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Why setting a daily routine could be the self-care tool you need in lockdown

Authors and wellness experts Sarah Crosby and Adrienne Herbert explain why 'a semblance of certainty' – whether it's walking your dog, doing a bit of gardening or making coffee in the morning – can be crucial to our mental health.

The ritual goes the exact same way every morning: I tip four exacting tablespoons of ground Guatemalan coffee beans (‘notes of dark chocolate and juicy red grape’, for those asking) into the cafetiere, then pour boiling water over the grounds and stir. Five punctual minutes later, I push the cafetiere’s plunger down slowly and pour the coffee over a few centimetres of frothy oat milk in two mugs, watching the foam rise until it’s the perfect coffee colour. I take one to my girlfriend in bed, and I return to my makeshift desk (read: the kitchen table) to take my first, deeply satisfying sip.

In a global pandemic the days blur into one, and the malaise can be heavy, but at the end of a tough 24 hours, I often go to bed excited about my morning coffee routine; it’s my raison d’être, my ‘daily inspo’. And while that might seem a bit silly, the routine – my small moment of joy I know I can look forward to each day, no matter what else is on – has been a saviour during lockdown, between isolation and news bombardments about would-be American coups and the complicated, drawn-out difficulty of Brexit.

“As human beings, we like to know what to expect,” asserts wellness expert Adrienne Herbert, the author of Power Hour: How to Focus on Your Goals and Create a Life You Love. “Having a routine takes away the element of decision-making, as we have to make a lot of decisions throughout every day – from what we’re going to eat, what we’re going to wear to what route we’re going to take – and removes additional uncertainty.”

Maybe your routine is walking the dog at the same time, or gardening, or yoga; in any case, argues Herbert, that moment is a crucial element of your mental well-being.

“I think a lot of people are struggling mentally with lockdown because of that vagueness: when there’s a lot of uncertainty – for example, not knowing when lockdown will end, or when your kids will be able to go back to school, or when you can book a holiday – we lose our sense of control; it can be very difficult. Structure and routine run counter to that.”

Psychotherapist Sarah Crosby, author of Five Minute Therapy, agrees.

“Routine creates a semblance of certainty: it helps us deal with the uncertain parts of our day that emerge, takes the guesswork out of particular parts of our day, and makes us feel in control, less stressed.”

In conversation, both Crosby and Herbert separately mention outdoor exercise, food, and dressing ourselves as small, seemingly banal tasks that can take on greater importance when we’re in times of stress, and completing them (even a cup of coffee!) can generate feelings of self-worth.

My morning coffee routine has been a saviour during lockdown, between isolation and news bombardments

“The idea of completing something, even if it’s just a small task each day,” Herbert argues, “gives a great sense of accomplishment. It can be very rewarding, even if it’s just making a soup, or baking: having ingredients, a method, and a time set out, and completing the task. Then you have a pie, or a cake – whatever your small project is that day.”

“Routine,” adds Crosby, “bolsters our morale, and our sense of self-trust. In my book, I speak about keeping our contracts, based on the concept of, ‘How do I begin to trust in myself?’, and it is about making those small promises to ourselves daily [and fulfilling them]. If we make promises to ourselves that aren’t achievable, and we fail to meet the mark, we can use it as another reason to flagellate ourselves, so routine works best when it’s achievable, when we start small and build from there.”

Creating a routine is not about over-scheduling your day, or needing to increase your productivity, says Crosby. If anything, adding structure and routine for your day can provide valuable moments for rest, relaxation, or whatever else might be most important to your well-being that day.

“Routine makes room for rest, and allows us to dedicate time to the important things; it doesn’t have to be perfect and it won’t be perfect, but structuring our days increases the likelihood of that bit of respite occurring.”

Asked what her own methods are for ensuring her days include routine, and if she has any tips, Crosby is firm that we acknowledge our important routines – “There’s little point in us striving for change if we’re not stopping to acknowledge the progress we’ve made; leave perfectionism behind” – and says that she herself has implemented starting her day with “listing three things I’d like to have accomplished by the end of the day. They might be things I have to do, but even so, it gives me a sense of accomplishment, and I can pat myself on the back for that and move along. The time I walk the dog every day is around noon; it’s nice to know that I have time before and after it to do other things.”

Herbert unplugs from screens every evening, and suggests “not looking at the news or social media for a substantial amount of time before bed. In the evening, I want to look at something that will evoke creativity, whether that’s reading a book or listening to music; I don’t want catastrophising news before bed, so my evening routine has changed.”

'Routine makes room for rest, and allows us to dedicate time to the important things'

And finally, Herbert suggests a final titbit of advice that evokes my own morning routine once more.

“If you don’t feel purposeful right now – whether you’re missing the structure of work or taking your kids to school – something useful is doing something in service of others, even if it’s a small thing. Whether it’s calling your grandparents or checking in with someone or donating some clothes or food, is a nice purposeful thing that you can do, which isn’t just another work thing.”

Now if you’ll pardon me – I just have to bring my partner her morning coffee.

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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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