As the pandemic continues and the school year starts up, some people might be craving some regularity and structure. Having a routine not only guides you through your days, but it also brings mental and physical benefits, too, whether by adding exercise to your day, aiding in getting better sleep, helping children feel more secure or providing a sense of control during such an uncertain time.
Here are some tips on how to establish, re-establish and maintain a routine.
You’ve done it before: Created routines that look as if you’re competing for a spot in the Productivity Olympics. Instead, whether as an individual or as a family, focus first on incremental, achievable goals.
“Set yourself up for little wins,” said Dilan Gomih, a fitness instructor and life coach based in New York City. Rather than telling yourself you’re going to start waking up every day for 6 a.m. workouts, think about starting with a few workouts a week and gradually increasing them. For families, some experts suggest starting breakfast routines before kids begin their school days, whether that’s kicking off the day over bowls of cereal, or using a chore wheel to keep track of daily tasks.
It’s also important to understand why you’re craving routine, said Chanel Dokun, an Atlanta-based life planner and founder of LifePlan NYC. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to experience or feel on a day-to-day basis?’” she said. Most people tend to focus on tasks, but Ms. Dokun suggests focusing instead on the things that fuel or replenish you.
In response to an email to At Home readers asking about their schedules, a reader named Julia Zhou wrote that her routines “distinguish each day and foster a sense of progress.”
“There are a lot of little constants in my days that I hadn’t paid much attention to before,” she wrote. “I am realizing now that they add comfort and richness to each day.”
If you’re the type who prefers pen and paper, consider a small notebook or diary to carry around with you, detailing daily goals you’d like to accomplish. For those who prefer going digital, Google calendars, Asana boards or self-care apps can help you visualize the routine you want to develop and stay organized as you get into the swing of it.
How you use these tools varies on what works best for you. For some, that might mean scheduling things to fit in certain hours: getting in a 7 a.m. workout, taking a break at 12:30 for lunch and a walk around the block; for others, it might mean creating a list of things you want to accomplish each week.
You can also turn to those around you to hold you accountable.
“Everyday my grandma will call my little sister and me to do back exercises in the living room,” Ms. Zhou wrote. “Sometimes we scoff that we have to do them at all, but this little routine does anchor each day.”
With kids, a great way to create accountability is to do what some teachers do: Fill up a jar with small rocks or coins, or add stickers to a chart for each accomplished task. If they have completed daily tasks or chores, then perhaps your children can be rewarded by picking the movie for movie night, or choosing the dessert.
“There’s a reason we see teachers in kindergarten through third grade using this,” said Corinn Cross, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s motivating.”
Work with what’s there.
Sleep is what frames our days. “Our day starts when we wake up, and ends when we fall asleep at night,” said Jennifer Martin, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. She suggests figuring out a wake-up time that works for you, and sticking to it six or seven days a week. “This might mean getting up a little earlier than you want on the weekends, but it will set you up for good sleep the next night,” she said. Keep a consistent bedtime, too.
Meals can also provide a framework. “Understanding your own individual eating schedule can optimize the way we structure our day by letting us know what times would be best to do other activities — like exercising, sleeping, or work,” said May Zhu, founder of Nutrition Happens, a nutritional counseling service.
Cooking is also a great family activity, Ms. Zhu added. “By blocking out a set time to cook before a meal, you have the opportunity to get the kids involved, and give them a sense of control, to learn more about food and making healthy choices,” she said. Experts also suggest using dinner as a way to structure screen time for kids, like agreeing to one show before or after dinner.
Ask yourself, ‘Is this working?’
While you might be great at creating a schedule for yourself, you need to consider whether it is actually working.
“Check in and reflect on the routine that you’ve established,” Ms. Dokun said. “That’s the one piece that people often miss.” It may take as long as three weeks to really develop a rhythm. If you still haven’t hit your stride by then, it’s time to make adjustments. “This kind of ‘failure’ is helpful in illuminating your true beliefs about your rhythm and revealing blind spots that keep you from being successful,” she said.
And remember, while this is a stressful time for parents, kids are also dealing with pandemic-induced anxiety. “A lot of times we think kids will bounce back, so whether it’s over dinner or putting kids to bed, remember to schedule in that 10 minutes in your head that’s device-free to check in, especially as school is getting started,” Dr. Cross said.
Don’t forget the importance of flexibility and kindness.
All the experts agree that among the most important aspects of creating and establishing a routine is remaining flexible and being kind to yourself. “Routines don’t mean you have to have every hour of every single day planned and then, if something goes wrong, it’s like Murphy’s law and the dominoes are all going to topple,” Ms. Gomih said. “Routines are just guideposts.”
R. Lynn Barnett, another Times reader, wrote: “Sometimes the change in routine works out well. When I couldn’t walk at night, I walked in the morning, and I was able to see a neighbor whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We caught up, talking from driveway to driveway.”