How I Learned to Get the Most Out of Me Time

When pedicures and date night didn't work for me, I had to find what did

Before I had kids, I just didn't think about self-care very often. I didn't have to: When I wasn't at work, my time was my own. If I needed to sleep, exercise, or hang out with my friends or husband, I just did it.

That all changed after I became a mother almost seven years ago. Overnight, my self-care routine turned into zoning out in front of Facebook at 2 AM while I nursed a baby.

It took me a few years to accept that I needed to take care of myself, but I wasn't sure how. Most of the mothers I ran into at the park were getting pedicures to relax and unwind, so I gave it a shot. After wincing through many pedicures, I finally realized that I don't really like strangers touching my feet.

But I had to do something. I was tired all the time. I was gaining weight. I was becoming increasingly anxious, and I started yelling at my kids. After a bit of research, I found my way to mindfulness, a particular way of noticing and acknowledging my own experience without judging it or wishing it was different. Not only did my mindfulness practice help me not yell at my kids so much, but it also helped me pay attention to what I actually want and need from my precious time alone.

Now I walk two to three miles each day. I usually walk alone, although occasionally I walk with friends. Sometimes I listen to an audio book. Sometimes I walk in silence. It's such a simple habit, but it took me so long to get here. Here's what helped me:

I made self-care a priority. A good night's sleep and healthy diet just aren't enough to keep me sane and functional. For a while, I didn't want to admit that,so I pushed my way through any challenge. But when I did, I got sick or fell apart to the point where my husband encouraged me to take a weekend off. I enjoyed the time off, but I didn't enjoy having to hit a wall in order to get it.

I listened to myself. I tried pedicures, yoga, date nights, and weekend retreats, but nothing worked. So I stopped trying things that everyone else was suggesting and focused on my needs instead. I learned that I have to do something every day that boosts my energy and reduces my anxiety. Over time I realized that the most effective way for me to do that is to get outside and move my body, so I take long walks, usually by myself.

I stopped confusing self-care with self-improvement. This is a big one. I'm often inclined to try to walk an extra mile or two, or bump my walk up to a run, and sometimes I do. But I've found that if I push myself too hard, I end up resisting and not getting any self-care at all. Instead, I try to stay focused on what I enjoy. If I'm not in the mood for something more intense, I let it go and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I do it (almost) every day. Sometimes I miss a day because my husband is traveling or my kids are sick, but I walk almost every day. As they say, what we do every day matters more than what we do every once in a while. If I miss a day, I try not to stress about it and focus on getting back out as soon as I can.

I pay attention to my thoughts. Left to its own devices, my mind will spend all of my time stressing out about everything I should be doing. I used to argue with those thoughts and try to defend my choices, but I never seemed to get anywhere. Now I just notice the thoughts and let them go. I focus on my breathing or my steps or my audiobook or how beautifully the sunlight reflects on the lake near my house.

I rely on external motivation. It's easy for me to get off track with my walking, so I make plans to walk with friends. I've also connected with a number of friends on FitBit. The competition and accountability help me stay motivated.

Accepting that you need time for yourself on a regular basis isn't a weakness or failing. It's wise insight and good judgment. Figure out what you need and then make the time to do it on a regular basis because life – parenting, working, being a good spouse – is hard, and we can't do it well if we're running on empty.