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3 Tips to Embrace Routine to Reduce Anxiety and Depression

A Personal Perspective: Routine can pack a powerful punch for your mood.

Daniel Perunov / Unsplash
Source: Daniel Perunov / Unsplash

We've all heard it before–routine is key to a healthy lifestyle and good mental health. I know. I’ve already started yawning too. If you’re like me, a "creative" who lives with bipolar disorder, the idea of routine sounds like being hemmed into a barn, able to see the light and smell fresh cut grass but never getting outside. In other words, I resist routine. Or I used to until I felt its powerful effects on my mood, particularly reducing anxiety and the length of my depressive episodes.

Routine, I’m told, can prevent kids from having meltdowns. I don’t have any. Kids, that is. Meltdowns, well, those I do have. Not only do kids benefit from a good sleep routine so do adults. Consistent bedtime and wake time regulate our internal body clock, improve the quality and duration of our sleep, and stabilize moods. I’m very protective of my sleep routine. Anything that can boost my brain power and lift my spirits a bit has gotta be worth protecting. Those of us with mental health conditions (mild, moderate, or severe) know changes in sleep are the canary in the coal mine. Keeping sleep regular is essential to prevent a slide down that slippery slope.

But let's be honest, the idea of sticking to a strict routine, whether it’s for sleep, mealtimes, or exercise (especially exercise), feels like life will always be a grind. So, how can we find the motivation to fully embrace routine when doing so seems so "meh"? In this post, I share my three favourite tips to inject some excitement and flexibility into your routine, making it more enjoyable and sustainable. Get ready to challenge the notion that routine has to be boring!

1. The buddy system: Spicing up your routine with social support.

Routines don't have to be solitary. Getting other peeps on board can make them fun and effective. Enter the buddy system! Find a friend, family member, or accountability partner. Set it up to check in with each other (preferably in the morning) to provide mutual support and encouragement. When one of my best friends and I were both low on exercise steam, we committed to doing 10 minutes of any kind of movement five times a week. We texted in the AM to say what we’d do, and then after we did it. We knew how hard it was to get going, so this built-in cheerleading squad was just what was needed.

And guess what? After six weeks, I was back to my three-times-a-week running habit. Knowing someone is rooting for you can boost motivation and make routines feel less lonely. Plus, it adds an element of connection to the process.

2. The power of opposite action: Defying the routine blues.

Overcoming the "routine blues" often lies in defying our own resistance and doing the reverse of what we feel like. A tool from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), it's the power of opposite action.

Routine is particularly difficult when deep in depression. The only routine I want to do when I’m depressed is to hide under the duvet with a bowl of popcorn. But even though all I want to do is stay in bed, I can choose to do the opposite. I can get up, get dressed and make myself some breakfast. I can aim for a shower another day. Why do this? It shows me I don’t have to succumb to the whims of what my nasty self-talk is telling me. Taking action talks back to the “there’s-no-point-to-getting-up.” It helps me see I have the power to direct my day. This doesn’t mean swallowing emotions. Instead, it means taking action while feeling my emotions to maintain my important routines. That’s the power of opposite action.

Try this: If you struggle with getting up in the morning, set up a buddy system. Challenge yourself, commit to someone you’ll wake up to within a certain window of time, and follow it with an activity that energizes you, like walking around the block. Choosing the opposite action to challenge your inner resistance can be incredibly empowering, particularly amid a depression. It has been for me. It’s proof you have the power to shape your day despite what your IBSC (Itty Bitty Sh*tty Committee) in your head says. You are more powerful than you think!

3. Self-compassion and micro-goals: Embracing imperfection in your routine.

Maintaining a routine doesn't mean striving for perfection. Self-compassion and micro-goals can make the process more forgiving and enjoyable. Embrace the motto: "Perfectly imperfect is perfect," and start small. Instead of beating myself when I hit the snooze button three times, I’m gentle with myself and set a micro-goal of waking up at 7:30 am. Then I gradually work my way toward 7 am. Progress is progress, no matter how small.

Try this: If committing to 30 minutes of exercise feels overwhelming, start with 10 minutes or even five, and gradually increase. By leaning into imperfection and setting realistic goals, maintaining your routine becomes easier without feeling restricted or discouraged.

Routine is good for our mental health, regardless of whether you have a mental illness or not. But it’s particularly helpful for those of us who do. Sticking to a daily schedule doesn't have to be synonymous with lifelessness. Try these tips to create a daily groove with excitement, flexibility, and self-compassion. Embrace the buddy system to add social support and connection to your routine.

Defy the “routine blues” with the power of opposite action and discover your inner strength. Finally, practice self-compassion and set itsy-bitsy goals to make your routine forgiving and enjoyable. So, go ahead, break free from the notion that routine has to be boring and create a personalized routine that fits your style and needs. Get motivated, have fun, and make your routine work for you and your mental health!

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