The Need For Self-Care in an Insanely Busy World

May 3, 2016

by Ravi Raman

No matter what, don’t eat the marshmallow.

That’s what the research says.

If you listen to social media and the prevailing wisdom of water-cooler chatter, which I hope you don’t, you would think that the path to living an exceptional and successful life is paved by hard work, toil and sacrificing yourself to achieve gain down the road. Self-care is anathema.

Instead, focus on the things society tells you are important. Make more money, climb the corporate ladder, adopt a bigger title, and eventually, success will follow. Just make sure you are really focused and putting in the effort!  Then, in your old age, enjoy as many marshmallows as possible!

Assuming you make it that far.

Feel like you have been working hard for a long time, and still not getting results?

If you were to complain, you might hear “work harder and be patient” from your peers (or boss or family members)!

This is the party line. It’s especially true if, like I used to be, you are surrounded by motivated and successful professionals and working in a fast-paced industry. If you work in the tech industry, aside from the unicorn firm that has embraced a different work culture, a hard work ethos is likely ingrained.

The Laziness Myth

It wasn’t always this way, and in many cultures, particularly those where manual labor was and still is the only way to feed yourself and your family, rest is often taken and intentionally done so. It is not the mark of slacking. It is the natural thing to do when you have been working in the fields all day or carry goods to and from the market. You can’t slog all day long forever and survive. Survival depends on rest.

It’s called “pacing yourself.”

Today, if you are working in the knowledge economy where the only things that are moving for most of the day are your fingers or your mouth, the situation is different. Your physical body isn’t naturally self-limiting your activity. It is also frowned upon to take care of yourself. It’s less obviously needed but still required more than ever.

Cutting out on a Friday, leaving the office at 3 pm to hit the mountain biking trails before sunset, napping in the afternoon…these are signs of weakness, lethargy and lack of commitment. It’s not that anyone will say this to your face. It’s that this is the subtext that runs through people’s minds. I know this because I’ve heard it and felt it myself before I left my corporate gig.

We celebrate hard work and criticize self-care, if not outwardly, at least internally based on what we choose to value and the stories we tell ourselves about what is the right and wrong way to work and succeed.

My belief is that the path to being happier (and fruitful and productive, in however manner you define those things) begins not with outward accomplishment and doing more of anything. It comes from first taking care of yourself. It’s about proper pacing, so you can give it your all when necessary and ensuring proper recovery.

If you are an athlete this concept will be familiar to you. Now apply it to your work.

Self-Care is Not Indulgent

In fact, it is the only way you can ever be in a position to help others and provide even greater value to society. If you are confused about this statement, don’t stress it, you are probably caught in the “hard work” trap yourself.

This thought exercise will help you see the need for a way out of the trap:

  1. Imagine the opposite of self-care. Let’s call this “self-neglect.” Imagine what it would be like to make self-care that last thing in the world you cared about. Instead, you just focused on working harder and harder and doing more and more.
  2. Next, imagine what would happen if you completely neglect your wants and needs (beyond basic survival needs) for a sustained period, say, several years? What would happen to your health? What would happen to your relationships? What would happen to your motivation? What would happen to your happiness? What kind of life would this be?

Not a good one as far as I’m concerned.

The Antidote

The antidote to this horror story is to take care of yourself first and before taking care of your company, your boss, and your co-workers. Yes, I’ll even say that you must take care of yourself before taking care of your family.

We hear this message on airlines:

“In the event of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first, then help those around you.”

Not a bad credo.

If you are a boss, you should be encouraging your teams to take care of their own needs in addition to the needs of the company. Who will perform better and be more pleasant to work with: team members who are run ragged by working hard or people who are rested, refreshed and ready to go? As a boss, how might you give your team permission to take care of themselves?

The answers are obvious and not hard to implement, though it will take courage to buck the conventional wisdom given how much pride people (and teams and companies) place on working hard. If you are a middle manager in a large business, it can be tricky not to follow the party line. It’s still worth doing.

Stories of billionaire founders like Elon Musk (100-hr work-weeks) and Jack Dorsey (80+ hour work-weeks) doing what seems impossible through a 1–2 punch of profound intellect and work ethic doesn’t help. It perpetuates the myth that working yourself silly being a good thing (Note: I’m not saying Elon or Jack work themselves silly, I’m saying that is a conclusion most observers draw from what is being reported about how they work).



I’ll close with a personal example of how important self-care is to my family. It’s so important I radically changed my entire life (new careers, sold our house, changed living locations, EVERYTHING changed really) to ensure that our lifestyle was conducive to creating the environment that we would be happiest with. We prioritized self-care highly.

To underscore this point, my wife, long ago, got a tattoo on her right arm, to remind herself of the power of self-care, in the midst of a world that always screams “go-go-go.”

Her tattoo stands for “Sabbath” or “shavat” which carries the powerful meaning of “rest” and “ceasing from work”. A great reminder. Now that we are married, I get to look at this reminder as well. It signals to me that I can only help others when I first care for myself.

Get Started

Wondering where to start?

The starting point towards greater self-care is with yourself. Start by asking yourself two powerful questions to uncover what you can do and what you can stop doing to move the needle in a positive direction when it comes to your own self-care.

  1. How could you take better care of yourself? What routines and rituals can you add to improve your well-being?
  2. Even more importantly, what things could you stop doing to create space for more rest and relaxation in your life?

Whatever comes to mind, make note of it and put it into practice. Notice that by taking care of yourself, you are able to contribute even more to the people around you when it really matters. Notice how my being what some might consider “self-indulgent” you can be of service more than you ever thought possible.

If in the process of answering these questions, you are still not sure of how to put this into practice or see a big challenge in doing so, click here and I’ll help you 1:1.


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