When my life feels like it’s crumbling down, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact culprit. Is it the stress of the workday? The lack of time spent outside? Or the absence of self-care? Sometimes it’s all three of those things, but most of the time, it comes down to one thing—routine, or lack thereof.

I never realized how much a routine mattered for my well-being until I was laid off due to COVID-19. During my stint of unemployment, I wasn’t responsible for anything during the day. I didn’t have to clock in, I didn’t have to report to anybody, and I didn’t have to meet deliverables. Heck, I didn’t even have to put on real clothes or leave my bed! Sounds like a dream, right? Well, it was for about a week. As does everything, it got old after a while.

I took this stay-at-home order as an opportunity to try out freelancing. Since we were all working from home, I felt like it would be a great opportunity for me. I could create my own hours, which would free up some time to work on my own projects. It sounded perfect for me—and actually was for a while—until my life felt like it was crumbling down once again. I felt like I was free-falling and couldn’t grab onto anything to break my fall. I had no structure. No guiding principles. Nobody really telling me what to do. Freelancing is bitter-sweet. I could watch an episode of Netflix during the day without it affecting my work performance, or I could go out for a hike to enjoy the sunshine without worrying about my emails for a couple of hours. However, when you allow yourself to indulge in these privileges, it’s sometimes hard to reign it in and tell yourself to get back to work. I found myself working later in the day, which would affect my social plans or sleep schedule. This wasn’t ideal, but I couldn’t justify locking myself in my home from 9 to 5.

At this point, I found a compromise for myself. I noticed the reason why I felt so off base was that I went from having a solid routine—waking up, commuting to work, working, commuting home, cooking dinner, then relaxing—to no routine at all. With freelancing, I got to decide what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, which also meant that I lacked structure. It took me a while to figure out how underrated routines truly are. Once I was able to pinpoint the lack of structure in my life, it was time to rebuild it. This was a tedious process, as the routine wasn’t prescribed to me. You know the feeling of getting assigned an essay in English class without any writing prompts? The unlimited number of directions you can take the essay is daunting, even though you know deep down what thesis you’d most likely be drawn to. It was kind of the same with my routine. I wasn’t confined to a commute or a limited work environment—I had the freedom to live my days however I’d like, as long as I got my work done.

How I Built My Own Daily Routine

First of all, I took stock of what time of day I’m most productive and made sure to block off that time for work. For me, my peak productivity hours are in the afternoon. After that, I made sure to prioritize the activities that benefit my mental health. Working out every morning quickly became a staple in my daily routine. The reason I think morning workouts are best for me is that I get the hardest part of my day over with before the majority of the world is awake. Working out in the morning also forces me to eat breakfast every day, which is a meal I would often skip. After accounting for my mornings and afternoons, I made sure to not slip up on my evenings. Although I don’t follow a regimented nightly routine regarding certain activities, I do try to incorporate good habits at nighttime. These habits range anywhere from reading, to skincare, to journaling, to drinking water, or even brushing my teeth and flossing. If I don’t make these habits a part of my daily routine, I’ll easily slip up and feel like they’re not important.

The thing I like about a daily routine is that it allows me to keep a pulse on my mental health. I know that if I’m feeling off and simultaneously slipping up on my routine, I have to get back on my daily rituals before I do anything else. If I’m feeling off while I’m on top of my routine, I know there’s something deeper to investigate regarding the state of my mental health.

Overall, I’m glad I’ve taken the space to carve out a daily routine for myself instead of having one prescribed like I did in pre-pandemic times. If you have the means, I’d encourage you to do the same. Ask yourself when you’re most productive and during your off time try to engage in activities or habits that best serve you. A daily routine will go a long way. Don’t believe me? Just try it for a few weeks and see!

Which unhelpful thinking style(s) do you most identify with?

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