How to Set (and Stick to) a Routine During COVID-19

Last week South Africa joined the ranks of countries going into lock-down to stop the spread of COVID-19, which means that most of us are roughly four days into our mild emotional breakdowns by now. For everyone staying home and doing their part to flatten the curve: I see you. This sucks. But we’re doing what we can to get through it.

Look, self-isolation may not be the worst part of this pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t weighing heavily on the people committing to it. Being stuck inside is hard. Working or studying from home is hard. Feeling like the world is crumbling around you is hard.

But life goes on – and maybe that’s the hardest part of all.

Over the past week I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blogs about what people are doing to combat the inevitable bout of depression that accompanies self-isolation. Everyone seems to be talking about habits and staying distracted and establishing a routine. Listen, folks, I am the Queen of Routine and I am battling to keep afloat right now. Self-isolation is the Ted Bundy of productivity killers: it looks pretty cute until it’s bashing you over the head with a crowbar.

That said, days of doing nothing but binge-watching Tiger King on Netflix and rereading the Throne of Glass series (I know, it’s like I hate myself or something) have motivated me to get my shit together. After some creative intervention, I’m finally feeling like I’m getting my groove back; at the very least, I’ve managed to get that sweet, sweet endorphin rush of ticking a few things off my to-do list. It was so effective that I thought I’d make a to-do list for mastering your to-do list. You’re welcome.

1. Start with your sleep schedule

It may seem counter-intuitive to establish a daily routine based on the least productive activity, but trust me on this. Setting a regular sleep-wake schedule can work wonders for your general mood and productivity levels. For one thing, it puts concrete parameters in place for the day ahead: if you wake up at 7 a.m. and go to bed at 10 p.m., you know you have a fifteen-hour window of potential to work with. But those consistent nine hours of sleep will pay off in other ways: a stronger immune system, decreased anxiety, improved cognitive functioning – all the things you need to survive a pandemic.

2. Structure your day – don’t fill it

I’ve included this step exclusively for my own benefit, because I am the absolute worst when it comes to overworking. Fun fact: busy does not equal productive. I know this because I have spent many a day working myself to the bone and getting nothing done.

So let me write this in very aggressive all-caps for myself: DON’T BE BUSY. BE STRUCTURED.

Being structured means setting aside chunks of time for certain tasks and sticking, loosely, to those constraints. It does not mean setting up a perfect colour-coded timetable for your day. Structure is about giving yourself the space to do what you need to do – and that includes time for mundane admin, for meals, for a little cry, for messaging a friend, for loving your pets, for taking a shower… Introduce structure by delineating parts of your day that will stay relatively constant throughout the week and aim to keep them constant.

3. Set weekly and daily goals

This is something that has changed my life, guys. Every Sunday evening I spend a few minutes writing out what I want to achieve in the upcoming week, and every morning I do the same for the day ahead. (Even setting a routine has become part of my routine. Incredible.) The list ranges from something as simple as setting aside two minutes for meditation to making myself a really good cup of coffee to writing a short story to finally sending through that massive scholarship application. Not only does this help me motivate myself to get things done, but it also infuses each of my actions – however small – with mindful intention. If you feel like you’re spiralling through the day without a sense of direction of accomplishment, this one’s for you.

4. BUT be realistic about what you can (and want to) get done

Again, an important note directed predominantly at myself here. As fun as it is to make lists and set goals, it’s immensely important to take your own mental, emotional and physical well-being into account. Everything is not ‘business as usual’ right now; you cannot expect yourself to do the same level and amount of work as a ‘normal day’ once required of you. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to let go of the tasks that are not serving you.

The priority right now is not to get everything done. The priority is to do what you can.

5. Cultivate accountability by letting someone else in

Social distancing is a physical concept, not an emotional one. Increased (and enforced) isolation means that it’s more important than ever before to draw on supportive, enriching relationships – even though these may be confined to the virtual world for now. I’m (un)lucky enough to be quarantined with my family, but I’m also heavily reliant on communications with my friends across the country.

Here’s the thing about routine: you may be able to set one up on your own, but it’s near-impossible to keep it going without the help of the people around you. I’ve found that if I share what I’m struggling with, if I’m open about what I’m working on and what I want to achieve, I’m far more likely to stick to those things. I have a weekly Skype session with a friend where we brainstorm wholesome ways to spend our time. Another friend and I make sure to check in every few days to discuss progress on our MA applications. My parents walk into my room every few hours to make sure I’m not dead. The usual.

Friends and family can fulfil (among so many other things) two vital roles: holding you accountable to your plans, and celebrating your achievements with you. Don’t be scared to rely on them, and reciprocate wherever you can.

A final note on all the bullshit

I want to reiterate here that this pandemic is not an ‘opportunity’ to accomplish lifetime goals, get your dream body, or push yourself in any way to achieve some higher state of Instagram-worthy being. The primary goals right now are staying safe, staying alive, and staying sane. Establishing a routine may help with that, but let it go if it’s harming you. It’s okay if the only thing you manage to accomplish on some days is getting out of bed. It’s okay if other days you don’t even manage that. Give yourself permission to be ‘not okay’ right now – the world is not okay.

For those of you who are in the space to do so, please consider extending aid to the people around you. Donate to a charity, support local business, check in on your neighbours – a little extra support can go a long way.

Stay home and stay safe.

Image credits: 1. Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash; Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash; Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash.

1 Comment

  1. Dr Dave Pedersen says:

    Thanks for such Healthy Wisdom

    Liked by 1 person

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