being.” And the latter enables “a restoration process that returns stress -induced strain and resources to pre-stressor levels. … The act of restoring one’s physical and psychological resources has been shown to positively affect employee well-being and work engagement.”

The third and final component of effective self-care is to develop a plan to achieve it. For example, how many vacations do you take each year, when do you take them and why do you take them? Being able to answer these questions enables you to live into the opportunity to restore yourself periodically and, in so doing, to live your best life on purpose.

Further, how much of your Paid Time Off (PTO) do you take in a given year? As this research demonstrates, the higher your percentage, the better off you’ll be both personally and professionally: not only will this encourage you to maximize your productivity at work, but it’ll also help you enjoy more fully the life you envision for yourself and your loved ones outside of it.

Even better, leading by example in this way has been shown to be a powerful driver of employee well-being and engagement. As the eminent consulting firm McKinsey has observed, “Managers who prioritize their own well-being can help others prioritize theirs.” What better way is there to demonstrate your sincere care for and commitment to the people in your life (both personally and professionally) than for you proactively to help them care for themselves?

Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.

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