I used to be a stereotype. I was the morbidly obese geek who hated sports and spent far too many hours upon hours a day playing video games, tooling around on websites, and not moving. After all, that would make me sweat and be generally
uncomfortable miserable. I had pretty much no idea how to take care of myself.
Over the past few years, I’ve picked up a few simple, purposeful habits that changed my life in a big way. Nowadays, I am happier, healthier, and I get paid to tool around on websites all day. Not a bad deal, right?
I want to show you how a little self care can go a long way for people with lifestyles like ours.
What is Self Care?
Actual self care is quite a bit more than just the abstract idea of “taking care of yourself” because that’s a fairly empty phrase. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s too vague, too easy to fall away from. Too noncommittal.
Self care is being purposeful in making sure that you are having your needs met, both physically and mentally. To practice self care is to prioritize yourself as much as you would family, friends, and your career. (Or whatever else you consider important.)
As computer jockeys, we can be pretty bad about not considering the toll that our lifestyles take on our bodies. We can sit and sit and sit for hours on end, pounding away at our keyboards, guzzling coffee and Mountain Dew (Code Red, if ya nasty), and not realize we’ve skipped lunch and, most likely, a bathroom break or two.
That (moderately exaggerated) negligence affects our physical well-being, but it also affects our job performance, relationships, moods, mental health, and pretty much every other aspect of our lives.
The real kicker is that you may not realize it’s affecting your overall life because, well, that’s just life. That’s how things are.
But that’s not how they have to stay.
What You Need to Get Started
The broad strokes of what I needed for self care were learning to eat mindfully, learning to exercise, and eventually to seek counseling for my anxiety. All of that combined led to a better relationship with my wife and family, 155-pound weight loss, and eventually a transition from teaching into freelancing. It was pretty drastic.
The self care you need will be different and have different results, obviously, but lots of it can be pretty universal, regardless of the greater scope of your needs. Today, I am going to focus on the general physical aspects of simple self care (#salute), but in Part 2, I’ll discuss the just-as-important mental health side of things.
Stuck on a function? Stand up. Can’t get that div to float correctly? Stand up. Answering email after email after email for what seems like hours? Stand up.
There’s a lot of overblown, hyperbolic sensationalism out there regarding sitting down lately, but the simple truth is that standing up tends to make us feel better. Standing gets our blood flowing faster (which leads to greater focus and concentration, and therefore productivity), it causes you to engage your muscles more often (which leads to better metabolic rates and lowers the risk of cardiac issues) , and it burns approximately 20% more calories than sitting.
The absolute simplest thing that you can do for yourself is to stand up more often. It doesn’t even have to be for more than a minute or two.
Drink Something Besides Coffee, Tea, or Soda
Caffeine is delightful. Sugar is beyond awesome. And in moderate amounts, neither of them is really that bad. In fact, when consumed in moderation, they can be a good way to make your day a little better and brighter.
We software developers and web designers, however, rarely consume either sugar or caffeine in moderation. We have deadlines to meet, bosses and colleagues who count on us. So we have to find some way to keep our focus for extended periods.
The downside to this is that both caffeine and sugar have some serious side effects. While neither are technically addictive, they do create mild physical dependence and therefore withdrawal symptoms with sudden cessation.
Water, on the other hand, can have some of the same positive effects, such as increased concentration and focus without any of the negative side effects or dependencies. You won’t get jittery when you have too much, and your head won’t explode or your body crash if you haven’t had enough.
Of course, water is also the best way to stay hydrated. Coffee, tea, and soda just aren’t as efficient for hydration. (And in certain cases actually be diuretic). Including a few glasses of water each day really is a good way to take care of yourself for minimal effort.
Am I saying go cold-turkey from soda? Nope. Do I want you to stop drinking the tea that relaxes you? Absolutely not. If it brings you pleasure and helps make your life better, that’s a kind of self care, too.
What I am suggesting, however, is that you consider adding something else into your hydration rotation.
Have Walking or Stand-up Meetings
When I was in an office every day, my assistant director and I would do what we called “taking a lap.” We would head out from our basement office and walk around the campus green a few times. During that period, we would talk about our students and employees and just general daily upkeep stuff.
The habit was soon picked up by others around me, and lots of us would have walking meetings around the green.
Honestly, these laps were the best part of my day. I got to see the sun, a change of scenery, and honestly, it strengthened friendships and solidified professional relationships.
At the time, I didn’t consider these walking meetings to be self care. Upon reflections however, they certainly were. Having walking meetings applies many of the same benefits as standing we discussed earlier. They also add networking, socialization, and productivity to the mix, too.
You can easily integrate these into your day if you’re a supervisor or project manager. Just tell your team you’re having a stand-up meeting (or a walking one if it’s available and your team is small enough). They probably have to do what you say. The way I started was by saying, “Hey, let’s go outside and take a lap while we do this.”
If you’re not a supervisor who gets to make calls like that, drop by other people’s desks or cubicles when you need to ask a question instead of emailing or DMing them on Slack. When someone drops by your area, stand up to talk with them instead of offering them a seat.
As a freelancer, the same rules apply. You can ask clients to meet you at a park to discuss things in a casual atmosphere or for a coffee meeting, then walk around the surrounding area as you get to know each other. If you have a phone meeting or conference call, pace around your house or kitchen instead of reclining with your feet up.
I really think you will be surprised at how much of a difference this one change can make for your life.
Take Sick Days
This point applies especially to freelancers, but also to salaried employees: when you feel too bad to work, don’t work.
I would think this point is fairly self-explanatory, but so many people try to “power through” sickness that it hurts them worse in the long term. It could be pressure from higher-ups, a deadline on a project, or just getting billable hours in to fill out your work week.
What happens, though, is that your effectiveness goes down, your productivity suffers, and your body is put under strain that can (and often does) make you sicker than you were to begin with. Then your projects suffer, and your work doesn’t get done.
In addition, you are taking the chance of making other people around you sick, which is a whole other thing with its own set of consequences. If you’re a freelancer, not taking the time to care for yourself, to genuinely rest and recover will result in a net loss of billable hours.
So when you’re sick, just be sick. Rest. Lie down. Don’t think about work or try to telecommute from your bed to get in a few more lines of code. These days, it’s seen as an almost-noble endeavor to power through anything to get the job done and a weakness to acknowledge anything that doesn’t require hospitalization.
But you know what? That’s silly.
Sure, there will be circumstances that call for you to go above and beyond. But that’s just it: you’re going above and beyond. Above and beyond isn’t the standard. It’s going (you guessed it) above and beyond the standard. That’s not fair to you.
It’s up to you to be fair to yourself. Take sick days when you’re sick and rest when you need rest.
That’s It? That’s Self Care?
Kind of. But not really. This is a good starting point if you are like me and had no clue how to take care of yourself. Sustainable well-being is not making large, sweeping changes in your life. As a software developer or web designer, your life is crazy enough as it is. You probably can’t afford to make epic changes.
But you can consistently make small ones, which, over time, can result in dramatic improvements to your well being. You can do a few things like stand up, swap out a Mountain Drew for a bottle of water, or take a sick day when you’re sick. Over time, I promise those small tweaks to your lifestyle will add up into your looking back and realizing that you have, in fact, started to take care of yourself.
Tomorrow: Mental Self Care
Physical health and taking care of your body is only one aspect of self care. The other side is mental health, which can be stigmatized and/or overlooked. In Part 2, I will offer some quick and easily integrated tips on how you can give your brainyparts the royal treatment they deserve.
Article thumbnail image by Bplanet / shutterstock.com