The Role of Daily Routines in Mental Health

The Role of Daily Routines in Mental Health

Lately, I have observed a pattern emerge. The pattern concerns my mood, my partner, and what I would call my daily routine. After waking one morning to a sore head from school-night margaritas and not driving to the pool to swim or writing for an hour as I normally would, I noticed myself become increasingly agitated and saw the way I directed this agitation towards my partner. It seems I become irrationally resentful when my routine slips every now and then. This is a private experience of mine as he is not a regimented person; the days of the week and hours of the day mean little to him. Anything goes and so, when I am with him, I too adopt this mentality though the aftermath clearly does things to my mood.

In the beginning he probed: are you a routine-based person? Internally, I became a little defensive and externally tried to downplay my relationship with the behaviours and activities that regulate my days. As I feigned flexibility and nonchalance, I was made to see the stigma contained in this ‘routine-based person’ he was referring to. I was made to see my explicit desire not to be associated with a philosophy of regiment. All of this has prompted me to type into my search engine today – ‘What is the verdict on the creature of habit? Are routines worth investing in or something we ought to be resisting’?

Routines provide us with the illusion of control and continuity in an uncertain world

Like many things concerning the human being, it’s not a one size fits all, but it is certainly less of a contentious topic than it used to be. Contemporary research seems to agree routines have important and beneficial psychological potential. Particularly for those struggling with anxiety, stress, insomnia, depression and ADHD, as routines provide rhythm and certainty – an anchor of predictability and sense of control- for chaotic interior landscapes.

Humans don’t cope with uncertainty too well; we like to feel a level of control and continuity. Even if it’s an illusion, this is the magic of the routine. For example, hand grinding my morning coffee while I listen to the news headlines after a walk grants me the feeling of control in an otherwise uncertain world.

Above all else, habits are something we can do well

Our routine is also something we do not have to spend time worrying about, as the situation and behaviour is so familiar that the outcome is predictable, safe, calm. It is also something we know we can do reasonably well. I cannot tell you how many times I have climbed into my car and driven to the swimming pool while waiting to hear back from a job interview or after receiving a mediocre grade on a lab report I laboured over. In these instances, I marvel at how the simplicity of my body making triangles in water manages to alleviate my worry over the unknown. I tumble turn at each end against the wall that is exactly 50 meters from the other wall, flip over onto my back and surface right underneath the flags. I make a succession of capital L’s and feel reassured by the way my shoulders roll in their sockets into long streamline I’s.

It’s not the routine that’s experts warn against, it’s our relationship with it

Barack Obama is a massive advocate for routines. We see this in his wardrobe of identical suits whereby minimising the complexity of small decisions, he preserves mental capacity for more important, complex decision-making that his job as president of the United States required of him.

According to the research, habits like these are cognitively advantageous as the sheer automation of a behaviour frees mental resources for more demanding, complex, and irregular tasks. Put simply, it lightens the load of the continuous decision-making our daily lives necessitate. It is for this reason routines are synonymous with creativity.

Before researching this topic, I was aware of the nuanced routines of several successful individuals like Steve Jobs, Freud and Beethoven. Though, not to the extent I soon learned. In the way Obama wears the same suit to preserve mental room for state legislature, foreign policy and healthcare funding, author Haruki Murakami wakes at 4am, works for 6 hours then goes for either a 10km run or 1500m swim, and is always in bed by 9pm. “I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind”, the best-selling Japanese author told The Paris Review. All so he can make important decisions about the characters he is manipulating into life and the world he is building out of letters. One might be inclined to think the extremity of this routine is absurd and unhealthy, though, researchers don’t take issue with the grandiosity of a routine like Murakami’s. Instead, they warn it’s your dependency on the routine that can make it harmful.

Too rigid routines are bad routines

Lying in bed this morning, I am unsure how I want my morning to go. A large part of me would like to remain in bed reading and dunking Maltomilk biscuits into successive cups of milky English Breakfast Tea. A much smaller part of me reasons that I should get up, hit the day, go for a brisque walk and collect some groceries. The latter prevails, it always does when I am on my own. There is irony in that I am, from the outside, exerting ‘willpower’. Though, internally it feels as though I have none – my body is tired, exhausted and needs rest.

When taken to excess, experts warn routines can become self-imposed prisons. The harm stems from the rigidity around patterns of thinking and behaviour where one’s approach to their routine takes on an almost militant quality. Experts flag the way some clinical disorders operate this way, for example, the way obsessive compulsive disorder equates certain behaviours with safety against our worse fears. The same can be said for eating disorders, which engender fear-based routines that provide a sense of control over our weight and shape.

Play around with your routine occasionally and pay attention to how this makes you feel

It can be difficult to recognise when a habitual behaviour has become problematic especially with healthy routines like eating well, exercising or applying yourself conscientiously to work. Though, one can discern if a routine is harmful by evaluating its degree of flexibility. Researchers warn against rigid routines and routines where we measure our self-worth against the performance of the routine. They stress the importance of psychological flexibility, that is, the importance to have the capacity to cope in more ways than one.

We know, more profoundly today than ever, how unpredictable this world can be. Therefore, we must be able to effectively adapt our behaviours to the constantly changing landscape we find ourselves in. Sometimes this can mean allowing the routine behaviour to fall away for a few days or allowing the behaviour to change form.

If you are like me and can sometimes become irrationally moody or off when your habits are interrupted, it might be worth addressing its role in your life. What follows are three tips I have been trying to bring to my own habits as of late. In employing them, I notice my moods have explicitly stabilised and my walks no longer feel like a chore to tick off…

  1. Try take a break from the habit and reflect on the ease or difficulty in doing so.
  2. Replace it with a different -still meaningful- behaviour. Say you exercise every morning, you might skip Wednesday and instead meet your friend for a stroll and breakfast.
  3. Acknowledge the internal experience enmeshed in the behaviour. Consider why you are experiencing undue stress after you skip the activity or behaviour. There is likely an internal emotion or idea dictating this response and picking it apart with a loved one or therapist might alleviate the discomfort and restore a healthy relationship to the routine.

For a great book on creating habits, it’s worth reading Atomic Habits by James Clear.