The past few weeks have taught us all many things – appreciation for the little things we enjoy but maybe take for granted, a greater sense of community, how to use Zoom and the joy of being able to take a walk on a sunny day, to name just a few. Our world has changed in a way no one could have predicted and we’re adapting day by day, week by week. Humans are good at doing that.
Along the way, we’re creating new routines for ourselves as our old routines are no longer workable, at least not in the short term. Routines are what give us a sense of order, predictability and knowing where we are. They give structure and purpose to our day. Without routines, we feel untethered, displaced and uneasy. Even people who shun the notion of routine, because it seems boring or not spontaneous, can’t deny a sense of displacement when they can no longer do the things they used to be able to do or they have to do them differently.
Routines come into our lives both consciously and unconsciously. Conscious routines are made up of the things that we choose to do – eating meals at a certain time, exercising, Sunday lunch, walking the dog in the evening. Unconscious routines are usually built around things we have to do such as work, childcare, commuting and the school run. Routines are normally created over a period of time – much like habits, they form with consistency and repetition. Normally we have a large element of choice in the routines we create for ourselves, even when they are born out of things we have to do such as work and looking after children.
The challenge for all of us is that we’re suddenly having to create new routines in a world with much less choice available to us. Think of grocery shopping for example. Before we could book a next day delivery or pop into a supermarket every few days to get what we needed. Now we’re lucky if we can get a delivery slot at all, let alone in a week’s time, and we have to queue to get into a supermarket just to get a loaf of bread and some eggs.
We’re also having to adjust to our family members’ new routines and in some cases, we’re having to help them to establish their routines. Parents worldwide are getting to grips with home schooling and the success of this enterprise depends largely on getting good routines in place. Those who usually go out to work are having to adjust to working from home – some are loving it, others less so. We are all having to work, learn and even relax very differently and our days inevitably have to be structured differently.
If you’re struggling to know where to start with creating new routines or you feel like you’re just winging it every day, take comfort in the fact that you are definitely not alone. We’ve all been thrown into this strange new world and it’s a lot to take in. What works for some doesn’t work for others – take home schooling for example. Some parents and children function best with a carefully planned timetable, whereas for others, ticking off a few activities over the course of the morning and afternoon is a better fit. For my kids, it sits somewhere in between these two approaches – and I’m learning that if they are happy playing with lego together, the lessons of cooperating, sharing and focusing are sometimes more important at that moment than adverbs and adjectives.
So how do you establish routines when you feel like you are barely keeping your head above water?
First of all, you need to work out the parameters of your day from the time you wake up to when you go to bed. Then identify the main activities that you need to fit in to your day. For example during a weekday, the activities would normally be work, home schooling, exercise, preparing meals/eating and relaxation. There are, of course, lots of other activities you will want to fit in to your day, but try to come up with a list of the main activities that will occupy the large chunks of your time. Once you’ve come up with your list, work out when these activities are going to take place. Grab a pen and paper, break up the day into hour long chunks and allocate an appropriate amount of time to each of the activities. Don’t forget to include waking up and going to bed as these define the start and end points of your day. Try to do these main activities at roughly the same time every day as regularity and consistency help form the basis of new routines. This is especially important where sleep and exercise are concerned.
It’s important that the others in your house also follow some kind of routine. For parents this might involve making sure children are up and dressed by a certain time and their rooms are tidy before they start learning or playing and setting out rules about when they can watch TV and iPads. But it’s not just about kids. The other adults in your house need to be clear what the daily routine is and be prepared to follow it. It’s no good having a rule that the kids have to be up and dressed by 8am if your partner is still wandering around in their pyjamas (or worse, in bed!) at 10am. New routines will likely require a redistribution of tasks so be clear about who is doing what and when in terms of childcare, meals and household chores.
Try to keep a distinction between your day/work/school routine and your evening/winding down routine (although for many, the evening will be the time when you have to get work done…that’s ok, just build it into your routine). Decide what time you “down tools” for the day and try your best to stick to it. Similarly try to maintain a distinction between your weekday and weekend routines. It can be harder to maintain that distinction in the school holidays without a flow of school work to get through, but it is important when you can’t go anywhere so that kids don’t get bored and you don’t get fed up. In our house, my children are only allowed to watch TV or go on the iPad in the morning at the weekends. We’ve decided to continue that during the school holidays (tough, I know!) but I know my boys too well and when they start the day with screen time, it does not bode well for keeping themselves occupied away from screens without some degree of fuss! It’s also very easy to fall off the wagon with exercise and drinking if the distinction between weekdays and weekends becomes blurred. Believe me, even when times are tough, it’s not good for you to be drinking wine 5 or 6 days a week. During the week, stick to your exercise routines, aim to eat meals at roughly the same time and try to get up and go to bed at the same time – then you can relax things at the weekend. The weekend will feel more special as a result.
Keep yourself busy, even when you feel unmotivated or down. Write a list of quick tasks that you can achieve when you’re feeling unproductive or low – it could be wiping down your fridge, sorting out some old clothes, tidying a bookshelf or watering the plants. Then add to your list some relaxation/self care acts such as meditation, reading a magazine or walking around in your garden. Filling your time purposely and mindfully with activities you’ve chosen to do will mean that you can look back on your day and see that you’ve actually achieved a lot.
I’m a big believer in the power of morning routines – starting each day with the same practices will set you up so well for having structure and routine in the rest of your day. Things like getting up at the same time, doing some mindfulness, yoga or stretching, making your bed, getting dressed and setting out your goals for the day are all really powerful ways to help get you into a routine mindset.
Finally, embrace the slower pace. You might have less time to yourself, less personal space, less money and you may feel disconnected with the world outside. However, you’re not running around from place to place, no one is running late for school, you’ve not missed the train due to traffic, and you’re hopefully not over committing to things that you later regret. While it may be frustrating not to be able to plan things (like holiday), the reality we are all in forces us to be more present – which at the end of the day, is no bad thing.