Sleep, Self-Care & The Social Change Agent

sleep01 As I write this, I'm taking care of my mother's cat - she's off for a sleep study. (It's part of her post-transplant self-care plan).

Normally, on a night like this, I am used to pushing myself, burning the midnight oil until there's nothing left but a few burnt cinders. As a former nonprofit professional (and current consultant), practicing sleep, self-care, and other positive behaviors can be a challenge, especially in our highly-connected, tech-oriented world where some challenge the idea of work/life balance.

The argument goes something like this, "We're now playing in a global field, and expecting to keep regular hours in unrealistic. If you want to succeed, you must be plugged in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." As someone who has attempted to live that lifestyle, I have come to learn that my own work in community development has been impacted by my self-care....and it all begins with getting enough sleep.

You know the guy who was drinking that triple-espresso at the local coffee shop and staying up until 3:00 am catching up on work? That was how I behaved in the past: I took on all sorts of projects, drove myself crazy believing that I had to get all this done, because who else was going to do this noble work...and then a few things happened, the most important of which was my father's death nine years ago. He, too, was a hard-working man who drove himself harshly, and what I realized was that if I didn't take care of myself, I couldn't do the work that I enjoyed doing.


One of the first things I learned was how to get enough sleep, and what happens when I deprived myself of adequate rest. (As the chart on the right shows, it's not pretty, folks.) It meant changes in my diet, my work habits, and my overall lifestyle. It was slow at first, but I found myself feeling much more confident, more assertive...and actually functioning on a much higher level.

For many people working towards social change - whether within a nonprofit organization, a social enterprise, or even a community - there are mixed feelings about sleep self-care. Usually, there can be guilt: after all, we can be very giving people, and if we're giving ourselves over to a higher cause, taking care of ourselves can seem....well, selfish. Sleep, self-care, and other such "positive" behaviors - in this mindset - are merely ways to avoid responsibility. If we work to drive social change, that is our only principle: everything else should be sacrificed.

In my younger days, I believed this. It cost me much. But as I began greater self-care, my mind became clearer, and I began taking a personal inventory. (Note - I worked in the chemical dependency field, so I apologize if my use of terms from 12 Step philosophy appears inappropriate - it's the best way I have to discuss my experience).

And after many nights of deep sleep, as well as some personal exploration, I came to realize....that many of the cliches are true: you can't love someone else if you love yourself first. When you set boundaries for yourself and others, others may not be happy, and that is on them. And nobody else can pick up the ball unless you drop it first.

C Now Every Minute CountsRecently, I had to give up an organizing activity on Meetup due to lack of time. It's one of my character defects: I will take on anything and everything rather than focus on a few select projects. Although a few people have chosen to take on keeping the community going in other channels, I realize that I could not meet that group's expectations and maintain my own interests. Something had to give, but the great thing about the process is that - hopefully - it will lead to greater collaboration, even at the expense of the group.

But as much as I may be accused of being selfish, I have to take care of myself. Setting boundaries has many benefits....including a good night's sleep. Self-care is a vital component of any social change agent's lifestyle, but it also serves as a vital reminder of a lesson I discussed in March: you can have anything you want; you just can't have everything you want.

Have any great strategies for getting more sleep, or even balancing self-care and social change work? Any other comments or questions? Please feel free to leave your thoughts and insights below, or join the greater conversation on our Facebook page.  You can receive updates via e-mail (instructions below), and you are welcome to contact me personally: my contact information is available via this blog's  About page.

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