Updated: May 12, 2019
(aka "8 Easy Ways to Stay Healthy")
This is our three-part series on why it’s important to make certain kinds of investments. As many in the finance world can tell you, an investment is not an expense. Rather, it’s an upfront payment of cash or other resources that can potentially create more value for you. Today we’re working on Part III of the series: The Importance of Investment in Yourself.
As business owners, managers, and executives of organizations working to do social good, we may all be familiar with pushing ourselves just a little further than we probably should. We want to answer just one more email, work for just one more hour, serve just one more client. Our primary focus is often taking care of our organization, our customers and clients, our employees and making sure that we’re moving towards growth and impact. Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t leave much time for ourselves.
We are prone to stretch ourselves too thin in order to serve our clients and deliver projects, while also trying to manage our business, motivate our staff, and develop new business. This is especially true in nonprofits and social enterprises. It requires a delicate balance of managing relationships, putting out fires, and portraying confidence, passion, and determination. It’s exhausting. And it can also be dangerous to our mental health.
Tips and Strategies to Maintaining Mental Health
Whether it’s a full gym workout or a quick walk around the block, exercise has been proven to relieve stress. When we’re busy, stopping everything may be the last thing you actually want to do, but a little activity will cause those endorphins to kick in, leaving you more energized and more motivated when you get back to your desk. And try not to get caught up in “I must work out for an hour every single day” because, as busy as you might be, it can actually just lead to more stress (and more disappointment if you find yourself not able to commit).
2. Go Outside
Studies have shown that being outside in nature may be vital for mental health. So head outside. Take a breath of clean, fresh air. Refocus your mind.
If you're thinking, "I live in a very urban area with almost no access to nature," remember that there are some great public parks in most cities. And depending on where you live, even someone's backyard can do the trick.
Meeting up with friends is another easy way to take care of ourselves. Along with family, your friends are in the unique position to be your biggest supporters while also giving you some brutally honest feedback. They'll help you love, laugh, and unwind and can also help you work through problems, re-focus, and stay on track. If you don't feel like you have the time to hang out regularly with your friends, a good strategy can be to put it on your to-do list or your calendar. Try committing to just once a month at first. Then try twice a month. But truly commit to it. Make it just as important as a meeting with a client or your accountant. Prioritizing it in this way can help ensure that it gets done.
Do you work from home (or with very little social interaction)? Consider renting a coworking space or frequenting coffee shops with other work-from-homers. You don't have to go there all of the time, but changing it up every now and then can really make you happier and healthier.
Want even more socialization? Try creating new reasons to go out and meeting people. Join a book club. Take a class that really interests you. Go on a group walking tour of your neighborhood. There are so many ways to hang out with other people in a fun and friendly environment. You just have to go out and do it.
For those of you in geographic areas with limited groups, tours, and friends, many of these an be found online. Because technology.
(As a bonus, making new connections and building stronger relationships not only helps you emotionally, it helps professionally as well. Isn't that a basic principle of networking?)
4. Eat & Sleep Well
The body and mind are connected. By taking care of your body, you can help take care of your mind.
For example, research shows that our mental well-being is influenced by what we eat. Nutritious eating can lead to reduced mental health problems and an overall balanced mood. A balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins can offer us more energy and a healthier mind.
A coffee and donut for breakfast may provide you with an initial burst of energy, but (as many of us have experience) it won't last and will eventually cause your mind to get cloudy and tired. No time to cook? You can still get a grab-and-go breakfast from your favorite cafe. Just maybe try to be more conscious about the food choices you make.
Sleep is also critical for a healthy mind. It's recommended to regularly get 6-9 hours of sleep each day. Fewer hours or irregular sleep patters can make you more prone to exhaustion, anxiety, decreased concentration, and depression. If you've ever had to pull an all-nighter in school, you know how difficult it can be to function the next day. Imagine trying to run or manage a business where the stakes may be higher.
One of the best things you can do for yourself in this area is to set boundaries. Set a time that you can commit to going to bed each night (that means turn off the computer and put the phone away) and have an alarm set for the same time each morning.
(Eating and sleeping habits can be the most difficult for people to change. Remember, you don't have to change your entire lifestyle all at once. Making little changes step-by-step can increase your mental well-being dramatically.)
5. Do Nothing (no, really)
I mean it. Do nothing.
If you're like most, you may be constantly running from one project to another, from one meeting to another, from one task to another. This type of behavior will absolutely run us ragged and is just plain unhealthy. So take some time out and do nothing. Take a break. Slow down. Force yourself to be inactive. Practice mindfulness. Heck, try meditating. Whatever you can do to turn your brain off and relax.
Just ten minutes of doing nothing every day can significantly improve your health AND (bonus!) your productivity. Yes, it can be difficult to shut down like this, but think of it this way: In the span of an entire day, ten minutes is really almost nothing.
6. Learn & Grow
Professional development is the acceptance that we are not perfect, that we can grow, and that there is always more to learn. If you're thinking, "I really don't have time to take any classes or to attend any more seminars," realize that there are many other ways to develop yourself that don't take any more of your time.
For example, you can listen to motivational, inspiring, or educational podcasts on your way to the office or a meeting. You can play a TED Talk in the background while you perform tedious, everyday tasks (or while you're getting ready in the morning). And if you're a goal-setter, you can include learning as part of your normal goals.
7. Give Back
An often-overlooked way of taking care of yourself is to give back. It may seem counterintuitive, but giving time, energy, and support to others really does increase our mental well-being. The National Health Service reminds us that acts of giving -- of ANY size -- can stimulate the reward areas of our brains. It's one of those conundrums where we want to help others, and helping others makes us feel good, so helping others is both selfless and selfish.
Some obvious ways to give back include volunteering at a school, hospital, or soup kitchen, mentoring youth, and offering your services pro bono. However, giving back can easily be so much more than that. Some other examples include:
Show gratitude to an employee or friend.
Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line.
Notice when someone needs something. Anonymously buy it for them.
Support a family member in need.
8. Say No.
This is the part that most of us struggle with more than anything else.
It's crucial to understand that YOU CAN SAY NO. You don't hae to agree to everything. It's ok to take the day off like you planned, and to wait until tomorrow morning to reply to that text, and to say no to working with a client because they're not quite within your target.
Saying no can be very powerful in both your business and personal lives. But we are so terrified of letting people down or of seeming selfish that we keep saying yes, yes, yes. We say yes until we're overwhelmed and burnt out and are of no use to anyone.
Saying "no" is simply a matter of taking care of yourself.
Setting boundaries can provide some easy ways to say no. Try starting with setting working hours (and sticking to them!). Maybe you decide that 7:00p is your cut-off time (which means you stop answering emails, phone calls, and texts). Make sure others know about your new rule -- and be firm when they inevitably try to bend that rule. Eventually, you being unavailable after 7:00p will be normal, and they will stop expecting a quick reply to their 9:00p message.
Remember, you're not saying no because you're selfish and don't want to help people. You're saying no because you care about your health, stress levels, and overall well-being. You are not abandoning anyone; you're just protecting yourself from a potential nervous breakdown, anxiety attack, and/or depression.
Like the saying goes, "You can't pour from an empty cup" (Tarryne West). In the field of social and environmental change, we want so badly to help everyone all the time. But until we learn to help ourselves first, we will be of no real use to anyone else.