Sometimes, we dream of a life free from the monotony of schedules, appointments, and orderly to-do lists. We might imagine endless days in an oceanfront hut, swimming, eating, and napping in a hammock at will. Or we wish for a windfall that would let us travel the world at the drop of a hat, with no deadlines or itinerary to worry about.
Enduring months of working from home, avoiding crowded social events, and staying up way past our usual bedtimes as we scroll through social media and worry about what will be on the news tomorrow, has many of us longing for the sameness of our “normal” lives. With good reason, it seems. Positive routines are an essential part of supporting emotional wellbeing. They can help us manage life changes, reduce stress and anxiety, and even make healthier choices throughout the day.
Benefits of Sticking to Routines
Routines give us structure, providing focus, and helping us get things done more efficiently and with less stress. Research has found that the more decisions we make, the less self-control we have, and the more stressed we tend to be. Knowing that Tuesdays are taco night and dinner is always at 6:30 decreases the number of decisions we need to make.
We have all been there: you look at the clock with shock to see that the day somehow passed by and feel as though you did not do anything significant. It can be disheartening. Sticking to routines can help us finish the day feeling prouder and more relieved.
Routines result in less worry about things that need we need to do. When we schedule tasks and to-dos, we have the luxury of lying down at night without a cloud of unfinished tasks that need attention floating around in our minds.
When extenuating circumstances make it impossible to practice some of our longstanding daily habits, such as going to the movies on Fridays or having dinner with your in-laws every Sunday, creating some new ones can make a difference. Studies have shown that establishing appropriate new routines can counter feelings of loneliness and uncertainty.
Of course, habitually incorporating activities such as exercise, eating well, and getting adequate rest are beneficial to our physical health. But research shows that these routines can also boost your mental wellbeing. Regular exercise can improve sleep, reduce stress, and perk up your mood. The brain activity we experience during deep sleep can profoundly impact emotional and mental health. A healthy diet can reduce the risk of depression.
Another way that routines support good emotional health is by improving our family life and other relationships. A sense of belonging is a vital human need. When we include practices that encourage us to connect with others, we feel supported, understood, and less isolated, and so do our family, friends, and loved ones.
Since routines can help us become more efficient, more productive, and physically healthier, an added benefit is improved self-esteem. In addition, research shows higher self-esteem is linked to reduced stress and improved health, creating a positive cycle of enhanced overall wellness.
How to Begin
So, now that we understand how beneficial they can be, how do we go about creating and actually following through with new, healthy routines? Start by prioritizing what is most important to you and developing practices that will help you most.
However, be gentle and start small. We do not want to overwhelm ourselves with a laundry list of new habits to incorporate. Consider incorporating one little thing every week. It might not seem like much, but it will be easier to stick with, and minor changes add up.
Piggyback a new routine with an existing one. For example, you could meditate while waiting for your coffee to brew in the morning or take your vitamins right after brushing your teeth. Your brain will soon connect the activities, making one just as automatic as the other.
Make it enjoyable. Adding things that bring us joy to our daily habits not only encourages us to persist with new routines, but it can also have positive side effects. Something as simple as laughing, smiling, and playing outside in the sun trigger the release of endorphins. These natural, feel-good chemicals can help reduce stress, decrease anxiety, and even manage physical pain.
Find what works for you. Don’t worry if your routine is vastly different from your brother’s, your coworker’s, or your favorite social media influencer’s. Everyone is unique, and while some people flourish with a highly structured schedule, others fare better with a more relaxed outline for the day. When we identify the areas we want to work on and our motivation for those changes, we can create meaningful and realistic routines that fit our lifestyle and personality.
Give yourself time. Again, everybody’s different, and researchers have found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. Don’t beat yourself up if you intentionally skip a day or accidentally forget a step.
Remember that the goal is improving emotional health, not perfection. Reward yourself for small wins, forgive yourself for slipups, and know that you can always try again tomorrow.
If you find yourself struggling to stick with a new routine or feel like you could use a little assistance getting started, a professional therapist can help you find the direction, tools and motivation you need to make positive changes.
By Tricia Goss, with input from our therapist team at June Health.