A personal assistant adjusts their life for his or her boss. With all that stress and such a fast pace, it's essential a PA takes care of themselves, no matter what. If you don't make time for self-care, you won't have energy to properly perform your duties.
This article will focus on caring for a personal assistant's most valuable asset – themselves.
Sleep is a necessity for all mammals, yet copious amounts of research has yet to determine why. What we do know for sure is a chronic lack of sleep can compromise physical and mental functioning. Effects of short-term sleep loss include irritable mood, inability to focus, depression, forgetfulness, weight gain, clumsiness, and impaired judgment. Long-term sleeplessness can cause physical damage, including heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and a weakened immune system. A typical adult needs between six and eight hours sleep each night to be fully rested.
When we sleep, we go through different sleep cycles. Approximately every 90 minutes, we enter something known as REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. REM sleep is the deepest level of sleep and the stage where dreams occur.
In a perfect world, everyone would get enough sleep, but there will likely be days (nights?) when you'll be too busy working to get the proper amount of sleep. Other factors, such as stress, worry, and unfamiliar surroundings can also contribute to sleep loss.
Obtaining less sleep than you actually need, or having non-restful sleep, results in something called sleep debt. Essentially, sleep debt is time "lost" from sleep you now "owe" your body the following day (or days). For example, if you need 7.5 hours sleep per night to feel optimally rested, but get only five hours because you were restless and awake part of the night, you have lost 2.5 hours sleep and are now going into the day with a sleep debt of 2.5 hours.
Fortunately, sleep debt can be "repaid," in the short-term, by sleeping in on subsequent days off, or by napping. With long-term sleep deprivation problems, however, the sleep debt becomes too large and no amount of repayment will suffice. In such cases, some long-term damage may result.
Managing Your Sleep
There are a few key tips to successful "sleep deprivation management." Aside from doing your best to limit your sleep debt, you'll want to stick to a sleep schedule as best you can. If you're not tired or unable to sleep at your regular bedtime, don't force yourself to lie in bed, fighting for sleep. Instead, get up and engage in a relaxing activity, such as drinking a cup of chamomile tea.
Limit your intake of caffeine and/or "energy" drinks. Although it's tempting to guzzle half a dozen cups of coffee in just as many hours, you'll likely pay for it later with stomach upset, restlessness, and muscle tightness. Use caffeine sparingly and avoid it near bedtime. Alcohol use can also cause havoc with sleep patterns, so avoid drinking alcoholic beverages a few hours before bedtime if you find you're having difficulty staying asleep after a night of imbibing.
Be wary of eating to excess, or going to bed hungry, as well. Both extremes can cause havoc with restful sleep. Also beware of stressful thoughts, which can disrupt your relaxation and interfere with the quality of your sleep.
It also helps to minimize the distractions in your bedroom or sleeping area. If you have a television on, your phone turned up, and lights on, you will be unable to relax and rest. Sleep experts advise banning electronics such as televisions from your sleeping space, and warn against watching or reading news stories or other upsetting media before bed.
While naps are a wonderful way to pay back your sleep debt, you don't want to nap so much you're unable to sleep when night falls. The trick is timing. Due to sleep's cyclic pattern, it is possible to gauge when not to wake up – during REM sleep, when we are in our deepest sleep. Waking up during REM sleep will actually leave you feeling groggier and sleepier than when you first closed your eyes. Instead, choose from a 20- to 30-minute nap or a 90-minute or more nap -- but nothing in between; and don't take long naps if it may interfere with your ability to sleep during the night.
Ensure your bed and linens are comfortable. Even if you're exhausted, it's worth taking 10 minutes to swap out the dirty, rumpled sheets for a fresh set. You'll feel better sliding into a clean bed, and you'll sleep better for it, too. The same goes for your sleepwear – it should be comfortable and clean, even if you're too tired to bathe before bed.
It is also helpful to create a "ritual" around bedtime – basically, a set of activities performed each night before bed. This helps ready you, mentally and physically, for the act of sleeping. A bedtime ritual may include brushing of teeth and/or hair, turning off lights, changing into nightclothes, letting a pet in or out, getting a drink of water, slow stretching, or prayer. By doing a series of calming, appropriate actions prior to going to bed, you'll be prepared for rest and relaxation, once you turn out your bedside light.
Food and Hydration
It is an excellent idea to keep snacks with you at all times. Healthful mixes of nuts and dried fruits, crackers, hard cheese, whole fruit, such as apples or bananas, pre-made salads or fruit cups, applesauce, and breakfast bars are all excellent snacks to carry with you for a busy day at work; but make sure to remove any possibly perishable or messy snacks from your tool bag at the end of the day. That squished banana is going to be a very unpleasant find after a long weekend!
Keep hydrated with good old-fashioned water. A cautionary note: It is possible to drink too much water. Doing so causes a "flushing out' of essential electrolytes the body needs. Although the "rule" used to be eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day, it is now suggested an individual drink one-half to one ounce of water per their own body weight, per day. Those living in cooler climates, or those who are less active, would fall in the lower range, while active individuals, or those in hot climates, would fall in the higher range.
Even though it can sometimes be difficult, particularly if you are so busy you don't feel hungry or able to stop for even a quick bite, it is imperative you eat consistently, even if you only have time for snacks. Depriving yourself of food is not beneficial, and will actually make you tired, grouchy, and less effective at work. Any weight you may lose by depriving yourself of sustenance, you'll regain, so it's not an effective weight-loss plan, either!
We chose to call this section "body mechanics," rather than "exercise," because it's likely you'll get plenty of exercise during your workday! Unfortunately, it's not always the type of exercise you may need, especially if it results in injury, such as a sore back.
A strong body starts with a strong core. Core muscles are the group of muscles surrounding your pelvis and the trunk of your body. They support the lower back, abdomen, and hips and help with balance and body stability.
Unlike many other types of workouts, core workouts can be done almost anywhere. Simple conscious changes in posture and body position can also help strengthen core muscles.
One of the simplest ways to exercise your core is to practice consciously tightening and relaxing your abdominal muscles while sitting. Often, we're stuck sitting somewhere during a meeting or waiting for our boss; why not take advantage of that time and use it to strengthen your core? Simply sit up straight and consciously tighten, hold, and relax your abdominal muscles to a slow four-count in your head. You'll be amazed how quickly you'll see – and feel – results!
Perhaps you remember being told to stand up straight and not slouch as a child. This is still excellent advice – a weak core contributes to poor posture, and vice versa, so practice good posture whenever possible.
If sitting for long periods of time is part of your day, make sure to stand up and move around a bit every hour or so. Do not go longer than about an hour-and-a-half without standing and stretching. Human beings are not made to sit for hours on end; not only does it contribute nothing to core strength, it encourages blood clotting in the extremities and causes soreness in the back, buttocks, and legs.
Be aware of your footwear, as well. As we've mentioned previously, a comfortable pair of good shoes can go a long way to helping you have a pain-free day, so they're worth the investment.
There may be times you need to consciously relax. Extreme stress can cause havoc with your ability to perform your duties well, so it's helpful to have a few quick and easy relaxation techniques in your repertoire.
Conscious breathing is the most basic and simplest relaxation technique available. To effectively perform a breathing relaxation, sit or stand comfortably, with your eyes closed if you wish. Breathe in slowly through your nose to a slow count of four, hold for a slow count of four, and exhale to a slow count of four through your mouth. Continue to breathe this way for three or four "sets." Repeat as needed.
It can also be helpful to consciously relax your body. People tend to raise their shoulders up unconsciously, bringing them up toward their ears as the day goes on, particularly when working at a computer keyboard for long periods of time. Each time you take a "stretch break" (or any time you feel tense), roll your shoulders forward, up, back, and down several times, then reverse the order. Stretch your arms out, then across your body a few times and "shake out" your hands and arms. Rotate your head slowly in a circle, first one direction, then the other, in order to stretch out your neck.
If you have more time and space for stretching, try a nice, slow, luxurious "cat stretch" to invigorate you and get the "kinks" out of your body. Standing up and stretching "tall," then stretching down toward the ground, is also a good way to get the blood circulating.
Yoga and martial arts are both practices that can be helpful for relaxation. If you are unable to give time and/or commitment to a formal class, there are books and workout videos for use at home. Online tutorials are available for various disciplines, and some gyms offer yoga classes as part of their memberships. There are various types of yoga, including Bikram, Kundalini, and Hatha.
Additionally, there is a practice similar to yoga called Pilates, named after its founder Joseph Pilates, who came up with the exercises while detained in an internment camp during World War II. Pilates exercises use concentrated stretching movements with a focus on core muscles and specific muscle groups. While many of the exercises can be done on a mat, others utilize special Pilates machines.
There is no substitute for quality time of your own design. Whether you envision this as time spent alone, or with specific persons, everyone needs a little time to themselves, and no one more so than a busy personal assistant.
It is imperative you make time for yourself, even if it's only a few hours once a week. Going to a movie, reading a book, enjoying a luxurious meal, or taking a long nap are all nice pick-me-ups. So are relaxing spa treatments, like manicures and pedicures, facials, and massages. Taking a relaxing drive can be another way to get some uninterrupted personal time.
If you prefer to stay at home and relax, treat yourself to a "bathroom time-out." Get some candles, a sparkling beverage (preferably non-alcoholic), some relaxing music, and scented bath salts. Run a hot bath, sink in, and relax! (Just make sure not to fall asleep in the tub!)
Other Forms of Support
There may come a time when your personal life, combined with the stress of your career, seems to be too much to manage. It may be you're running out of energy, feeling depressed or unmotivated, experiencing physical pain, or having trouble meeting all your obligations. Before "throwing in the towel" completely on your PA career, you may want to check with a professional.
Any busy, stressful career can cause issues with body and/or mind; if addressed directly and in a timely manner, such events can be managed. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with your work or responsibilities, consider consulting a therapist to discuss your concerns. No matter how supportive those around you may be, there are times when a professional opinion is needed.
Also consider joining a group (online or in-person) for personal assistants, in order to keep perspective and have a place to "blow off steam." If you are having trouble with drugs or alcohol, seek support from appropriate support groups. You probably won't want to confront your employer directly about any excesses they participate in; opt instead for seeking support with a group for associates of alcoholics/addicts.