February 5th to the 16th was the annual McGill #SelfCareChallenge. This event was an invitation for students to participate in self-care activities suggested for each day, to share their own self-care experience on social media, and also to reflect on how to keep on taking care of themselves even at those times of the semester when doing so often falls by the wayside – such as during midterms.
Even if the specifics don’t apply to those of us who no longer have midterms, this invitation to take care of ourselves is still very much applicable to graduate students. Forget about the sponsored posts and conspicuous consumption found under #selfcare on Instagram – as Healthy McGill put it in a recent Facebook post, “self care isn’t mani-pedis or a fancy latte (although sometimes it is!) – it’s about listening to your body and meeting its needs.”
To put it another way: it’s to become your own parent. And, as with parenting, different strategies and activities will be applicable to different situations: if I extrapolate from my own childhood, parenting sometimes involves baking a cake for a party, but more often than not it’s about making sure you’re eating your vegetables, getting your vaccines and honouring your commitments.
Broadly speaking, self-care is about 1) assessing if your needs are met, and 2) figuring out how to meet them. Since we all have unique needs and ways to meet those needs, I’m not going to prescribe specific activities. Rather, I’d like to suggest two principles which I find are the most useful when it comes to taking care of myself:
1) Don’t depend on willpower
- When it comes to taking care of myself, one of the best ways to get the most bang for my buck was to make structural changes in my life. By this, I mean developing routines and habits to make it as easy as possible to meet my needs. Because let’s face it: I’m more likely to do things that are easy than things that are difficult.
- In practice, I have a number of ways to make it easier to take care of myself. I rent a basket at the gym to stash my running shoes and gym clothes so that I can’t forget to bring them on days where I want to go exercise. I rarely buy cookies or candy, so that when I want a snack I don’t have to will myself not to eat them. I keep my phone outside my bedroom at night, so that if I have trouble falling asleep I can’t mindlessly scroll Twitter in bed until the wee hours of the morning.
- Making it easier to do the things I want to do and harder to do the things I don’t want to do doesn’t have to cost money, it just requires some creative problem-solving.
2) Embrace reminders
- This is true both on the day-to-day level and on longer timescales. I know myself: both at the lab and outside of it, I can easily lose track of time and end up having to rush to do everything I want/need to get done. I’ve found that the best way to avoid this kind of stress – and make sure I actually do the things I need to do – was to set up reminders for myself.
- Every day, I have both an alarm to wake me up every morning, and an alarm to remind me to start getting ready for bed at night. I find that setting this second alarm ~9 hours before I want to wake up helps me actually get to bed on time and get the sleep I need.
- As I mentioned in an earlier post, I also use Google Calendar a lot. I plan my days and block off time to work, exercise and socialize, and I have set up a dedicated Google Calendar that is all about recurring reminders (to get a new toothbrush every 3 months, to wash my makeup brushes every week, and extra reminders of upcoming project deadlines). When I offload these nagging tasks out of my brain, I am actually able to be more present in the moment, and worry less that I’m forgetting something important.
These are just two broad strategies that I’ve found particularly useful to take care of myself. I hope you’ll find them useful as well. And above all, remember: we have come to grad school to pursue advanced degrees in our fields, and earning these degrees should not come at the cost of our physical/mental/social health. Let’s take care of ourselves while we’re here.
Header photo by @d_of_echo3//@GradLifeMcGill