How To Design A Custom Self-Care Checklist

Dec. 17th, 2018

So anyone reading this blog probably knows about the importance of self-care. Without it, even the best of us cease to function, or at best functions at far less than our greatest potential. And while everyone needs self-care, what that looks like varies as much as we humans do.

A very dear friend of mine, who also has ADHD and has worked hard to understand and function with it, can operate on 4 hours of sleep a night. Her ideal is around 6 hours a night. I’m pretty sure if she got the 9.5 hours of sleep I optimally need, it would not work out well for her, even were it possible. And if I got a “mere” 6 hours a night, I would not be pleasant to be around, to put it nicely.

So if we all have these varying needs, how do we go about meeting them? My method is to systematically check them off each day. And I’m going to outline some steps for how to design your own self-care checklist.

For each item, the idea is to consider how it applies to the specific case of your life. Then come up with an action that can be enacted regularly, daily in most cases, to make sure to meet that need.

1. Sleep/rest

How many hours of sleep is needed, per night? And when is your optimum sleep time? My brother in law does not enter REM sleep unless he falls asleep around 2AM. If he worked in an office, this would be a problem, but he has designed his life in order to get the rest he needs, when he needs it.

This self-care item includes not just sleep, but rest, for the body and the mind. Those of us with ADHD often have our minds in constant motion. Rest for the brain can sometimes seem completely out of the question. I find that an audiobook playing while I cook to be restful for my brain. I’ve cooked so much and I enjoy it so much that I can prepare whole meals on autopilot. My husband finds the same escape in video games.

So how to get the rest, and sleep, we need? This can be an enormous challenge for anyone. The fact that sleep and rest are simply boring compared to pretty much any other activity is one obstacle. For that, I take a long-acting melatonin about an hour before I turn out the light. Then I make sure to do something fun, but not too stimulating. By the time the melatonin kicks in, I’m ok with putting away my knitting or reading to close my eyes. I also implement technological barriers.

My computer shuts off at 9:55PM. And while I do have the ability to turn it back on and keep playing, or writing, or whatever, the interruption is usually enough to remind me to go to sleep. And having this me-time at the end of each day makes me feel less like I “deserve” to stay up in order to have fun.

2. Food

So everyone needs food, but when it comes to self-care, I specifically mean the foods that support our optimal functioning. No matter what our bodies or beliefs require, if we go against that, that is not good self-care.

I’ve read a lot of information about how protein and healthy fats support good brain and body functioning. For me that often looks like eggs, cheese, and chickpeas. For someone else it might be lentils or tofu. My favorite method of managing food is to freeze everything. I’m a huge fan of having food available super fast and not having to worry about it expiring.

3. Exercise

One of the hardest areas of self-care to maintain consistent effort, even for those with more typically developing brains. It does, however, particularly cardiovascular exercise outdoors, support better sleep, can decrease hunger and cravings for carbohydrates and sugar, can improve overall mental health and specifically it is one of the main ways I manage my ADHD.

So what does exercise look like? I overwhelmingly see my friends and others online talk about hitting the gym. And if that works for you, awesome. It didn’t for me. There are a lot of reasons for this but the number one was the solitude and the tedium.

In order to maintain an exercise regime, I have discovered I need a few different ingredients. First I need my husband (and he needs me) to help motivate and keep me accountable. Second I need the practice to be a daily thing, no ifs, ands, or buts. When I decided that I exercise every day, I eliminated the discussion and negotiation with myself. This, however, is not something that resonates with a lot of people with ADHD. Trying to do something every day (read: perfectly) is often an effective way to destroy motivation. Thirdly I need my exercise to literally be a game. In the summer my husband and I go on a 7k walk (as fast as possible to get the heart pumping) with Pokémon GO. In the winter we play an average of 10 songs on Dance Dance Revolution with a goal of 15. This practice also works because there are the least possible number of steps. I don’t have to go anywhere, or pack anything, or remember any moving parts. I only have to put on my exercise clothes and it happens.

So, consider these aspects: Where will the motivation come from? What will simplify it enough to make it feasible? What will hold accountability?

4. Medication

There are two aspects of medication that I feel are key in terms of self-care: ensuring they are working correctly/optimally and actually remembering to take them.

Medication is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Some people have no reaction to some medication and some have a very negative reaction, but work amazingly well on another type/brand. Some find no impact when on a generic and some prefer the generic. Slow-acting, stimulant versus non-stimulant, supplements, oils, sleep support, changing dosage needs over time, meds for other conditions...

The world of medication is complex even for those who are trained in their use and effects. That is why it is vital to work closely with your health care provider(s). Finding the correct medication solution can take time but it can also pay off hugely. There is also always the chance that medication, after trial and error and perseverance, will end up not being a part of mental healthcare for a lot of people. I am in that camp (unless you count melatonin). And that can be frustrating but that is one hundred percent fine.

If you do find that medication is a part of what allows you to function and thrive, then figuring out a system for taking the right thing at the right time is essential. Even those who are able, through some mystical powers that I envy and fear, to remember on their own to take their medication on time might benefit from using a system so those mental resources are freed up for other things. I use an app that fires an alarm at a specific time and won’t shut up until I scan a barcode. I cut this barcode off of a soup label, cut another identical one off another soup label for my purse in case I’m out and my phone is screaming at me, and place it with my melatonin. This way I am nigh on forced to move to where it is if I want peace.

5. Water

A saw a study recently that showed that dehydration produced brain fog in people. This study was not related to ADHD, so imagine how much worse it is for us. I suffer debilitating headaches when I become dehydrated (which happens with alarming rapidity).

Of course, the “best” solution for remaining hydrated is pure water. That doesn’t mean it is the best solution for those of us with ADHD. I tried apps, reminders, water bottles, and alarms for trying to get enough H2O into my body, all to no avail. The best one was when I basically used my working memory to remind me a few times an hour to drink. As soon as I needed that memory for something else though, I would revert. I did find a solution, though! Read on...

Then I found out that while black tea, especially with milk or sugar, does little to hydrate, green tea goes a fair way toward hydrating, and unsweetened herbal teas are nearly on par with plain water. It is a common misconception that green tea contains no caffeine. It does, just considerably less than black tea. Green and black teas are made from the same plant, but with different curing methods. Plain water with things like lemon juice, mint leaves, or cucumber is also nearly as hydrating as water. It seems like unless it has fat, sugar, or caffeine, its almost on par. So I developed my new hydration solution.

I now drink non-caffeinated, unsweetened, herbal tea constantly throughout the day. I have a mug that holds roughly a half liter and I aim for three of those in a day. This also works well because I get a mug first thing in the morning, then during lunch, then after supper. And because the tea tastes a bit more interesting than water, I am just motivated enough to drink it. I have 18 kinds of herbal tea in my kitchen in order to satisfy my brain’s need for variety. Though SleepyTime will always be my favorite.

Very similarly to exercise we are talking about motivation and memory. What will cause you to want to stay hydrated? And how will you remember? Lots of people find success with bottles labeled with times of day or apps with virtual plants.

So these are the foundational, most basic of care I can think of for every human being. Trying to build a sustainable and enjoyable life without these seems nearly impossible to me. I have many clients who have outlined very similar checklists that we go over every session to ensure they are getting what they need.

What type of self-care do you need to live your best life?