‘Self-Leadership’ Is the Productivity Tool That Rewards Your Deepest Needs

Mature woman doing arm press on high-low pilates chair in fitness studio.
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

While other people were managing their pandemic stress by baking sourdough and tie-dyeing their entire wardrobes, I was browsing the internet for stuff I didn’t need — candles, throw pillows, pajama sets, anything that could make the time in lockdown feel more like a cozy choice than a life-or-death necessity. At least once a week, a new dire news report sent me instinctively back to my online shopping cart, as though the things I was buying were amulets, each new package offering protection against my gnawing anxiety.

I eagerly tracked shipments, ripped open boxes, and waited to feel better. What I felt instead, though, was a mounting sense of guilt — for spending money on small pick-me-ups when so many people were struggling, for ignoring the goal my husband and I had set to pay off our debt, for throwing willpower to the wind in the name of self-care. Eventually, I looked at my bank account and decided: I needed to tighten up. This would be the start of a new, disciplined me, one who worked too hard to get caught up in shopping for indulgences, and was too practical to be comforted by them anyway.

It may not surprise you to learn that rigid self-discipline didn’t do wonders for my stress, either. I needed a more balanced approach — one that would somehow move me forward without depressing me. Something in between the fluffy self-care of retail therapy and an all-work-no-play mindset.

I found that middle ground in a concept called “self-leadership:” the ability to determine your big-picture needs in a given moment, and to steer yourself in that direction in the now. Maybe that means ordering a favorite meal after a particularly lonely week, or maybe it means closing the delivery tab and putting that cash toward bigger goals. Either way, you’re positively influencing your future outcomes by being deliberate in your present actions.

“We have the tendency to go to extremes, to be too self-critical and regimented, or the other way around,” says Grace Dowd, a Texas-based therapist. “Self-leadership helps us align our lives with what we value and accomplish our goals.” It may sound like a pop-psychology buzzword, but the idea is simple: It’s a decision-making framework that gets you closer to what you want in the long term, without steamrolling over your emotions and desires in the short term. It’s about taking care of yourself in a more sustainable way.

Picture an imaginary friend (with incredible leadership skills)

Before you can improve your self-leadership skills, determine how effectively you’re leading yourself in the present. Maria Connolly, a therapist in Oregon, suggests some reflective self-assessment: In your head, build a mental picture of a strong, competent leader — someone who balances vision and results with compassion and connection. If that person were leading you through your day, what would it look like?

If the answer doesn’t resemble your actual day, it might be time to try a new approach — without the detrimental extremes of “treat yourself” and “punish yourself.”

“If there’s a huge gap between what your life is like and what you’re trying to achieve, it’s about taking stock of what you want, what you’re getting, and what you need to do to change,” says Connolly.

Discover your core operating principles

Cultural portrayals of self-care and self-discipline can make life seem like a choice between two extremes: You can decompress by lounging in the bubble bath with a glass of wine, or you can stay motivated by getting up at the crack of dawn ready to grind. In reality, there are plenty of people looking for ways to de-stress and push themselves on their own terms. The proverbial (or actual) bath isn’t for everyone, and some people will never be early risers.

While self-leadership is a tool to create the life you want rather than relying on existing scripts, you can’t make decisions for yourself if you don’t know what you actually like, want, or need. You can’t lead yourself without knowing yourself.

“The word ‘self’ is the most important part of self-leadership,” says Marianna Strongin, a New York-based psychologist. “Without connection to yourself, you’ll just be a robot running toward a goal post, and your motivation will run out.”

So ask yourself: What do you enjoy? What kind of life do you want to create for yourself? What are your long-term goals? Then, you can filter your decisions through those answers.

“Self-leadership is about understanding myself, how I operate, and the experiences in life that shape me,” says Connolly. “I can discover the things that are unique to me, and create routines and systems and ways to integrate them into my life.”

Practice self-compassion

Within this framework, Connolly says, saying “no” to something you want isn’t true deprivation, but a step forward. “It’s just thinking for yourself and making a choice that brings you closer to your goals,” she says.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve finally managed to block out some time alone, away from the demands of your job and family, to devote to a creative project you’ve been working on, and a friend invites you over for drinks in her backyard instead. That social time may seem pretty tempting in the moment. But turning down the invitation to focus on your work will ultimately bring you closer to what you want, looking forward. By saying no to momentary gratification, you’re saying yes to a more fulfilling outcome down the road.

But self-leadership isn’t just about relentlessly achieving your goals. Leading yourself also means listening to the needs beneath the surface — including knowing when to cut yourself slack before you burn out.

“Self-compassion allows us to live more aligned with what we actually need, and in the long run, gives us more capacity to achieve those long-term goals,” says Dowd. “It’s about listening to yourself and being willing to do what will be the most beneficial to you both in the moment and in the future.”

I haven’t ordered something online for a while, and I’m glad. We’ve had a few unexpected expenses come up, and we’ve been able to make some progress in our debt plan, too. Especially right now, I know how lucky that makes us. I also know there will come a day, sometime soon, when I’ll want to let go a little bit, to order something dumb off Instagram, and spend a week getting excited about its arrival. Hopefully, I’ll know when to dismiss the impulse, and when it will be exactly what I need.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.