Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Practical steps for self-care

Last week the Boston Effective Altruism group had a discussion on self-care for altruists. I've written about the topic before, but I wanted to share some of the more practical advice people had.

Think beyond day-to-day choices

Self-care isn’t just short-term decisions like whether to make time for yoga tonight. It’s larger life decisions too, like what job to take, where to live, how to budget money, and how to make time for partners, friends, and family.

For me, having children was self-care. I might spend a day doing nothing but 1) work, 2) care for my kids, and 3) sleep. There’s no “me time” there in the sense of meditation or bubble baths. But the two very different kinds of work are a break from each other. After taking care of my kids for a while it’s nice to sit at a desk and have a break from The Cat in the Hat, and after sitting at a desk all day it’s nice to be with my children instead. (Life with kids is not everyone's idea of a good time, and it absolutely does take time away from my other work. I don't want to minimize this.)

Make lists

One person works for an organization that publishes a list of mistakes made by the organization (not typos, but medium-to-large mistakes). They said when they do something wrong at work, there’s some satisfaction in adding it to the list before anybody else catches it. That way when someone else points it out, you at least have the pleasure of feeling that you were proactive in adding it to the collection before someone else caught it.

Several people also said they keep lists of praise they’ve received or accomplishments they’re proud of.

Be careful with comparisons

The effective altruism movement attracts a lot of ridiculously smart people. I find it easy to feel gloomy about not being as smart as I’d like. But as one group member put it last week, “It’s not about whether I can be the sharpest tool out there, but about how I can make myself sharper.” (This post about how basketball is like intelligence was helpful to me; feeling bad for not being smart enough is like feeling bad for not being 7 feet tall.)

Someone else pointed out that different people need different amounts and kinds of self-care, and that using other people's standards isn't helpful. If you need more hours of sleep or more time away from work than your coworker does, that means nothing about how good a person you are. It just means you need something different than they do.

Step out of your own shoes

I also try to act on advice that I would give other people. Several years ago I was emailing with a younger woman who was trying to figure out how to get more involved in effective altruism. It made me think out what general choices I thought were good ones, particularly in terms of balance between change-the-world effort and take-care-of-yourself effort. When I’m trying to decide something for myself (should I go to this conference even though it’s expensive?) I think about what I would advise a young effective altruist to do.

Consider the long term

This cuts two ways. First, think in terms of a marathon rather than a sprint. Make choices that will sustain you in your efforts over the long term rather than giving up after a few years. This may mean treating yourself with more care than you're otherwise inclined to.

But also consider the precedent you’re setting. If you decide to stop work an hour early today, you’ll probably do the same on future days with similar circumstances. Ask if this is actually a special case, or if it’s the kind of thing that’s likely to repeat often. (It may still be the right thing to do if it turns out you need a shorter work day in general to be functional, but see it as a long-term pattern and not just a one-time choice.)

What other practical tips do you have?


  1. One thing I've found helpful is to pay explicit attention to what self-care-type things work well for me and try to do more of them.

    For instance, it turns out I feel a lot better on days when I get a good amount of exercise, but the effect is subtle enough that I don't automatically feel an urge to get exercise when I need to; I still have to make myself do it.

    I know that a lot of people have this for exercise specifically; for me, it also applies to most other types of self-care--the relaxing things that I end up doing by default are way less effective than the stuff I do when I put effort into it.

  2. Thanks Julia, this is really helpful, I'm often making unhelpful comparisons like these. I love the basketball and IQ post.

  3. Similar to what Ben said, I aim to be observant of when I am feeling like the best version of myself. Then I try to remember to stop and think for a couple seconds about what I'm doing right now, where I am, what I did before this. So much of our lives are on autopilot and follow the grooves of routine that it's easy to miss this subtle but telling data.

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