The internet is full of anecdotal advice on developing better self-care habits. Some strategies, like the importance of sleep and exercise, are widely agreed upon. Others depend on the individual. Which is to say, a massage will only be enjoyable if you like massages, and petting an animal will only be fun if you like animals.
Still, research shows that self-care is incredibly valuable* for taking care of physical and psychological health, fostering relationships, and finding balance. Professor Lisa Butler, a professor of social work at the University at Buffalo, has researched self-care and says the best habits are actually those that individuals develop for themselves.
“People have different priorities of what is important to them. It is really figuring out [if you are] satisfactorily maintaining and enhancing these different aspects of your life. And it is up to each individual to figure out what is important to them, and if they are getting enough of it,” Butler says.
If you are interested in developing your own self-care routine, but don’t know where to start, check out Butler’s suggestions below.
Examine how you currently manage stress
Butler says the first step to developing a self-care routine is to take stock of how you currently manage stress. (A checklist is available here.) For example, when you are under stress, do you smoke cigarettes? Turn to alcohol or drugs? Or do you maintain healthy routines and spend time with friends and family?
Figure out what’s missing from your current routine
Butler then suggests people examine the different broad categories of self-care,* which includes physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, relationship, and professional wellness, and decide where they feel something is missing. (That self-assessment is available here.) “When you take the self-care assessment, visually you can see, ‘I am really attending to my physical life, but I am completely ignoring my friends and my relationships,’ and it shows the relative distribution of where people put their energy,” Butler explains.
Put a specific plan in place to incorporate new habits into your life
Once you have realized what you need, Butler encourages you to put a specific, manageable plan in place — whether that’s regular exercise, new hobbies, or more vacations. “There are no magic answers here. This is about their own well-being and their own commitment into their own well-being,” Butler explains.
When in doubt, go with proven strategies
Although Butler believes that self-care routines are most effective when they are personalized, there are certain habits that have positive benefits for most people, such as regular sleep, exercise, diet, and meditation. “Getting the sleep you need every night is very good [and] eating well is good for you,” Butler says. “If I have someone who is very anxious, then learning how to meditate can be tremendously helpful. But there is no one size fits all.”