Ways to find some ‘me time’ when overbooked is your norm

To-do lists, obligations, and always-on technology are a few factors that make it difficult for people — women in particular — to tune out. But doing so is vital for your health.

In today's constantly connected, hyper-digital age, where hordes of information and people are always at our fingertips, it can be difficult to tune out and turn off. But, with the ever-competing demands of work and taking care of your home, relationships, and in some cases kids or aging parents — not to mention the endless news cycle of disturbing headlines — allowing yourself to turn everything off for some sanity and me time is more important for our emotional health than ever.

Me time is an obligation, not an option, says Sheila Robinson-Kiss, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the Rebounding America and Beyond Initiative, a national platform of mental health education programs for individuals, groups, and organizations.

“Me time is our time to recharge,” she explains. It’s our time for self-care, which is everything we do to tend to our own physical and mental health and well-being. If we’re in a toxic state where self-care is concerned, everything we touch is going to be impacted by that imbalance, she says.

“Particularly for women, we are overwhelmed and drained by what we’re experiencing now during the pandemic, even with a light at the end of the tunnel,” Robinson-Kiss says. People used to have breaks in their routines when children were at school, we stopped to pick up a coffee, or had a sibling visit for the weekend. “Those natural breaks have been taken away for a long period of time, and that causes an emotional, physical, and spiritual drain. Folks are drained,” she says.

National survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Women’s Health Survey, published in March 2021, finds that indeed women are struggling and the mental health strains are affecting well-being. Of the 3,661 women in the survey (ages 18 to 64), more than half with school-age children said that stress and worry of the pandemic has affected their mental health, with one in five of them saying that impact was “major.”

And pre-pandemic, women were certainly already feeling some of these strains: In Everyday Health’s Special Report: State of Women’s Wellness 2017 survey, one-quarter of the 3,000 women who participated reported that time constraints and the inability to juggle responsibilities were roadblocks to their wellness, and “not having enough time for myself” was their sixth biggest wellness challenge.

Robinson-Kiss says that for women, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic (and its ensuing challenges) continues, it’s essential to create a clear line demarcating daily life’s blur of tasks, responsibilities, and obligations from time to reset. “Women like to do,” she says. “But [women] have to realize: ‘I’m not just here to do; I’m here to be. In order to be here doing my best, I have to be being my best.’”

Christine Carter, PhD, a sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and a member of Everyday Health’s Wellness Advisory Board, concurs. “You are your first and best tool for making the mark on the world that you want to, in whatever way that’s meaningful to you. When you’re depleted, you can’t do that.”

But in a culture that historically values achievement and adrenaline over rest, as well as people who are selfless, Dr. Carter says self-care is often erroneously seen as selfish or a luxury. She points to the “time is money” adage: “It serves a business owner to make a person’s value be equated with time spent on the job, and we’ve internalized this in a way that unfortunately means we feel guilty and bad when we rest.”

For women in particular, Carter asks, “Where did you learn that it’s bad to take care of yourself? Did your brother learn that same lesson?”

Selfishness, she explains, is about pursuing wants that tend to be associated with external rewards and materialistic objects related to status. Self-care, on the other hand, is about taking time to take care of and comfort your inner world and needs so that you can stay healthy mentally and physically.

Tips for actually making ‘me time’ during your busy days

But if you’re already feeling overwhelmed, how are you going to find the time and energy to devote more time to you? Robinson-Kiss says it’s important that it doesn’t feel like another box to check off. “There’s a lot of time for wiggle room in our days and lives that we ignore. We say, ‘I can’t get to it,’ but you can get to it. It’s right in front of you.”

Here are eight tips from Carter and Robinson-Kiss on how to easily add breaks to your day to recharge, so you can better take of you and those around you, too.

  1. Prioritize sleep - Getting enough sleep is the most important part of self-care, Carter says, though that’s clearly not always so easy to do. To regularly get the shut-eye you need (seven to nine hours a day is ideal, according to guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation), Carter recommends examining your day to make sure you’re building in enough time for rest, and then plotting out your ideal day that prioritizes ample sleep and doing whatever you have to do to stick to that.
  1. Try self-care microbursts - Self-care or me time doesn’t need to take a while. Robinson-Kiss says she makes a point to wake up five minutes early for some quiet tea time each morning and then takes a minute each night to peak out her window at the moon and breathe. “It reminds me that there’s so much more than you,” Robinson-Kiss says. “The moon is bigger. You have to get outside of yourself.” Taking two quick microbursts of me time daily is the first step in Robinson-Kiss’s formula of two + two + two for self-care. Some other short bursts that she recommends include: taking an extra five minutes to sit in your car and listen to music before or after you drive somewhere or reading for a few minutes after lunch.
  1. Make time for longer bouts of self-care, too - In addition to daily mini-moments of me time, Robinson-Kiss says it’s very important for your mental health to block out at least two hours twice a week for a deep reset. “Most people exist in constant states of stress,” she explains, and “when you consider that it will require 20 minutes for them to relax into an activity if they’re stressed, a few hours a week is a bare minimum. Resetting can prevent a person from hitting a wall of psychological fatigue.” For this second two in her two + two + two formula, she advises activities that are rejuvenating and recharging, whether that’s walking, connecting with friends, riding a bike, driving around different neighbourhoods to look at houses, or chilling with your pet.
  1. Give yourself reset days - For her final two in the two + two + two formula, Robinson-Kiss says she schedules two days each month where she can allow herself to avoid distracting stimulation (namely technology) entirely. Scheduling these days in advance and putting them on your calendar is a big part of what makes this tactic beneficial: In her practice, she says, she’s seen patients’ stress reduced by about a third when they have something to look forward to. And you don’t have to make the entire day distraction-free; several hours at a time will do, Robinson-Kiss says.
  1. Take recess - We need breaks during the day, especially in our current school- and work-from-home world, Carter says. “You can’t just have your foot on the gas all day each day.” Just like kids need breaks in their day to move and burn off some energy (regularly scheduled time for recess is nothing new), adults need breaks in the day to reset, shift gears, and refocus. For Carter, that’s meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, but, she says, even two minutes twice a day helps. Walking the dog is another way she likes to take breaks — as long as she’s truly shifting the gears all the way, even a minute can work wonders.
  1. Stop focusing and daydream - “We’re limited in our ability to focus for long periods of time,” Carter says. And once you hit your wall, not being able to concentrate can be overwhelming, she adds. It’s important to remove ourselves regularly from anything that requires a lot of focus, she says. She recommends setting a timer for five minutes (or for however long you wish), shifting to relaxation mode, and allowing yourself to daydream until the buzzer goes off.
  1. Don’t forget to end your day and go home (even if you’re already there) - Especially if you’re working from home, being at home no longer constitutes as me time or downtime, Carter says. So, at the end of your workday, do something that truly marks quitting time, whether that’s properly logging off your computer and shutting off the monitor, turning your phone off for half an hour, or taking a walk. Do something that signals to you that it’s the end of the workday.
  1. Think of me time as your oasis - Think of your me time as your oasis, whether you spend a minute or a day there, Robinson-Kiss says. “Maybe you have two or three screaming children at home, and when you step into your car, that’s your oasis,” she says. The more ways you find throughout your day to make time for yourself — and spend in your oasis — the easier it becomes to get there, she explains. Now more than ever, Robinson-Kiss says, it’s essential to realize we need that oasis and we’re capable of getting ourselves there. “Me time literally pulls us off the hamster wheel,” she says. “So much has been taken away in the past year, and me time is something that we can actually do for ourselves to get results.”