With conversations about mental health on the rise, more people are considering the role of self-care in leading a healthy, happy life. There are few places where this conversation is more important than in the world of entrepreneurship. Small business owners tend to be extremely hardworking people who are also hard on themselves.
Still, self-care has been shown to increase overall quality of life for those who practice it. So what exactly is self-care, and what does it look like for the self-employed? Here, experts weigh in on the science-backed benefits of self-care — plus how to make it part of your routine.
Defining self-care is important for helping you understand what it is, what it isn’t, and how it can work for you. While many people associate self-care with self-indulgence, yoga teacher Courtney Johannesen stresses the importance of reframing this approach.
“We’ve all been there — beyond exhausted, and one thing happens that just sets us over the edge. Being overtired, poorly nourished, and run-down makes us more reactive. We might snap at a loved one, get sick, or do something we regret later,” she says.
In other words, rather than thinking of it as a purely personal and perhaps even selfish endeavor, self-care enables us to see the bigger picture.
Licensed massage therapist and yoga teacher Sara Yun adds that self-care also allows us to create a positive sense of self that spills over into how we treat others.
“If you feel good about yourself, you are able to perform small acts of kindness, thereby allowing others to do the same, contributing to a happier local and global community,” Yun explains. She adds that self-care tends to our persistent busyness not just in entrepreneurship, but in everyday life.
“No longer should it be a badge of honor to exhaust ourselves into sickness. I want to see people celebrated for taking a proactive approach to mental and physical health by reducing their stress levels.”
Changing this convention can be as simple as slowing down, taking a breath, and re-evaluating what’s really important. Here are five self-care practices to get you in that mindset.
Many entrepreneurs find that the best form of self-care is taking time in the morning to reflect and set goals. Specifically, setting aside time before work to physically write down your thoughts can help you parse through the mental clutter to prioritize tasks, articulate your needs, and get the most important things done.
One of the easiest ways to do this is through making lists, something that Olia Digital founder Teresa Nigolian says has transformed her self-care routine.
“Every morning, as I drink my coffee, I get a fresh piece of paper and write down what I need to get done that day. Even if it’s not business related, I get it all on one paper and check things off as I go. It seems so simple but taking the time to lay out my day and building it into my routine has become very therapeutic and makes it so much easier to feel accomplished at the end of the day.”
Virtual assistant and project manager Sheri Bennefeld is also passionate about the power of a morning routine for quiet reflection and writing.
“I live in the North where it is very cold and very dark for several months. The greatest gift I give myself is to spend quiet time each morning in front of my Circadian Light. It helps keep my Winter mood in check and sleep pattern consistent. I also use this time to work in my bullet journal, planning my day. It's thinking time, reflection time and time to sip on my favorite tea or a cup of coffee before I really start to dig into work.”
You might try out different practices in your morning routine — like going for a walk or writing in a bullet journal — to see which practices help you feel the most aligned and empowered.
It’s true that practices like yoga, meditation, and being in nature are all ways to de-stress and care for one’s self. But it’s also true that these techniques may not work for everyone. The key to caring for yourself is finding a self-care practice that feels good.
“It's entirely personal and depends on what works for each individual. Self-care can be anything from going for a short walk, to calling a friend, to meditating,” says Yun.
Finding something that works for you also increases the likelihood that you’ll stick to the practice and lean on it when you’re in need. You might start with an activity or hobby that already brings you joy.
Ask yourself: Does golf help clear your head? Have you always been a runner? Do you enjoy making art or cooking? Carving out space in your week to intentionally pursue these activities without the interruption of business will help you find out what makes you feel the best.
Taking care of your mind and body starts with getting enough sleep. Without it, you won’t have what it takes to approach your work with the energy it deserves.
For busy entrepreneurs, creating a new sleep schedule will likely mean powering down your phone and computer a few hours before bedtime each evening. Since screens emit blue light that can halt melatonin production, they throw off your circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall and stay asleep. Swapping screens for reading, gentle yoga, or journaling can switch your brain into relaxation mode, making falling asleep easier.
It’s also important to get ample sunlight in the morning and throughout the day (preferably by spending time outside). “Even just five minutes of sunlight first thing in the morning not only boosts your vitamin D levels, but also helps balance your cortisol (aka stress) levels,” explains STAT Wellness Founder Kristin Oja.
Also try to get your move on in the natural light of the great outdoors. Outdoor fitness supports increased mental focus while exposing you to Vitamin D and fresher, cleaner air. In addition to warding off stress, daily exposure to fresh air improves sleep, lowers heart rate, and stimulates the immune system.
Meditation and mindfulness are often hailed as the keys to stress-free living. But what exactly do these practices look like in regards to self care?
According to certified yoga teacher Tonia Aldworth of Stay Calm Yoga, meditation is simply getting in touch with one’s self. Creating space and time to sit and focus on your breath is scientifically proven to deactivate the stress response and calm the nervous system. Studies have shown that meditation can ease anxiety and depression and increase resilience against stress.
Taking a few deep breaths, unclenching your jaw, and allowing your shoulders to fall away from your ears can halt daily stressors and undo the snowball effect of anxiety. Additionally, Yun adds taking time to tune into your surroundings to live more mindfully can help you live in the moment and release worry about the future.
“To practice mindfulness, all you have to do is focus on what you are doing in that moment: washing the dishes, driving, walking, interacting with others, even breathing. Giving each task your full attention allows you to be present, keeping anxious thoughts at bay,” says Yun.
In turn, we can stop the persistent cycle of rushing and allow ourselves to focus on the present moment. From there, we can better direct our energy and attention to the task at hand.
Entrepreneurship can be an isolating endeavor. Finding people who you can share the experience with is important for feeling supported and cared for, especially during times of stress and overwhelm. Tools like Meetup.com and Facebook groups can be used to connect with like-minded people who are also self-employed and looking for community. Other times, you may encounter this support system as a result of prioritizing your own self-care.
For example, Olia’s Nigolian took a part-time job to help mitigate the stress and uncertainty of an inconsistent paycheck. This decision reduced the stress of financial insecurity and allowed 10-15 hours a week to step away from the computer and get back out into the world.
She also found an unexpected perk: “The most surprising part of it was that many of my new co-workers were in the same boat as me — entrepreneurs and self-employed individuals who needed some financial stability while getting their businesses and projects off the ground.
Having people who understood what I was going through and being able to talk to them openly about my challenges was my self-care saving grace.” Teresa’s experience demonstrates that taking the brave step towards caring for yourself can open up a wealth of opportunities for finding both connection and calm. It also shows that other entrepreneurs have something important to gain by working together, rather than trying to out-do one another’s successes.
“Just because someone is in the same industry as you and has similar, or the same, goals doesn’t necessarily make them your competition. As small business owners and entrepreneurs, we have a lot more to gain from supporting each other than bringing each other down,” Nigolian adds.
Self-care is sometimes perceived as an overindulgent practice, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Taking time to slow down, tune into your needs, and connect with like-minded people is critical not only for your own wellbeing, but for the long-term success of the business you’ve worked so hard to create.
Michelle Polizzi is a freelance writer and editor with over 5 years of experience. When she isn't busy writing or researching, you can find her doing yoga, enjoying the outdoors, or exploring a new corner of the world.