In recent years and in difficult times, many of us have grown to understand the importance of being kinder and gentler to ourselves. Today, the term self-care has come to reference everything from bubble baths to luxury vacations, and trying to grapple with it all quickly becomes overwhelming, exhausting, and expensive!
In the spirit of truly and simply taking care of yourself, here is a list of gentle, free (or nearly free) daily self-care practices you can use to treat yourself with kindness, move a little slower, and find comfort in the midst of your personal and professional responsibilities.
Start your day hydrated
Water isn’t the morning beverage many of us look forward to, but starting the day off with a tall glass of water helps refresh and regenerate your body, especially after a late night studying, grading, or binge-watching Netflix. It also helps you on your way to staying hydrated throughout the day.
No need to invest in a fancy water bottle; just take a moment to fill your glass before bedtime or set out an empty one next to the sink, and you’ll be ready to go when morning comes.
Have a comfortable, quiet place to sleep
Speaking of bedtime, having a clean, comfortable, and quiet place to sleep is perhaps the most important foundation of daily self-care. It might seem silly in the midst of the many demands and responsibilities that drive your days, but taking even the smallest steps to make your sleeping space comfortable goes a long way.
In a rush most mornings? Shake out your bed covers if you can’t make your bed. Don’t have time to freshen all your sheets? Change your pillowcases. Can’t afford blackout curtains? Try a sleep mask. Struggling to fall asleep at night? Aim for as regular a bedtime as you can manage, even if only on weekends.
Stay off your digital devices before bed
I know that this one can feel almost impossible to manage for professors, graduate students, activists, and artists. Studies have shown that exposure to blue light from our smartphones can disrupt our sleep patterns , but it can be difficult to resist the pressure to respond to those two (or twenty) student emails or check Twitter one last time.
Whatever your bedtime, try easing out of the day by staying off your phone or laptop before your rest. Even if you can only manage it for the last thirty minutes of your day, this act of daily self-care can make a significant difference in your night.
Brighten your calendar
Whether analog or digital, our calendars tend to fill up with teaching, research, writing, and other responsibilities faster than we can keep up with. Our calendars are records of what we must do in the days and months ahead and critical tools in keeping us accountable for meeting the many goals and deadlines of an interdisciplinary career.
Yet, our calendars also can be a source of stress as we look across a landscape filled with demands on our time and energy. Try countering this effect by intentionally adding things that make you happy to your calendar. Though they may not feel like things you have to keep official track of, try adding time for meditation, cooking a delicious meal, phone dates with a friend, leisure reading time, or even a bath on the same calendar you use to track the other requirements you manage on a daily basis.
This approach can both remind you of the joyful things that also occupy your time and hold you accountable for prioritizing those positive practices in your life.
Surround yourself with reminders of the people and things you love
One of the many challenges of academic life is its transitory nature. As a graduate student, contingent faculty member, and even as a tenured professor, you move and travel on a regular basis. Coupled with the financial precarity that also comes with this career path, it can be not only tempting but also necessary to minimize and pare down what you own and take with you from place to place.
Yet part of self-care involves taking a more nuanced view of what we need to make our lives not just functional but meaningful. Keeping a small but vital roster of your “most loved” things—be they photos of your nearest and dearest, mementos from special moments, or simply objects you find beautiful for their own sake—can help make any space feel more your own.
Getting creative with passion projects can help you relax, flex new muscles, and even inspire other areas of your life. Although you may want to, you don’t have to invest in expensive tools to bring more creativity into your life. Doodle with pen and paper or take photos on your smartphone. Turn to YouTube for a plethora of great, free instructional content. You could even try making your creativity into a regular community-building practice by taking on a structured challenge like #Inktober and sharing the results on social media.
Play a game on your phone
Although spending less time on your phone can do you a world of good (look no further than #3 on this list!) sometimes you need a quick and easy emotional and psychological break from your day. Simple, repetitive, low-stakes games are a simple way to regroup and take a breather. Spending a little time swiping, popping, and stacking could even help you sharpen your attention and ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. So give yourself a break from the intellectual demands of your day and play your game of choice—just not before bed!
Daily self-care practices are a crucial part of an overall wellness routine and can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. Try out some of the ideas on this list or others and see what works for you. Adapt as needed to bring more mindfulness, peace, and inspiration to your life and career.