How to Create, and Keep, a Daily Routine During a Pandemic
A daily routine can provide feelings of predictability, normalcy, and control during pandemic stress. Here's how to create and keep one.
Dealing with pandemic stress
Remember when we all thought this pandemic thing would be two weeks of quarantining and then it would be back to life as usual? Obviously, that didn’t happen. One year later, the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging.
It’s a hard truth and if you’re feeling more coronavirus stress than ever before, you’re not alone. Nearly 90 percent of adults in the United States report feeling at least one negative emotion associated with prolonged stress from the pandemic. That’s the highest it’s ever been since the pandemic first started, according to a January 2021 survey done by the American Psychological Association.
The hallmarks of a pandemic are unpredictability, feelings of anxiety and fear, and disruption of everyday life. There is a simple antidote: Routine.
Routines provide predictability, feelings of calm and stability, and a sense of normalcy. So it makes sense that one of the best things you can do for yourself during this pandemic—or any type of prolonged crisis—is to make and keep a daily schedule, says Kristin Orlowski, a licensed psychologist with UCHealth Family Medicine in Littleton, Colorado.
“When you know what is coming, you have a sense of preparedness and feel more confident in your ability to successfully cope with the situation at hand,” she says.
Keeping your biological clock in sync
Sticking to a daily schedule helps keep your hormones and systems operating smoothly. Everything in your body—from your sleep to your breathing to your hunger—is controlled by circadian rhythms. However, these are easily disrupted by crises, like a worldwide pandemic.
For instance, you may find yourself forgoing sleep in favor of doomscrolling. Circadian rhythm disorders can have serious health consequences so your body strives to maintain regular rhythms and schedules. A daily routine that consists of schedules is a great way to make sure your internal body clock stays synced, says Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist and faculty member of Columbia University in New York City.
“Even though the pandemic has taken away many of life’s norms, if we can hang on to the factors we control within our own homes and lives, we can keep our bodies regulated,” she says. “This gives you the best chance at staying positive, productive, and mentally and physically healthy.”
(These are the things healthy people do before 10 a.m.)
Avoiding decision fatigue
Do you wear a mask on your daily walk outside? To the store inside? What kind of mask? Should you wear two masks? This is just one example of the dozens of little decisions the pandemic has forced us to make on a daily basis. Some have become routine. But due to the constantly changing nature of the virus, we’re forced to reevaluate our decisions often. All of these minor decisions add up to major exhaustion. And that’s not even accounting for higher-stakes choices like whether to visit your grandma or eat inside a restaurant.
This is called “decision fatigue” and it’s a lesser-known but serious side effect of the pandemic, Orlowski says. Eventually, your brain gets so worn out worrying and questioning that you don’t have the mental energy for your regular activities.
You can’t avoid making those decisions, so the best way to cope is by making as many small decisions as you can in advance. You can also create a daily schedule. If you don’t have to decide each night what your bedtime will be, that frees up your mind for thinking about other stuff and can help you feel less overwhelmed, she says.
For more help, here’s how to make better decisions.
Health benefits of schedules
Learning to make a schedule and stick to it can have benefits in all areas of your life, Hafeez says. It starts by improving your time management and organization skills and your concentration and focus, all of which helps you to be more productive throughout your day.
Routines are an expert-recommended way to stick to your health goals, like eating more vegetables or taking a daily walk. They also help lessen anxiety, irritability, and stress. Stress reduction has many proven health benefits including reducing your risk of many chronic diseases, substance abuse, mental illness, and other health problems, she says.
(This is the best time to do healthy habits.)
Why children especially need routines
Perhaps more than any other group, children need daily schedules, and this is even more true during times of crisis or upheaval, says Parker Huston, clinical director of On Our Sleeves and pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Children may show the stress of the pandemic through fatigue, frustration, increased emotionality, and difficulty focusing. A daily schedule can help reduce all of these symptoms, he says.
“When a child is experiencing a long-term stressor, the more parts of their routine that they can keep stable, the better they will be able to cope or adapt to the stressful situation,” says Huston. Here’s how to have the coronavirus talk with kids without scaring them.
Kids love knowing not just what is happening that day, but also what order to expect them to happen in. Have your child help you make the schedule, using words and/or pictures. And hang it in an easy-to-see area. Consider laminating it and using whiteboard markers or velcro so kids can check off each activity, giving them a sense of control and accomplishment.
(Here’s how to keep kids on a sleeping schedule.)
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How to create an effective daily schedule
Pick the type of schedule that works best for you
Scheduling phone apps are popular right now. And they work great for people who use their phone a lot and are motivated by the “game” aspect. However, there are a wide variety of schedule modalities and you should pick the type that works best for your life and personality. Options include computer spreadsheets, whiteboards in the kitchen, audio reminders, pocket planners, and plain ol’ pencil and paper. They all have their pros and cons so try different ones until you find one you like.
