Have you ever berated yourself for not accomplishing what you intended or looked back at the day and felt like a failure? This mindset can easily create a cycle of negativity that feeds stress. Stress wears away at the body, increasing the risk of physical disease while also jeopardizing the brain’s ability to cope. Recent evidence shows that one way of mitigating stress and anxiety is through following a regular routine.[i]
A daily routine provides consistency for getting up and going to bed, eating meals, fitting in laundry, and dropping the kids off at school and being at work. Many of us crave consistency but find it difficult to adhere to healthy practices for longer than a day or two. To counter the natural inclination toward irregularity, let’s look at building a healthy daily routine rather than a fully structured schedule of tasks and activities.
The goal of a practical routine is to create long-lasting adherence to that which is healthy. Habits are formed by repetitive action and can be created in a relatively short period of time. The more frequently you engage in a behavior, the more neural pathways your brain forms to create a new habit. You’ll not likely begin a perfect routine from day one; but by consistent, frequent repetition, and with a manageable number of changes, you can create a routine that works for your daily needs while providing consistency for both your mind and body.
Let’s examine a few key tips for establishing a realistic personal routine. Download our free printable daily routine as you start planning, or customize times even further with this printable version.
Lists or bullet points.
Do you like seeing the hour and activity planned out or do you get a sense of satisfaction when you cross something off your list? You may also prefer a paper schedule or an electronic one. Play with your format and style until you find a good fit.
Pick what to include in your daily routine.
Routine is about things you know you can habitually count on, and consistent times for waking up, going to bed, eating, commuting, working, and family time serve as the important foundation of daily routine. Brainstorm a list of healthy behaviors to include around the basics: reading, playing an instrument, hobbies, family time, personal time, exercise, etc. For more ideas, check out some mental health lifestyle tips.
Challenge yourself with new, healthy habits.
Whether you are seeking to exercise more, begin cooking homemade meals, journaling, losing weight, or another positive change, be specific and schedule it.
Check your priorities.
Rather than putting down everything that you want to accomplish, evaluate what tasks or responsibilities must be done verses which you would like to accomplish. Consider separate columns or checklists for “Must dos” vs. “As time allows.”
Make necessary swaps.
Don’t be afraid of swapping things around in your day if that’s what you need to accomplish tasks and stay appropriately focused.
Make time for things that you enjoy.
Give yourself some personal time. This could be 15 minutes longer at breakfast to enjoy your food or an hour built into your evening for games, reading, or calling an old friend. As much as possible, choose something daily that will help you mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Think about what will derail you.
Consider all the possible barriers that have stopped you in the past. Do you bite off a more detailed schedule than you can handle? Do you get overwhelmed easily? How will you overcome these obstacles?
If you get overwhelmed easily, dial back a notch. Find the barebones routine (wake up, meals, work, and exercise), and test yourself for a week. Don’t be afraid of starting small. In fact, think of your overall daily routine as a big goal made up of small goals that you can accomplish. If you need accountability, pick your accountability partner and call them today.
Evaluate your thinking patterns.
I strongly recommend evaluating your thinking patterns. Cognitive distortions can easily hijack your good intentions and push you right back to where you started. Combat cognitive distortions and reframe your thinking as you seek to make lasting change. Because much of the battle to follow a healthy routine is cognitive, you may find it beneficial to put time down on your schedule to evaluate your thinking. This will improve not only your ability to stick with healthy changes but also improve your mental health.
Set your exercise clothes out the night before. Plug in the pressure cooker in time for breakfast to be ready after your workout. Set the vacuum by the bedroom before you leave for work so you can vacuum when you get home. Part of sticking with your routine is being prepared (and reducing barriers) for the next activity. Plan ahead when practical and possible to help you get things done.
If you’ve created a schedule and you’re still hustling to accomplish everything, refine it. You will likely need to go through several revisions, but stick with the process until you find something that works for you.
Give yourself grace.
Don’t beat yourself up if you mess up your schedule or miss a day.
Enjoy the process and celebrate your accomplishments.
Find a song you love to wash dishes to, choose a friend to call when weeding the garden, or find an exercise buddy for hitting the pavement for a jog. Reward yourself with something fun, yet practical after you consistently follow a healthy routine – something that supports your healthy new lifestyle, like a new pair of running shoes for your morning workouts.
"Good habits, once established are just as hard to break as are bad habits." – Robert Puller
Healthy routine hacks
Early to bed, early to rise.
Have you ever heard that your day starts the night before? Kickstart your day by hitting the sack early the night before. We recommend turning off your light before 10 PM, getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and waking up at the same time each morning. If you’re struggling with sleep, check out these sleep tips.
Get morning exercise.
Make it a priority to exercise outside first thing in the morning, ideally before breakfast. Reap the mental health benefits of exercise while creating a healthy routine first thing in the morning. With morning exercise, you can expect fewer distractions (exercise before starting your to-do list or checking your email), boost your alertness and energy for the day, improve your focus, make healthier food choices, better control your appetite, and engage in healthy weight loss. [ii-iv]
If you can’t exercise every day for 60 minutes at a time, split your exercise up on your schedule. If you can fit half an hour in before breakfast/work, do it! If you need to be creative, do it! Get out of the office for a 10-minute walk at lunch, do toe raises while standing in line, park your car farther from the entrance, etc. Be specific as you start building exercise into your healthy routine. Experiment with what helps you exercise and keep experimenting until you find a solution. Exercise as if your life depends on it–because it does.
Follow a healthy meal plan.
We recommend creating a weekly meal plan so that you can eat brain-healthy foods and avoid junk food, eating out unnecessarily, and consuming foods that are harmful for your mental health. Consider an Instant pot or crockpot to cook whole grains the night before for a healthy post-workout breakfast, pre-washing your lettuce so making salad isn’t as much work, and doing your grocery run when you’re not hungry.
If you feel overwhelmed about your diet, aim for one healthy meal per day at first. Try starting with a large, healthy breakfast. Make time on your schedule to prepare/cook your healthy meal (such as the night before).
Drinking enough water for your level of activity is important for staying alert. As a rule of thumb, drink a minimum of half your body’s weight in ounces daily (i.e., 160 lbs./2 = 80 oz. of water). Don’t substitute juice, coffee, tea, or pop for water. If you need to add a sticky note to your bathroom mirror or kitchen window to drink water or set a phone reminder, do it. Building healthy lifestyle patterns sometimes requires reminders.
Adopting a disciplined, healthy daily routine is not intended to tie you to a planner, but rather give you greater fulfillment. Life is dynamic, so your routine will likely morph as you encounter new opportunities and navigate challenges. A practical, healthy routine is one of numerous incredible tools that you can employ to intentionally live life to the fullest.
"Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out." – Robert Collier
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[i] Hou, W. K., Lai, F. T., Ben-Ezra, M., & Goodwin, R. (2020). Regularizing daily routines for mental health during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of global health, 10(2), 020315.
[ii] Wheeler, M. J., Green, D. J., Ellis, et al. (2020). Distinct effects of acute exercise and breaks in sitting on working memory and executive function in older adults: a three-arm, randomised cross-over trial to evaluate the effects of exercise with and without breaks in sitting on cognition. British journal of sports medicine, 54(13), 776–781.
[iii] Joo, J., Williamson, S. A., et al. (2019). The influence of 15-week exercise training on dietary patterns among young adults. International journal of obesity (2005), 43(9), 1681–1690.
[iv] Iwayama, K., Kurihara, R., et al. (2015). Exercise Increases 24-h Fat Oxidation Only When It Is Performed Before Breakfast. EBioMedicine, 2(12), 2003–2009.