Creatures of habit, we’re lost without our routines and rituals, but they’re vital for our wellbeing writes Ruadhán Jones
Since the start of the pandemic, days have melted into each other. I’ve seen a cartoon shared a number of times recently; it’s of a calendar which runs as normal until April, when it disintegrates entirely.
We used to work at set times, or go to school, mark our calendars with events and occasions, maybe eyeing up the next bank holiday. Now, it’s all up in the air. Some of us are working from home, some not working at all; we’re getting up later or sleeping less; no school, no work, no sports and no concerts. Even weekly rituals, like visiting the parents or going to the pub are gone or have changed completely.
We are creatures of habit and this is reflected in our daily lives. With a firm foundation, we can start building and expand. But now we’re rudderless and this can contribute to our already high levels of stress and anxiety.
Dr Eddie Murphy, a clinical psychologist, did a short video as part of the HSE’s Gather Together campaign. He spoke about finding ways to give our days structure: “It’s critically important that you put structure and routine into your day. Part of this stress is when we lose our routine, so it’s important to have a new structure and routine. Create a mini timetable for yourself for our ‘new normal’.”
Adjusting to “the new normal” can be challenging. We have to balance working from home with home schooling, while also becoming a chef, a PE teacher, and filling the gaps left by absent friends. Some of us are finding the time at home lonely and the days long and hard to fill.
But it’s also a chance to establish new routines, or to refresh old ones. If there’s one thing a crisis forces it’s self-examination. What was working for you before, and what wasn’t? Were you getting too much sleep or too little? Were you working too much or not enough?
With all this floating through your mind, here are a few simple suggestions for establishing a new routine.
Give yourself time to make a plan
Planning for the week ahead, even the day ahead, can get lost in the chaos of the crisis. If you’re a parent, then you’ve got so much on your plate to deal with, it’s as much as you can do to keep everything running. If you’re on your own, it might not seem worth the while.
But even though plans can go out the window quickly, you can’t change them if you don’t have them. The first thing to do is to set aside time, say half an hour, to plan your week or your day. Sunday night before bed is probably not the time to do it, though that can be tempting. Give yourself the best chance by doing it when you’re alert.
It’s important to remember though; don’t over plan. If you’ve set yourself a half-hour, stick to a half-hour. It can become tempting to plan every element, but just as it’s important to set aside the time, it’s also important not to let it take over.
But what do I plan?
Sitting down with a blank schedule in front of you can seem daunting. There are so many things to take into consideration, or perhaps there are none at all. So where to begin? With the essentials. You have to eat, so pencil in your meal and snack times. If you’re working, then even if it’s from home, you will have some kind of pre-ordained schedule – pencil it in. How about schoolwork? Pencil that in.
Then there’s relaxation, and exercise, and creativity, maybe some TV time, time alone, time together, zoom calls, new hobbies, old hobbies, and so on. Suddenly, the week is packed and it’s not what to do but when to do it! Don’t expect to fit it all in – keep plans simple and adaptable.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner
When you’re working or at school, there are set times to eat. Breakfast before work/school, lunch in the middle of the day, and a meal in the evening. But now that we’re on our own or busy trying to mind kids, mealtimes can be the last of our concerns. Snacking and grazing become tempting alternatives when the fridge is so close and the cupboards stocked.
Snacks are not bad in themselves, but frequent grazing can be. Try to keep regular times for meals and snacks. It will help you give structure to your day and to keep track of what you’re eating! A blank page quickly takes shape when you have three meals on it and provides a pleasant grounding for kids and adults alike. We all like to eat, so setting up your day around meals is not a bad thing.
For many people before the pandemic, mealtimes as a family were simply unthinkable. I know from my own experience that an average school night might be strewn with trainings, homework and hobbies, so that dinner was usually taken when you could. Now, we have the chance to make family dinners if not a nightly than a weekly occurrence. If you’re on your own, consider organising a dinner over Zoom or some similar video call service. Dinner as a family is a great way to build a community spirit.
Don’t forget your sleep
Vivid dreams and disturbed sleep have been common themes of the pandemic. Being tired can affect us in many ways, making it harder to cope with the extra stresses this pandemic has put on us. It’s important to establish a sleep pattern that suits our needs.
Try and establish a regular sleep pattern, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. Taking care of sleep hygiene is important as well, and simple steps like avoiding laptops or screens an hour before bed, not drinking caffeine after 2pm, can help you sleep even sounder. Rest and sleep are critical to self-care, so it’s good to take it into account.
Think long-term too
Not all routines are daily. We like to have little things to look forward to, something marked in the calendar days, weeks and months down the line. Maybe it’s a trip to the cinema, a night out with your loved one or a family holiday. When work is hard or life’s a little down, you can look at the calendar, safe in the knowledge that something good is coming.
Try and establish a regular sleep pattern, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day”
And then along came the pandemic and our calendars went out the window. But they’re still on our walls so why not put them to good use? Pencil in a family quiz night or a dinner date. Don’t be shy, put on some fancy dress or a nice shirt; set up a little party corner with some games; if you’re very lucky, your children might even do the cooking for you!
Whatever it may be, give yourself something to look forward to, to give shape to your week or your month.
Not all days go the way you want them to
Some days, it doesn’t seem like it’s meant to be. The best laid plans go to pieces when you wake up sick or a project takes longer than you expect. It can feel like you’re getting nothing done and suddenly your plans loom over you.
The first thing to remember in that situation is; you’re not alone. We all go through days like that. Especially given the circumstances, it’s more a miracle when things come off right than when they don’t. Take a moment, stop and breathe.
Don’t fret, hard days will come, and plans go out the window. But it’s good to have them all the same, because you can’t change plans when you don’t have any.