I assume that, like most people, you’ve had moments in your life where you felt fatigued, apathetic, burnt out, or even depressed. I imagine you’ve found yourself in a rut, and regardless of the cause of your difficulties, you were probably crossing your fingers, waiting for that magical ‘M’ word (M.O.T.I.V.A.T.I.O.N) to appear out of the blue. Waiting for that spurt of energy to spring you into action, to get you to the gym, paint that shed, or tackle that pending work. I guess you’ve probably told yourself, “Tomorrow… I’ll start on Monday… Next week I’ll feel better.” Yet, that arbitrary deadline you set often gets forgotten, ignored, or pushed back another week or two. We’ve all been there, but maybe it’s time to shift our focus from fleeting motivation to something more consistent: routine.
Having a routine is a skill. Like all skills, it requires discipline. The more you practice, the better you become. Discipline, like motivation, doesn’t just appear out of the blue. However, you can practice routine and refine it. In fact, your life is probably full of more routines and discipline than you give yourself credit for. Do you get up and go to work? Brush your teeth? Handle the school run? Call a family member regularly? Walk your dogs? These are routines. Unless you’re severely unwell, you likely don’t need to ‘psych’ yourself up every time you take the dogs out or jump in the shower before work. You just do it.
Reflecting on my own life, which can sometimes be chaotic and disorganised, I’ve noticed periods of productivity and reduced stress. I believe routine plays a significant role and underpins many positive aspects. Here are some tips I’ve gathered from various sources over the years.
Understand Yourself First
Firstly, recognise that we are human, not machines. When you’re feeling down, decision-making becomes harder, and initiating beneficial or new activities can seem impossible. The lower you feel, the less you do, leading to a vicious cycle that impacts your life negatively. We aren’t all super-driven CEOs or athletes. We aren’t all going to manage seven gym sessions a week. So, don’t set unrealistic routine goals. If you aim too high, it’s more likely to fail. When feeling drained, that critical inner voice becomes louder and more persuasive.
The key is understanding that a well-established routine requires less motivation over time. If you are sitting there, depressed and isolated, you will not suddenly get stuff done. Your mind and body appreciate routine; they thrive on predictability without overthinking. So, when you plan to start at the gym, begin small. It might be challenging initially, but it will get easier.
Consider this: you probably have routines that, in isolation, seem tedious. Yet, they don’t bother you much. For instance, I used to work in a café, requiring a 10-minute walk, a 20-minute train ride, followed by another 10-minute walk, all to start work by 6:00 am. Over time, this commute became routine.
Become Your Own Therapist
You don’t need formal qualifications to initiate therapeutic processes on yourself (unless you genuinely need professional therapy). Many simple skills and techniques can help establish a routine to enhance your health and wellbeing.
Establishing a routine is integral to many psychological therapeutic treatments. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy encourages routines to challenge unhelpful thinking and understand situations. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy builds routines to handle difficult emotional situations. Interpersonal Therapy might incorporate routines to address interpersonal issues, like setting regular social activities to combat feelings of isolation. Sleep therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), emphasise sleep routines to improve sleep quality and overall mental health.
However, there is one approach that carries quite a decent evidence base, and developing routine underpins it. This is Behavioural Activation (BA). BA is a therapeutic approach that combats depression by helping individuals understand and change unhelpful behavioural patterns. The focus is on increasing positive and meaningful activities in their daily routine. This might sound painfully obvious.
You don’t need to be struggling with depression either to benefit from its techniques. If you are, consult a local health professional as there may be BA interventions in your area. So, let’s learn a bit more about BA. All information below is my interpretation and simplification of some of the key techniques used in BA. Read this article by Jonathan Kanter and colleagues (2010) for more.
1. Start with Activity Monitoring: It might sound obvious, but if you want to make changes, you need to know what changes to make. The purpose of activity monitoring is to identify patterns between your daily activities and mood. Knowing these patterns provides the foundation. You may be surprised by how certain things make you feel. It’s not unusual to find people who are depressed doing things that clearly aren’t helpful or doing things that are really helpful, but do them seldomly.
- How to do it:
- Track your daily activities. Grab a notepad, use notes on your phone, or use a weekly planner. Review last week, review the next week. Write down all the things you did that day.
- Note down your mood alongside each activity. Rate how good you felt out of 10. Did the dishes? Rate mood. Binged a Netflix series? Rate mood. Went to the gym? Rate mood.
- How to do it:
2. Dive into Assessment of Goals and Values: Some things we do in life might make us feel good but don’t move us forward. Let’s just say one of your core values is physical health, and you have a goal to hit the gym X times a week, but you spend 3 hours playing Xbox a few times a week. The latter may actually be really fun and feel great, but it moves you away from what you value. If you value family, include family in your activity. If you value knowledge, include learning in your activity.
- How to do it:
- Reflect on potential valued life domains (e.g., family relationships, social connections, education, health, spirituality). I’ve used this exercise a lot in the past, courtesy of Russ Harris (I highly recommend his book, ‘The Happiness Trap’), and it works a treat to help find out what your values are.
- Identify which values resonate most with you.
- Now you know what you value, it’s time to set some goals. When distinguishing between values and goals; see your values as a deeply held belief of what is important, a journey. Whereas a goal is a tangible, measurable objective that you want to achieve, a destination. Goals should align with your values.
- How to do it:
3. Embrace Activity Scheduling: So, you’ve got a few goals and values. Now it’s time to build your engagement with activities that bring more positive reinforcement into your week. You approach this consistently, peppering a mix of activity throughout your week. The way I like to think of it is this; people who are generally depressed often act like someone who is depressed. They’ll avoid, isolate, and do less. People who are not depressed often act like someone who is not depressed. They approach challenges, connect, and are active. So if you are depressed, act like the person who isn’t.
- How to do it:
- Plan activities that are likely to be reinforcing for you. See this list if you are struggling to think of activities. These can be based on:
- Pleasure. You need to do things that feel good. These can be done alone or with others. These may be fun hobbies and activities that promote relaxation.
- Mastery. You don’t need to do things that just feel pleasurable. Sometimes you need to do things that make you feel proud and make you feel you are learning new things. They could be little; emptying the dishwasher to learning a new song on guitar. It could be smashing a gym session or painting the shed.
- Personal values. If you value family, plan to call that sibling or take mum out for a coffee. If you value altruism and giving back, plan to help someone or apply for a volunteering position. You get the picture.
- How to do it:
In the hustle and bustle of modern life, it’s easy to overlook the profound impact of simple routines. They offer a structured path, guiding us through challenges and ensuring we remain anchored to our core values. By understanding ourselves, leveraging therapeutic techniques, and embracing the power of habitual action, we can foster a healthier mind and a more fulfilling life. Remember, it’s not always about grand gestures or monumental changes; sometimes, it’s the silent, consistent routines that make all the difference.
Kanter, J. W., Manos, R. C., Bowe, W. M., Baruch, D. E., Busch, A. M., & Rusch, L. C. (2010). What is behavioural activation?: A review of the empirical literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(6), 608-620.
About the author
I have been working as a mental health nurse since 2016 and have been around the block working in a lot of different areas. At present I work in a service where I assess people and provide interventions. I love my job, I love learning and talking to people about mental health and wellbeing. This article represents my personal opinion and is certainly not medical advice. If you have concerns about your mental health please speak with a GP or health professional.
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