Keep one “master” planner
Some people like to keep multiple schedules, like a handwritten one at home and a digital version on their phone and post-it notes in their car. All of this makes it harder to stick to your routine so create one “master” planner, Hafeez says. This doesn’t mean you have to go totally digital. For instance, if you use a whiteboard at home, snap a picture on your phone before leaving for the day. (These are the best health and fitness apps.)
Schedule the big nonnegotiable things first
Scheduling a consistent sleep schedule, regular meal times, and daily exercise will ensure you prioritize these healthy habits that form the foundation of everything else you do, Orlowski says. If you’re hungry, tired, or weak, it’s hard to focus on work or kids’ activities or chores. Yet these are often the first things to go out the window when you’re busy.
Add in your task list
Your daily schedule will have a lot of repeated items, but should also contain a short daily to-do list, Hafeez says. “Write the tasks you need to get done, listing them from most to least important, so you’ll know what to prioritize first,” she says. (Here are some tips for a happy morning routine.)
Break down big tasks
One of the biggest problems people run into with creating a schedule is feeling overwhelmed. If you have too many things to do, or some tasks are too big to accomplish in one day, break them down into more manageable pieces and schedule each piece separately, suggests Hafeez.
Have reasonable expectations of yourself
Set yourself up for success by making a realistic and attainable schedule, Orlowski says. If your ideal schedule isn’t functional, it won’t do you any good. “Ask yourself how likely it is that you will be able to stick to this routine and identify any potential barriers that could get in the way,” she says. (Read these self-love quotes to learn to be kind to yourself.)
Understand your natural rhythms
Not everyone’s biological clocks run on the same schedule. Some people are morning larks and others are night owls. Knowing how your body operates best can guide you as you make your daily schedule, Hafeez says. “Some people focus best first thing in the morning, while others need a few hours to wake up,” she says. Some “may do best starting with an invigorating workout, while others may prefer to save it for later in the day.” There’s no right answer, only the answer that works for you.
(Try these sleep routine changes for better health.)
How to keep your daily schedule
Make visual reminders
The downside to digital schedules or schedules kept in another room is that you don’t see them unless you think to look for them. Remedy this by creating visual cues—like a sticky note on your computer monitor or a reminder pop-up on your phone—to make sure you’re staying on track, Huston says. You can also try a bullet journal.
Set a time limit
Move past that overwhelming feeling of getting started by setting a time limit to work. Hafeez likes to commit for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. Make your break rewarding by doing something you enjoy like checking your texts, getting a snack, or playing a quick game. “Using the break as a reward will help your mind stay focused,” she says.
Turn off distractions
Think you can multitask? Science says you really can’t. Any type of distraction can keep you from completing your tasks. So, during your working period, put your phone out of sight, silence notifications, close out of social media windows, and resist the urge to have YouTube or the radio playing in the background, Hafeez says.
Worried that you’ll get sucked into your work project and forget to pick your kid up from school? Set alarms on your phone and schedule them to repeat on certain days and times, Huston says. If you have a hard time waking up to an alarm use these tips for how to wake up in the morning without a struggle.
Hold yourself accountable
A schedule is good only if you use it. And it’s easy to forget about it during the daily rush. One way to hold yourself accountable, especially when you’re first getting started, is to share your schedule with a loved one, Orlowski says. This is as easy as the click of a button if you use a digital schedule. Check in with them periodically to report how it’s going. (Here are some goal-setting tips from mental health experts.)
Make it harder to break your schedule
Every day, set out things you will need to maintain your schedule—like work supplies and healthy snacks—while moving temptations, like gaming systems, out of sight, Huston says. Your environment controls you more than you think, but ultimately you’re the one in control. So set yourself up for success.
Check your schedule in the evening
Each evening, take a few minutes to review your schedule for the next day, adding or removing tasks, or making adjustments. “Do this after dinner, but not too late at night,” Hafeez says. “You don’t want to get your brain worked up thinking about your busy day right before you go to bed.” In fact, this is one of the common mistakes people make at bedtime.
Reevaluate your schedule each week
Making your schedule a week at a time allows you to make adjustments as you go while still giving you the benefits of having a schedule, Orlowski says.
Life happens and sometimes you miss something or even a lot of somethings. That’s okay. “Try to avoid all-or-none type thinking so that if something doesn’t go as planned, it doesn’t throw off your entire day,” Orlowski says.
(Next, here’s how to stay human during Covid-19 quarantine.)
- Kristin Orlowski, PhD, licensed psychologist with UCHealth Family Medicine – Littleton, Colorado
- Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, neuropsychologist and faculty member of Columbia University in New York City
- Parker Huston, PhD, clinical director of On Our Sleeves and pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
- American Psychological Association: "U.S. Adults Report Highest Stress Level Since Early Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic"