How To Practice Self-Care When You’re Exhausted

We all know that self-care is a good thing. But it seems like when you’re exhausted and need it the most, it’s so hard to do.

It’s not just you. Feeling too exhausted for self-care is really normal. Let me introduce you to the energy/reward model of self-care. It can help you determine what self-care activities to practice, depending on how much energy you have to put into it, and how much reward you’ll get out of it. 


Low vs. High Energy

First, let’s look at energy. Some self-care activities are low energy, meaning that they don’t require much energy to get started. They’re literally just easier to do. This is different for everyone, but a few examples for me are watching TV, listening to guided meditations, making coffee, taking a bath, and restorative yoga.

All of these activities are fairly easy for me to do without going anywhere or having extra cash, and I can do them even when I’m really tired. Think about things that you can easily do and add them to a list of “low energy” self-care. 

High energy self-care are activities that take a lot of energy to get started. For me, that’s working out (including any yoga that isn’t restorative), going on a hike, or any self-care that requires some planning. Add a few high energy self-care things to your list, and know that these activities might be a little harder to do if you’re feeling pretty exhausted. 

Low vs. High Reward

Next, let’s think about the reward. Some self-care is low reward: it feels good at the moment and maybe shortly after, but it doesn’t last. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s good to recognize when your cup isn’t really getting filled. Reward is incredibly subjective – think about what really makes you feel good!

A few low reward activities for me are TV, scrolling through social media, and mindless snacking. Think about a few low reward activities for you. They work best as self-care “fillers” rather than being the only way you take care of yourself.

Finally, there’s high reward.

These are the things that truly fill you up and can make your whole day better. High reward activities don’t always make your day happier or easier. You might need to cry about something you’ve held inside for weeks, or have a difficult conversation with a friend.

But maybe both of those things offer significant relief. That is still high reward self-care. A few examples for me are spending time with close friends, going out in nature, and making something creative. These are often the most special, but sometimes the most difficult to do on a regular basis.


So… what do I do when I’m exhausted?

When you have very little energy to give, look for self-care activities that fall into both the low energy and high reward categories. These will give you the biggest value for what you are able to put into them. If nothing on your list immediately meets both criteria, then start with your high reward activities and get creative. 

For example, spending time with my close friends is one of my high reward activities. Well, a few of my closest friends live 1000 miles away from me. But we FaceTime, send random gifts and care packages, and write letters to each other! Those things still have a high reward for me. When I’m exhausted, I probably don’t have the energy to put a nice gift together, but we could still FaceTime. And that will still give me a high reward boost.

Your list is completely your own. Maybe watching your favorite show ever is absolutely high reward for you. Perfect! Enjoy that and soak up the self-care. It’s all about making self-care as easy as possible and accepting that you will have different amounts of mental, physical, and emotional energy at different times. The goal is not to “master” self-care or do it perfectly. The goal is simply to fill up your own cup, in whatever ways best support you.

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