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A Daily Routine Helps Us Feel Better During Difficult Times

Structuring your day creates a sense of control when everything feels uncertain.

My Life Journal/Unsplash
Source: My Life Journal/Unsplash

Remember the time when we used to exercise at the gym and kids went to school? And we met friends for cocktails on Friday afternoons? Store shelves were full of toilet paper and hand sanitizer and soap?

Remember, er, last month? I'd wake up early, go for a workout. Get my eighth-grader off to school, then go to work in my home office. The one with the really good desk chair. That was my routine.

I still get up early, even now. But, now I go to the couch. Have a cup of coffee. Meditate. Write morning pages. Then, I start work early before my daughter gets up. Instead of my home office, I sit in a wooden chair at a two-foot-long wooden writing table in the corner of the living room. The computer screen in my bedroom office space is better suited to the spreadsheets my husband needs for work. So he works in that space now, some days. I can get by with a laptop.

Even the language is different in our home. Phrases like self-distancing and contagion are part of the daily dialogue. We shelter-in-place by doing some creative school lessons, reading, and talking about the stories. Our daughter practices piano while I work. We disinfect stuff. Write letters to seniors in nursing homes. Read. Play loud music sometimes. Cook every night. That has now become part of our daily routine.

And that routine is keeping us calm and anchored.

It’s easy to feel untethered when our entire lifestyle—the way we work, interact, eat, learn—really the foundation of how we scheduled our days—has changed so dramatically.

But in this sea of uncertainty, we’ve relied on a new routine to guide us. To keep us rooted and purposeful. And it’s eased the anxiety around here.

Studies show that a regular routine can ease mental stress and help us feel more in control. It also helps s maintain healthier habits, and deal with challenges, according to Northwestern Medicine.

Rather than worrying too much about what might happen in the future, we have things we need to focus on today. That helps manage our fear and our moods.

Of course, our regular routine now looks nothing like the one from a few weeks ago. But, coming up with a new approach has been interesting and creative. Even fun.

These days, our routine is slower, more flexible. It’s not like we have to be anywhere or on time. And, while the day has structure, there is lots of wiggle room to pursue interesting projects or to read a little longer, or pause to talk about the news or how we are feeling.

But our routine is also structured and practical. Everyone has something to contribute. That adds meaning to our days. Our work is purposeful and that's good for our mental health and well-being.

Feeling frayed or unsettled? Maybe reworking your routine will help too. Here are a few things we built into ours that you might find useful.

1. Get up at the same time every day, go to bed at the same time.

I get up at 6 a.m. just like I did when I was going to the gym, but now, I go to the couch. Have coffee, do a meditation, write morning pages. And, because I don’t have to plan around my daughter’s school schedule, I go to work at 7:30 a.m. so I finish earlier.

I get my daughter up at 9 a.m. every weekday. She, like everybody else in the house, has tasks or activities—school work, chores, exercise—to complete each day, this gives her time to do them. Weekends we all sleep in.

Doesn’t matter what your go-time is, just keep it consistent.

2. Establish at least three must-dos for the day. Maybe you have a work project you need to finish, make a phone call to check in on your parents, and take a walk. One day, you might need to disinfect the house, finish paying the bills, and helping your daughter with the math. The math part is NOT a part of my routine, but it may work for yours. While your must-dos will vary from day-to-day, it’s important to have three to five things you want to accomplish. More than that, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Too few, you’ll feel purposeless. But a few goals, will give some structure to your days and leave you feeling productive. So put some on your list, and hold yourself accountable.

Our must-dos fall into four categories. Make. Move. Learn. Serve.

Each day we make something. I’ll work on my book, finish up work assignments. Strum the ukulele. Maybe try a recipe. While my daughter makes music at the piano or works on an art project. My husband will keep up with his work, help with dinner, and he’s working on a puzzle in the evening. No matter, each day includes a creative component.

Move is the exercise part. This could be dancing in the living room. My husband goes for a run. My daughter walks the dog. The other day I did a circuit with stairs and hand weights on our back deck. I’ve even used our Wii boxing game and vacuuming as a workout. Doesn’t matter what you do, but move it. Exercise is a great stress release too.

Learn something new. Today, as part of her at-home studies, my daughter is learning about the plump robins we’ve been watching on the birdfeeder outside the house. She’ll study the nesting habits of robins and then tell us what she learned at dinner. She has some school lessons to complete every day, one day she wrote a poem, and studied the Big Bang and evolution of our universe.

But, learning isn't just for the school kids. I'm focused on it too.

I’m taking an online doodling class, about 10 minutes a day, and reading a book about parenting and authenticity. Because I’m not driving kids around to school activities or doctor’s appointments or meeting friends for dinner, I have more time to act on my curiosity. I’m trying to use that extra time to do things that inspire me, help me to grow, things that intrigue me and fill me up with positive energy. Reading can do that. Watching a cool movie or documentary can do that. The other day I wrote a newsletter for my peeps and learned croci is the plural of crocuses. I love that. This learning component is nearly unavoidable if you are paying attention.

What are you curious about? Spend 15 or 20 minutes a day learning about it. Check out an article, or a web site, discuss it with friends, watch a video, practice it, or map it out in a sketch. When we are learning, we are engaged and that is energizing.

Then, we serve. Every day we try to give something. Offer something of ourselves. This might look like unloading the dishwasher or tackling other household chores for the family. We've been writing letters to people quarantined in a nursing home, checking on a housebound neighbor, offering encouragement to friends, brushing the dog, donating money to food pantries. Not only does this help others, but it makes the days when we are feeling low easier to bear. It adds meaning, gives some purpose and structure to our days.

Despite the routine, we keep it pretty simple. Don't structure your time in a way that adds to your stress. We are not trying to cram everything in. Our daily must-dos can take a few minutes each—unloading the dishwasher, or writing a letter—to an hour or more studying about robins or writing an article for a work assignment. The afternoon, or early evening for me, when I finish work, is free time. Time to regroup and relax.

And, because we choose (I do assign some things to my 13-year-old daughter) new things to move, make, learn, serve, each day, every day looks a little different. By the end of it, we all feel like we’ve accomplished something like we’ve contributed something meaningful and that feels good.

3. It also helps, too, not to glamourize the old routine. Seriously, it wasn't all rainbows and unicorns. Even before we began to shelter-in-place. Parts of the old routine were stressful. A real grind. I don't miss it all. And, it's normal to have ups and downs in the course of our new-look routine too.

I don’t know how all this is going to turn out, or what the future will bring.

But, today, I do know I’ll be learning about robins, and publishing this post and writing a letter to a senior who is quarantined, and taking the dog for a walk in the drizzly morning. And, all that, will make for a pretty good, productive, interesting day. And that’s enough to get me through this moment and even the next.