A woman choosing self-care by taking a walk in nature

8 Small Self-Care Ideas That Make a Big Impact

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
December 11, 2023

“Self-care” has become a buzzword in recent years, often evoking the image of pampering yourself with a luxurious spa day or eating dinner at a high-end restaurant. Those de-stressing activities are okay, of course. But self-care doesn’t have to involve elaborate, expensive, or time-consuming ways to treat yourself.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the concept of self-care simply involves spending time doing things to help you improve your physical or mental health—and even small acts of self-care can have a big impact when it comes to managing stress, boosting energy, and improving your health.

“Self-care is the practice of doing things that ultimately help you,” says Marni Amsellem, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Stamford, Connecticut. “It doesn’t necessarily mean a spa day. It can—but it's really doing something that honors what your needs are.”

Here are eight surprising examples of what self-care may actually look like in your day-to-day life.

1. Shorten Your To-Do List

One 2020 report notes that having too much on your plate and not knowing when to say no can actually limit self-care. Create a to-do list to help you understand what you can realistically accomplish in your day, what can wait, and when to say no if you’re overbooked.

At the end of the day, pat yourself on the back for what you’ve accomplished instead of stressing about what’s left on your list. There’s always tomorrow.

2. Get to the Source of Your Stress

According to Michael J. Poulin, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, in New York, some typical self-care strategies might help you handle stress, but it doesn’t actually get rid of it. You might find it more effective to think about what’s causing your stress and coming up with ways to eliminate or reduce problems.

“Rather than go to the spa to deal with the stress of your job, why not work on finding a way to get your work done more efficiently?” Poulin says. If childcare or household responsibilities are an issue, you might find that your self-care is hiring a mother’s helper or asking a family member to pitch in around your home.

“This isn't to say that pleasant distractions don't count [as self-care], as well—and in fact, sometimes taking a break from thinking about a problem can give us the necessary space to think about it more clearly later,” Poulin adds.

3. Do the Things You’ve Been Dreading

Is an important to-do making you feel anxious? Whether it’s going through your finances or having a difficult but necessary conversation, putting things off can lengthen the time that they cause stress.

Completing these tasks removes that source of stress, Poulin says. “Even though it sounds boring, anything that could be called problem-solving is probably the best form of self-care there is.”

4. Clean or De-Clutter Your Space

Chores might not sound fun, either, but the feeling of completing them can make a huge difference. “For a lot of people, clearing the sink is a form of self-care,” Amsellem says. “Looking at a sink that’s full of dishes can be a trigger for ‘my life is chaotic,’ so taking control of that is an act of self-care.”

5. Follow a Routine

“We thrive with routine,” Amsellem says. “Even though it might not feel so exciting to think about 'I wake up at this time; I go to bed at this time,' our bodies actually really appreciate that. There's the consistency of knowing what to expect.”

Knowing what comes next in your day—when you’ll be having coffee, unloading the dishwasher, making dinner, or taking your walk, for example—can actually help alleviate stress. “When we know what to expect, there's less uncertainty,” Amsellem says. “There's less active thought and energy going into figuring things out. And certainly knowing what to expect in and of itself is useful for stress management.”

6. Move Your Body

“Physical activity obviously is something that's good for your health, and it absolutely falls into the self-care category, as well,” Amsellem says.

According to the NIMH, getting 30 minutes of exercise—like a walk around the neighborhood—each day can help improve your mental and physical health. You can also break your activity into smaller chunks—like 10 minutes, three times a day.

7. Get a Good Night’s Sleep

“Both sleep and exercise directly reduce both emotional and physiological symptoms of stress, and they make us feel more capable of dealing with potential sources of stress,” Poulin says. “They also boost mood and self-confidence, all at the same time as improving health and longevity.”

Most adults should aim to get seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night. Try removing electronic devices from your room to help make it easier to fall asleep.

8. Make Time for Mindfulness

Try to make time each day to unwind with activities like meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. In fact, results from a 2021 study suggest that self-care practices rooted in mindfulness actually helped improve job satisfaction and promote teamwork, all while reducing burnout and creating a healthier work environment in the nursing population.

How to Get Started

If you’re overwhelmed with the idea of self-care, start small, suggests Poulin. For example, if you know you need to go to bed an hour earlier, and that seems unattainable, try going to bed just 15 minutes earlier to see whether that has an impact on your mood and energy levels. “The idea is that if you can do anything to feel less burdened, you'll feel more able to make further changes.”

And remember: Self-care is a moving target. “Our needs for self-care can fluctuate and might vary depending on the demands of the situation,” explains Amsellem. “If you're on a vacation and around people constantly, your need for alone time might be different than if you're working at home alone all day.”

Consistency is key, emphasizes Amsellem. “In order to get the most out of self-care, regular practice is essential.” So find a form of self-care that works for you, however small it may be, and stick with it.

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