"Self-care" was something I'd had read about a lot on Twitter and I couldn't help but think of it as a troupe. Ask my therapist, well, ask her if I ever waive confidentiality but there's paperwork for that so not likely. But every time I heard "self-care" like most skeptics I conjured the most ludicrous and lavish examples that the internet hash-tagged into ubiquity. Images of spend money irresponsibly or being selfish for purposes of gratification and pleasure.
If you're thinking this is ridiculous, most definitions that come from a quick Google search will have to disambiguate from that what self-care actually is and does for you. Eventually, I discovered that's not self-care, that's pageantry. Self-care is literally, doing something to care for yourself and your health or well-being. It's not necessarily champagne, spa retreats, removing all meaning from the word "mindfulness", spamming Instagram with your candle business.
I've been having some hard days at work, I ended working close to 60 hours last week on top of attending a conference. I'm doing more lead work recently. Sleeping has been rough going (which is my normal, but this is worse), relaxing seems like a chore, things I was super excited for like replacing. If my therapist is to be believed, self-care is essential to keep being a human.
Self-care needs to be an intentional choice, so when I get into binge mode by default and consume streams of content.
One thing that I've observed, is that I can't really do my job nor should I super be expected to if I can't function as a human. Self-care, taking care of yourself, or "humaning". Whatever you want to call it is essential to maintaining that functionality.
A note about privilege and ableism
What I'm about to outline, is a framework I apply to thinking about taking care of myself, it is in by nature personal. And not every application can be applied to everyone, my hope is that after reading you see the framework behind the questions and can take the questions as starting blocks.
My biases in forming these revolve around my own privilege that comes from being white, cisgender, reasonably able-bodied, male and being seen (wrongly) as straight. The questions and particulars as to how I apply this framework come from that privilege that's not distributed evenly, and I can't in good faith continue without prefacing this fact.
Back to Basics
When I get into this state I've described of being barely functioning, it's helpful to go back to the basics. Abraham Maslow's classic "Hierarchy of needs", represents a progressive state of needs, ranking physical needs as a bedrock for being able to the next level of needs and that level being the foundation for being able to attain the next set of needs. For example, it's hard to worry about whether you're loved or have a sense of belonging if you're starving and need shelter.
It's hard to focus on the whole litany of everything you're supposed to be or do as a software engineer if you can't keep your eyes open. So I started to develop a framework (because I am who I am) of questions to start to probe whether those needs are being met:
- Did I eat something recently that was actually food?
- Do I have clean underwear and matched socks?
- Did I talk to a human being that doesn't reside in my apartment building?
- Did I try and sleep in the last 36 hours?
- Does the screen go all fuzzy when I try to look at it?
Yea that's a low bar. That's intentionally a low bar, some of these things sound trivial or worrying that you might need to double check. I've found in my life living off of McDonald's and delivery is a bad idea, eating a plate of eggs and ham is better. Having clean underwear and matched socks is evidence of laundry having been done recently and speculation around the idea of a shower has happened. Talking to other humans is a chore sometimes but cheap shots on Twitter aren't great substitutes for human interaction.
These concerns all certain around forming a baseline.
If those concerns are addressed I feel like I can move onto the next level of things. This group is more concerned with feeling like a person once you can do basic human things.
- Did I go to therapy this month? Mental health is so important. Therapy can be such a trope but it can also be an opportunity to confess in a space "Things are not okay and I don't know what to do next". Plus my therapist is awesome, she wears glasses and everything.
- Did I read a book made out of a dead tree? "Blue light is bad and a tree had to die for me to get this book in my apartment, I should read it." That's a little chant I say in my head sometimes to convince myself to read a book. Just remember disengaging from work can be as simple as a context switch and opening a physical book or closing your eyes and listening to an audiobook can do wonders to get you there.
- Is the bed made? This is a weird new obsession of mine from the last two months. There's books written about how this can help your outlook and I have no interest in reading them. For me, it's a reminder that my home and my place in it have value and that being in a place of rest won't be a burden later. Also it's really fun now that I figured out what the hell "hospital corners" are and how to make them.
- Is the mess in my apartment going to prohibit me from doing the stuff I need to do or the stuff I want to do?
Next Next Level
This layer actively preserves the previous too, in mind this goes
human → person → semi-responsible person
- Is there anything nagging at me? Is there anything I'm ignoring that's keeping me up at night? That's not a cliche to me, there's a whole host of things that have real potential to interrupt my ability to sleep. These things usually revolve around money, or phone calls or messages that I tend to ignore. Occasionally this can be mounds of trivial things like: "Is Notion organized?" or "It's been a minute since I've written a blog post."
- Is everyone just hard to deal with? This is usually a good question to ask when being around other humans reaches a new height of difficulty. Usually, if everyone around me is being a jerk, it's them being the jerk it's me and usually that indicates something wrong internally like lack of sleep, feeling restricted, something personal going on that they had no hand in.
- Do I actually know where I'm going? Often a source of lack of focus or productivity and in turn a lack of being well is a result of not having a clear understanding of why I'm doing what I'm doing or how it will be in service of whatever goal and worse not knowing what the goal was to begin with. Not understanding where you're going can confuse where you are. Sometimes this distance is where I'm hoping to be in the next hour or next three years, it doesn't matter, taking basic inventory of the why can only clarify the what.
This is where I think we have some basic level of functioning and cognition and we move onto what can actually bring some excitement back into the work itself.
- Am I engaged in what I'm being paid to build or am I just applying a "paint by numbers" approach? Some times that's easy to do. Some times this is the job and that's fine. Just getting a clear answer to this can tell you a lot and give you coordinates as to what to do next. Say you're content with the work being simple, it gives you some reserves back to invest in the rest of your team or pick up some background task. If you're not okay with the answer being yes, it's a great opportunity for on a technical level automation or abstraction and on a career level the chance to say to your manager, you need something with more to chew.
- Is there any tech that I care about that I'd like to see at use at work? We all have little lists, maybe it's Rust or Go or Elixir or Vue.js. We all have things we want to learn and this list can shame or taunt us. Spending an hour of your time (or better yet your employers time) to do a "Hello world!" tutorial with one of the things on your list is a low-cost remedy to this.
- Why am I building what I'm building and who does it help? You can take as many tickets as you like, work your backlog until someone notices, but if don't understand who you're building it for, there's not a lot of point. Some times the answer to this question is unsavory, like you're building something so people in suits and put a PowerPoint presentation together to talk to other people in suits. Other times, what you're doing can bring someone real value. Find that answer.
What about making software?
If you got this far and were expecting a post about software engineering and have been disappointed. I'm going to balance that binary tree in your heart.
First of all you can think of this outline as a framework, let's see how many stars on GitHub it gets.
Second, software is made by humans, ensuring the bare minimum care and humanity of anyone who needs to build things and affirming that humans actually have needs can only aide in the process of growing as an engineer. To put that more practically, I don't care how the performance of using observables in my application really impacts my users, if I haven't slept or eaten something proper.
I can't be a good engineer, if I'm not a good human. I'm done shirking that notion or battering with it. Most software engineers make software for other humans to use, if we can't acknowledge the baseline humanity we possess and care for it, why are we making things for other humans? If we can't, we're no better than the amassing pile of La Croix and Red Bull cans in the recycling bins.