Re-establishing Routine as a Way of Coping with Change

Hello, my name is Debbie and I’m one of the Assistant psychologists within the Keeping Well NCL hub. Today I want to talk a little about how we establish and re-establish routines in a changing and uncertain environment and some of my experiences of this.

Before the COVID pandemic, I always very much enjoyed and thrived off a strict routine. Whilst working two part time jobs – one within a charity and one within the hospitality industry I had to juggle working contrasting hours, in addition to training as a competitive powerlifter. And of course, trying to fit a social life in! Routine helped me to manage these different demands on a  very practical level – for example, managing sleep when I would switch between working 9-5 to working 5pm-1am, food prep and even things like washing my hair. However, routine and structure also provided a certain element of safety and predictability in times of stress.

However, this all changed in lockdown. With the closure of gyms, being made redundant form one job and working from home for the other, I found that my routine had not only fallen apart, but no longer made sense. There was so much uncertainty and confusion around that time, as we had no idea how long this was going to last and had very little information about the virus. The dismantling of my familiar routine and an impending sense of doom with what felt like may be a never ending lockdown, was very overwhelming.  As much as I wanted to force my old routine into this new lockdown life, I knew it wasn’t possible – we were living in a very different world.

One of the things that really helped me process this huge change, was by acknowledging it and marking it by coming up with an entirely different routine. However, this wasn’t something I launched into on day 2 of lockdown. I remember very clearly on the first weekend in lockdown we had, when you couldn’t really leave your house even for a walk, sitting on my bedroom floor and saying to myself – I don’t know that I can do this. In that moment, I didn’t have fight, I didn’t have hope, I just felt completely lost and incredibly out of control. I felt like I couldn’t even navigate what to do for the next few hours, never mind months. And these feelings didn’t go away immediately, and I didn’t start a new routine immediately, I had a period of time where I did very little, watched a lot of New Girl, and allowed myself to navigate and feel some of my emotions – and that is okay and that is important.

As the days passed, I knew that whilst, I couldn’t be training at a gym, going out for cocktails with friends and commuting to work, that didn’t mean I had to spend the next few days, weeks, and months at a total loss in each day. I began to re-establish a new routine that fitted this lockdown life with the limited things we had to do. And because we had little to do, the focus of the routine was not about ‘producing and achieving’ but ‘creating and being’. Parts of this routine became little rituals that helped me get through each day. Just as an example, I had what came to be called canal o’clock – at the same time each day I would go for a walk along the canal and call a very good friend. It sounds almost insignificant, but it is often the little things that matter, the little day to day encounters which ground us and give us a space to just be present.

There were two things that were important about this new routine – the fact that it was different to my old routine, and that it was predictable. Letting go of an old routine can be difficult, but if we don’t, we can find ourselves stuck in the past, which can lead to feelings of melancholy, depression, anxiety and frustration. Think of it like the children’s shape sorter toy where you have to fit the correct wooden shape through the hole. A triangular routine won’t fit into a square shaped life – and if you continue to try, you will end up feeling annoyed and defeated. But if you pick up the square shape instead, this will fit! A different period of life requires a different routine in order to help us accept change.  This difference in structure in the new routine, helped me to adjust to the huge changes we had seen as a society.

The predictability in the structure provided a sense of control in what was an incredibly uncertain time and it gave me a sense of accomplishment in each day.

The advantages of having a routine are fairly well known. However, what I have learnt through the past year, is not just the important of establishing a routine, but re-establishing them in order to help us acknowledge and process change. Re-establishing routines like this can be a helpful coping strategy as we navigate a changing and uncertain future.

Reflecting on this, just recently I had to change my routine as I started this new job within the Keeping Well NCl hub, started a new training programme in the gym and a different commute etc. This was difficult as it was a lot of change at once in lots of different areas, and I found that part of me was resistant to that. But I remembered to be kind to myself, had a break where I had very little routine, and allowed a lot of flexibility in my first week in this job!

I want to leave you with some simple practical steps of how to do this. First of all, ask yourself:

  • What period of life are you in at the moment? For example, are you recovering from an illness, are you in quarantine, are you back to working in the office, are you working overtime, are you unemployed, are you navigating parenting children over the summer holidays etc.
  • What can you control in this period? Re establishing a new routine is about recognising what you can’t control and letting go of this, and looking at what you can control
  • What works for you? Remember that routine is personal – what works for one person is not universal! Think about what you like, what makes you feel good and don’t compare your routine to others.
  • How can you implement this? Focus on small practical steps, using the idea of SMART goals here is really good (that is – making your routine specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time based)
  • Who can you be accountable to? Choosing someone to do this with is a great idea – you shouldn’t have the same routine but it means you can both be accountable to one another and check in with each other about how it’s going and how you’re feeling
  • And lastly, and most importantly, be kind to yourself – routines are not about punishments and being productive. They are not about how to do more or be more, and it should be a guideline and not a rigid rulebook so it’s important to be flexible. Be non-judgemental and shift the focus of your routine away from how to be more productive, to how to just be.

I hope you find some of this useful, thank you for listening.

Debbie Bell is an Assistant Psychologist within the Keeping Well NCL Hub. She is also a competitive powerlifter and enjoys having a routine to keep on top of things. Here she shares some of her experiences of the past year, reflecting on how difficult it has been to manage uncertainty and how she has changed and adjusted routines to help cope with some of the change she has experienced.

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