Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

How to Start Taking Care of Yourself

How do you feel today?

Joyful, light-hearted, relaxed?

Or out-of-sorts, tired and stressed?

Most of us have good days and bad days. Days when we feel ready to take on the world, and days when we just want to curl up under the duvet.

But we’re not always good at recognising which is which, or listening to our body and soul in order to meet our own needs.

We might force ourselves to do activities that won’t serve us, or not take advantage of when we’re feeling upbeat to knock some of the tough tasks off our lists.

Indeed, for many of us, we don’t even know where to start to be kind to ourselves. In fact, one of the most common questions I get from readers is exactly that: How do I start taking care of myself?

Given the frequency with which it comes up, I’ve collated some suggestions here. Spend a little time putting these tips into action and you’ll be more able to recognise when you need a hug, and when you need to dance.

(Don’t discount either as strategies for taking care of yourself :-) )

1. Don’t make it a chore

Many readers worry about self-care becoming just another thing on their (already long) to-do lists. They resist it because it’s another ‘should’. Another thing they’re supposed to do.

My suggestion here is to reframe it. See being kind to yourself as positive and beneficial. Nurturing and loving. Even fun and exciting.

‘Shoulds’ make looking after yourself seem pretty horrid. So get rid of the word.

Make self-care something you actively choose to include in your life – gently and kindly.

2. Diagnose Your Self-Care Obstacles

What are your personal obstacles to self-care? What stops you from taking care of yourself? Is it time? Money? Guilt? Boredom?

The more you understand where the resistance is coming from, the easier it is to break those obstacles down.

I’ll write another post on overcoming specific obstacles soon, but in the meantime, be creative in coming up with ways around the obstacles.

  • If it’s guilt, read this post I wrote on why self-care isn’t selfish but essential
  • If it’s money, then see this list of 45 self-care ideas that include many that are cost free
  • If it’s boredom, then look outside what you usually do and mix things up a bit – have a long list of things you can do, and pick ideas from that
  • If it’s time, then start small as per the next point…

3. Start Small

Sometimes we throw ourselves into a project like this, only to burn out in the first week or two because we’ve overdone it. One of the biggest obstacles to self-care is overwhelm – and then the fact we often beat ourselves up for not doing self-care ‘properly’!

Instead, start small.

Think about the simple, tiny pleasures that you enjoy. Perhaps it’s listening to a favourite album, wearing a particular necklace, the feel of a scarf you love, reading a book, taking a bath – nothing complicated, nothing expensive.

For example, I love good coffee, and reading. When I have a really nice coffee, or read for five minutes, I remind myself beforehand that this is taking care of myself, and that it’s ok to do this: I give myself permission to enjoy the experience and don’t rush it.

Try to weave some small simple pleasures into your week, and more importantly, really tell yourself when you do that this is part of nurturing yourself, taking care of yourself.

You need your subconscious to get the message

Attend to how you feel both during the five minutes and afterwards. Did you enjoy it? Feel better? Worse? If it’s the latter, perhaps you still have some psychological obstacles to taking care of yourself, or perhaps this just wasn’t the right activity for you.

4. Balance Short-Term Fun and Long-Term Nurture

Some self-care activities are great for helping you feel better right now, but others are focused on being kind to yourself in the longer term.

Hannah Braime, in her self-care manual From Coping to Thriving, reminds us that some self-care activities we know are ultimately good for us, but take more willpower to do. The latter might include exercising, meditating, eating well or healthcare visits. Sometimes we may find ourselves doing all ‘easy’ self-care activities whilst avoiding those that don’t provide immediate gratification.

But both types are crucial for our well being.

Some longer term activities might even cause discomfort in the short term (smear test anyone?!) but they are likely to ensure you have the health, vitality and energy to cope with the rest. Without these foundations, we can easily succumb to the critical voices in our head as our resources will be low.

Balance some fun, simple pleasures with long-term activities that you’ve identified as important for you right now.

If you need inspiration, here’s a fab free cheat sheet with five unusual ideas to start your self-care.

5. Keep Up the Habit

Don’t pick more than one or two of each type of self-care activity to start out with. Try to create a small space for self-care each day – 15 minutes to yourself, for example, or one or two small activities a week which help you to feel nourished.

Build up habits a little at a time – don’t try and do everything at once! Try and mix up fun and more boring stuff, whatever fun means to you.

But make the activity deliberate and remind yourself you’re doing it to take care of yourself when you do it.

Self-care is very individual, so your needs will be unique.

  • One idea (depending on personality!) is to make some of those tasks more ‘routine.’ Tag your ‘self-care five minutes’ onto brushing your teeth, or after each meal. Or make a checklist and put it on your bathroom mirror so self-care just becomes another part of your regular day. That way, even if you’re feeling unhappy or down, you can still follow your routine and keep a grip on self-care.
  • This post is about how to be creative more often, but some of the points (#1 & #2 especially) apply to keeping any habit up.
  • Consider: are there particular things you neglect when you are having a really bad week? Perhaps make those the priority. But even here, be kind to yourself. Don’t try and be ‘perfect’ around self-care!

6. Use Your Time to Hit More than One Self-Care Button

As I love productivity, I try to think creatively about how I use the time I have to work harder for self-care. For example, you could exercise with your children or friends, and so combine time in relationships with time doing exercise.

Or, while you’re driving to work you could listen to soothing music to relax, or a podcast to learn. That way you use your commute to take care of yourself while you get to work.

Be creative here. How else could you use your time to layer in some self-care over the top of your day?

7. Check-In: Is It More Than Just Self-Care You Need?

One note here – sometimes it’s not just self-care you need. If you feel depressed or suicidal, then self-care is unlikely to cut it.

In these circumstances, seek help from a therapist, your doctor or counsellor. Sometimes an external perspective can be very helpful.

You could also call The Samaritans’ free and confidential hotline if you just want to talk. They’re open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year:

Samaritans UK
Samaritans USA 
International (you can select your country at the top of the page)

Why’re You Still Here? 

Following these suggestions won’t make every day perfect. It’s true that when we take care of ourselves better and practise good self-care, we’re happier, healthier and more able to give of ourselves to the world around us – but taking care of yourself might mean listening to your emotions and having a good cry just as much as watching a good action comedy.

But it’s a place to begin.

So no more excuses.

Be kind to yourself. Get going!

12 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Jenn September 22, 2015, 2:38 pm

    Great post!
    As I am trying to shift into a more healthy (and happy) lifestyle I can relate to trying to do everything at once and some of the obstacles you list.
    Your suggestions regarding those issues are really good.
    I’m new to your site but am really enjoying your posts.
    Thank you.

    • Ellen September 23, 2015, 2:23 am

      Many thanks Jenn, so glad you found it useful. It’s great you’re enthusiastic about a healthy lifestyle, but definitely be kind to yourself when you do it ;-) Thanks for reading, shine on!

  • Bryan Collins September 23, 2015, 12:11 pm

    Great post Ellen.

    I like your point about thinking about the simple, tiny pleasures that you enjoy. For me, this is reading books and sometimes journal writing. I also find that if I don’t make sure I’m getting enough sleep, the right foods and so on, it’s impossible to get anything done.
    Bryan Collins recently posted…Why You Don’t Need Permission From Me (Or Anyone Else) To Become a WriterMy Profile

    • Ellen September 25, 2015, 5:21 am

      Thanks Bryan. I think it’s often the small things, the basics, as you say like sleep, that can really stop us in our tracks, and yet sometimes we sacrifice them in the name of productivity.

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh October 26, 2015, 4:05 pm

    You have listed some wonderful tips here on self care, Ellen. I know there have been times in my life where I’ve been so focused on a challenging time that I’ve neglected self care. It can make such a difference in your life when you take care of yourself first.

    #2 Diagnose Your Self-Care Obstacles is an important step. When you dig a little deeper, you can often have a better understanding of what is holding you back from taking care of yourself. Thanks for a great post!
    Cathy Taughinbaugh recently posted…How the Powerful CRAFT Approach is Saving Lives: Meet Bob MeyersMy Profile

    • Ellen October 28, 2015, 7:54 am

      Thanks Cathy, yes, it’s easy to neglect as life gets busy around us. But it’s true, the better we get to know ourselves, the easier we can identify when these points might happen, perhaps even before they occur.

  • Elle October 26, 2015, 7:31 pm

    There are times Ellen when we just have to stop and breathe and listen…makes all the difference in my world and I often get my best ideas when I slow down. :-)
    Elle recently posted…11 Ways to Live With Purpose and Create an Abundant Successful FutureMy Profile

    • Ellen October 28, 2015, 7:56 am

      You’re so right, this simple activity can make a huge difference to us in the moment. our society is so go-go-go we rarely just stop, take a breath, and listen to ourselves. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sandra Pawula June 20, 2017, 1:42 am

    These are terrific, Ellen. I had a massage today so I’m a step ahead!
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…Do You Need a Break?My Profile

  • Debbie L Hampton June 20, 2017, 2:39 pm


    This post is right on target. I was just pointing out to someone that they had gotten away from their mental health practices, like yoga, meditation, exercise, when they were saying how unhappy and depressed they felt. I reminded them that these habits are more than a quick fix. Mental health is a lifestyle. They said the practices are more like “a ball and chain” I told them that it was a choice to look at them that way or as “something fun, giving to myself, taking care of myself, etc..” It’s all in our perspective.

    I also love the idea of doubling up on the self-care buttons. Great!
    Debbie L Hampton recently posted…4 Reasons Doing Good Is Good For Your BrainMy Profile

    • Ellen June 26, 2017, 6:03 am

      It’s so true. But we’re such a society who love to tick things off our lists, it can be hard to remember that these things need to keep happening.

  • Suzie Cheel June 22, 2017, 1:45 am

    Great list 5 is my challenge and so important t start small xxx
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…How To Empower Yourself Through HopeMy Profile

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge