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Creating Structure and Peace of Mind When All Your Routines Go Out the Window

Whether or not we think we like routine, an absolute lack of it can be very unsettling. How can we create new structures in our lives when all the old ones have suddenly fallen away?
by Joshua H. Phelps | Apr 24 2020

The calendar says it’s about to be May, but wasn’t March just last week? With the COVID-19 pandemic, our sense of time forgot to come inside when the shelter-in-place orders went out. And this often adds another layer of stress to the many others that have been piling up.

Even in the best of times, the unforeseen can upend our lives. A layoff, a breakup, long-awaited plans falling through. Such jarring moments leave us grasping for the bits of normalcy that might help us stay emotionally afloat. After all, structure is something our brains crave.

Blinkist’s library contains numerous titles dedicated to time and how we use it. We often grappled with such questions when we weren’t locked down, and their lessons can still prove useful in limiting the impacts of these current disruptions.

Up and at ‘em

It’s amazing how much of our sense of normalcy relies upon our daily rituals. Part of what gives the weekend and holidays their potency is their deviation from regular days.

With the disruption to our lives caused by the pandemic, this potency has something of a sour flavor. It’s easy to lose track of time and fall into a bit of a funk. Somehow you’re in the same place but you feel like you just moved to a new country, still trying to figure out the customs.

There are still ways to keep your feet on the ground at the moment, and maintaining your day-to-day rhythm is a way to do so. Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander’s My Morning Routine emphasizes the importance of waking up around the same time.

Many of the people Spall and Xander spoke with also used their mornings to read or meditate. For those who are now working remotely but used to commute, these kinds of quiet activities could be a way to fill in that time before starting work.

And not just your wake-up time. My Morning Routine also goes into the afternoon, suggesting breaks for lunch or exercise. Spall and Xander also mention the need to remain flexible and find ways to adapt your daily schedule to new situations. This can mean continuing to step away from the keyboard or eating around the same time, even if you’re at home. These adaptations then help us to maintain a sense of normalcy as we move through new situations.

It is not easy to translate our lifestyle into a new mode, especially so quickly. But by holding onto a sense of our regular lives, we also have a compass to navigate through this storm.

Tune In vs. Tune Out

In a moment of crisis such as this one, keeping up-to-date on the state of the world feels especially important. However, it is also easy to burn through a hefty chunk of time checking in on various sites for information or commentary.

At the end of it, do we feel better or more frazzled?

Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen explore the mental machinery behind this in their book The Distracted Mind. They point to how our brains evolved to deal with hyperlocal problems: Is that movement in the corner of my eye a predator? Can I trust this person I just met?

As our technology interconnects us more and more and at deeper and deeper levels, the old questions still linger in the ancient parts of our minds. What has changed is that the world has become the hyperlocal. Our brains react accordingly, so events across the state, country, or planet feel like they’re happening next door. How often do we reach for our phones the second a push notification or text message comes in?

Rather than spinning through an hours-long loop of reloading news feeds, mark out some time to take in the day’s headlines. Pick a span when you can best process what you’re taking in, rather than scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

Unplug

Shelter-in-place orders have caused many people to work from home for the first time. While this has the benefit of a much shorter commute, it can also make separating work and home difficult. The office (or “office”) is now just a few steps away. Maybe a quick check of emails after dinner or before breakfast, just to make sure you’re caught up.

There are many temptations to tilt your work-life balance all the way over to the work side. However, this will not necessarily help you to be more productive. You might be online heading from the tenth hour of your workday to the 11th, but you likely won’t be on your A-game.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book Rest looks at the benefit of opening up more time in our schedule for breaks to walk or exercise. Gazzaley and Rosen also encourage this, because more rigorous activity helps us develop greater cognitive control. That kind of control then helps us to steer clear of distractions or pull ourselves back on course.

Rest also reminds us of the importance of sleep. More and more research points to sleep’s role in our mental and physical health. Some extra shuteye can go a long way. With this disruption to everyday life, you might have the chance to reevaluate your sleep schedule and find something that works better for you.

Make It New

Staying at home has led many of us to become more creative in how we use our time. Out on YouTube and TikTok, you can find people who are baking bread or perfecting their trick shots. And these pursuits allow us to spend some of the energies that build up from hunkering down.

We might feel compelled to fill our extra hours with activity upon activity. Yet this also poses a serious risk of burnout, and a lot of people were close to that point before the pandemic set in.

For those who have the time, energy, and interest to pick up a new hobby or explore a current one more deeply, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit has much to offer.

Like Spall and Xander, Tharp encourages maintaining a routine while remaining flexible and open to inspiration. However, the rigorous program laid out in The Creative Habit can feel like a bit much, especially if you’re only looking for a fun activity.

Even if pursued to a lesser degree, Tharp’s advice has much to offer. Seeking inspiration in everything around you, or “scratching” as she calls it, can help us develop a deeper appreciation of our surroundings. Whether or not you decide to make a note of it and store that away is up to you.

Tharp also recommends taking stock of yourself. Journaling about how you’re feeling in times like these can be an important part of self-care. It can help you to face some of the anxieties and enjoy the small victories that continue to occur in the midst of this pandemic.

It is natural to feel overwhelmed by events such as the crisis we’re undergoing. It has leapt into every time zone and disrupted our senses of time and normality. However, there are ways we can evolve our daily lives to meet the demands of the moment. They do require effort and creativity, but they also keep us grounded.

And, perhaps that is one of the reasons to journal as well. After the crisis is over, rather than trying to forget it happened, we can look back and see the strengths we found within ourselves to get through it.

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