A long walk, a soothing bath, reading for pleasure. We tend to think of self-care as a distinct break from work and personal responsibilities, as the act of taking a time out from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Making space for rest and setting healthy boundaries between your work and your time off are certainly important tools for feeling centered and well. But self-care practices are about more than rest—they are about keeping mindfulness at the center of all you do.
Caring for yourself, especially in the face of professional pressure, conference or article rejection, financial stress, physical vulnerabilities, and other situations you may not easily be able to step away from, starts with being intentional about your choices and recognizing how they contribute to you feeling your best. In other words, some of the most helpful self-care practices might not immediately be recognizable as such and may surprise you. From time management to budgeting and navigating the free resources available to you, recognizing self-care as an approach to well-being that goes beyond relaxation can be incredibly empowering.
Time management as self-care
Conversations around time management tend to center on productivity, but taking stock of your time and how you use it can go far in helping you regain self-assurance and purpose. Turning to innovative digital tools, cool pen-and-paper visualization techniques like bullet journaling, or simply a classic to-do list you update regularly can help assess what exactly is on your plate.
Not all responsibilities can be shifted or set aside, but knowing exactly how much time you have at your disposal can help you plan ahead to succeed at the projects you’re already working on, resist the pressure to say “yes” to new commitments, and preserve the free time you do have for resting or doing what you love.
Calendars can make life easier
Alongside understanding time management as a self-care strategy comes the importance of making time for difficult, awkward, and messy feelings. Learning how to navigate personal and professional conflict more effectively can help strengthen our mental and physical well-being, and (believe it or not) understanding your calendar as a personal tool can help you do just that.
Scheduling uncomfortable conversations or time with people you may not get along with (but have to interact with) allows you to prepare mentally and emotionally. Especially if you are struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues, mapping out potentially challenging interactions can go a long way towards helping you feel empowered.
Whether you are navigating a relationship with an unsupportive advisor, a frustrating student, or a collaborator who is stressing you out, setting a structure around how and when you engage can help you feel calmer. It will not always be possible for you to avoid spontaneous interactions or even conflict, but understanding the calendar as a personal (and emotional) tool can give you a modicum of control in otherwise chaotic situations.
Our public conversation around higher education doesn’t sufficiently address the economic stress academia places on students and faculty. We need to do a better job of educating prospective students about the very real financial strain they risk when taking on a PhD. For those of us already struggling to balance feeding ourselves and finding a safe space to live while taking classes, serving on a million committees, publishing, and teaching, developing some basic financial literacy can make a tremendous difference.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your school’s financial aid office and ask questions about any loan programs you may be a part of, or find out how exactly stipend, grants, and awards are allocated. Digital resources like Your Life, Your Money from PBS can also be incredibly helpful as you try to figure out a budget, assess how far your salary or stipend can go, and figure out a course of action for your professional goals.
Finding and using resources
More often than not, you are aware of only a small slice of the free resources available to you through your institution, city, or professional organizations you are a part of. Even seemingly small things can make a big difference in your well-being. Get a card for your local library, even if you spend most of your time at your school’s. Check out your local public pool. Find out if your university has a graduate student center, and look into whether they offer dissertation writing support groups, grant-writing seminars, or even free coffee and a quiet place to sit and read. Look into what professional organizations in your field offer conference travel grants (no matter how small) if or when they aren’t available to you through your workplace.
We know that having friends, family, and community around us are crucial resources for thriving. Knowing that you don’t have to do it alone also means knowing where to turn when you need something concrete, and how to make the most of your institutional and structural affiliations.