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Self-Care Is The Single Most Important Thing You Should Prioritize

Michael de la Maza

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Being an everyday changemaker takes a toll.

The mental and emotional energy required for guiding groups in the shift away from bad habits, toxic ways of thinking, or learned behaviors can be exhausting. I see it all the time in the agile coaching community.

It’s not uncommon for a coach to work with an organization that is particularly difficult, or worse yet, doesn’t want to change. You can orchestrate team exercises, lead emotional conversations, or practice impossible scenarios until the building shuts down, but if the group doesn’t want to take necessary steps, you’re not going to accomplish anything. And, unfortunately, the first person agile coaches typically blame for failure is themselves.  

From first-hand experience, I can tell you some coaches feel worthless and ashamed when they can’t help a team.

But you can’t carry around those negative feelings. You have to find a way to process, address, or diminish them. If not, all the negativity can develop into significant long-term physical and emotional issues. This is why, after 20 years as an agile coach, I’ve found self-care to be one of the most important items on my daily list.

Now, self-care may seem like a nebulous concept to apply to your professional life. What do meditations and yoga have to do with Agile and Scrum? But actually, self-care simply means making mental and emotional space to ready yourself for the day ahead—and to unwind after.

If you’re not sure what that could look like for you, here are a few things I’ve found work for me:  

Find what makes you feel cared for, then build a routine around it.

A couple of years ago, I discovered restorative yoga.

It’s a school of yoga where you hold certain positions for several minutes, I tried it for the first time on a whim, because bodywork has always been a successful form of self-care for me. After that session I was stunned. I could not believe how relaxed my body was, how good I felt, and how re-energized and ready I was the next day.

So now, I build restorative yoga into my regular routine, and I try to maintain it at least 90% of the time.

Of course, like with any good schedule, I really try to give myself what I need based on how relaxed or stressful the week is. During smooth weeks, I might not need to do as much restorative yoga to stay balanced. But during rough or busy weeks, I’ll increase the amount of bodywork I do. For example, not too long ago, I had several challenging sessions with a handful of clients, one right after the other. So instead of making time each day to do a few minutes of restorative yoga, I carved out my entire weekend for it. I went to a Japanese bathhouse and dedicated two hours to hot, then cold alternations. And to cap it off, I did 90 minutes worth of breathing exercises. All with the intention of bringing myself back to a place of equilibrium.

When you start to take care of yourself with the same devotion as you would a problem at work, or a big project for an important client, you’ll set yourself up for success over the long term. And especially after a particularly hectic week, a few restorative practices can help you come back first thing Monday morning, ready to go.

Don’t cave to the stigma surrounding self-care—taking time to breathe never hurt anyone.

A huge reason coaches shove aside self-care is because they “don’t have time.”

But the issue isn’t actually time. It’s fear. Coaches may be worried they’ll be criticized for taking ten minutes to do a short meditation or just breathe. People may think you’re a weakling for getting distracted from delivery. And that’s not a vulnerability many of us are comfortable with.

However, with a shifting workforce, comes a shifting attitude. Millennials and their younger counterparts, Generation Z, are much more accepting of self-care. In fact, they lean into it so hard they’re twice as likely to spend money on it than their Baby Boomer or Gen X colleagues.

And it’s not all yoga and Headspace apps. Your self-care moment can be going for a walk, making a fresh cup of coffee, sitting in the sun in silence, or going for a lunch-break jog through downtown. It’s worth noting self-care can be short and sweet too. Not everyone is going to dedicate an entire weekend to breathing and meditation—I get that.  

What matters is you find something that makes you feel cared for and helps you reset from the stress of your work environment—regardless of what anyone else may say about it.  

Self-care addresses a need before you reach a crisis point.

Look, a lot has been said in the media about burnout in the tech sphere: it’s an epidemic, we did it to ourselves, it’s unavoidable, etc.

But the truth is, burnout hurts you. Period. And that’s why you need to take steps to prevent it, nevermind productivity.

Sometimes, it can’t be avoided. Our schedules get full, our patience wears thin, and we simply don’t make the time for self-care that we should on a daily basis. For me, suffering from burnout can be soothed with a few simple actions:

  • Look at the why: I ask myself why I’m feeling burnt out and get to the root of the problem. If it’s an action within my control, I aim to not repeat it again.
  • Hit the basics: Your mind needs to recover just like your body does. I make sure to get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, and exercise regularly when recovering.
  • Rest: Whether this means a long weekend at home or an actual vacation, you have to actually relax in order to come back to work with any energy.

Obviously, you don’t have to do every piece of self-care I’ve mentioned all the time, but choosing three or four off a list and building a routine for them will keep you happy and healthy. And coming to work as your best self every day can only serve both you and your teams in the long run.

Co-founder, DemingWay.com. We help people learn agile more effectively and at a lower cost. Previously VP of Corporate Strategy at Softricity (acquired by Microsoft in 2006) and co-founder of Inquira (acquired by Oracle in 2011).

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