By Dr Rebecca Jones
I have always been a big fan of routine. I generally find that having a routine helps me to form healthy habits and to get things done, therefore making me as efficient as I can be. Having a routine around things like exercise makes it easier to consistently achieve my goals and incorporate this into my daily life. Despite knowing this, I found recently that it is very easy to forget how valuable routines really are.
When faced with the news that we all needed to work from home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, our schools were closed and we needed to home school our children and we were not allowed to leave home apart from essential trips, we were suddenly faced with a situation where all of the usual structure around our day had disappeared. No longer did I need to get up at a set time, get the children’ breakfast by a certain time in the morning to ensure that we left home on time to get them to school at the start of the day. My commute to work was non-existent and the start and finish time of my work day became completely flexible. I had no other fixed times to commit to, no gym classes to get to, no swimming lessons booked or kids to taxi around. Maybe like me, you found that this meant that suddenly every day seemed to resemble Boxing Day – PJ’s all day, set meal times were a thing of the past and a whole load of family arguments. However, unlike Boxing Day, the food was worse, there were no gifts and unfortunately we have no idea when this will end. I have to say, I was finding this lack of structure extremely difficult to deal with.
Creating a new routine
That’s when it hit me, I am a big fan of routine and now I needed routine more than ever. Creating a new routine to fit this new way of life would help ensure that I could stick to some new healthy habits and to get stuff done again. Routines help us do this for a number of key reasons:
- Routines reduce decision fatigue. By having a fixed time to do fixed activities we don’t have to use our cognitive resources to try and decide what to do next. We know what we should be doing and when we should be doing it
- Routines are implementation intentions in action and implementation intentions help us to achieve our goals. When we set goals, it is important to also form implementation intentions about how and when we will execute actions towards achieving these goals. For example, it is not enough to say ‘I am going to exercise more’ even ‘I am going to exercise more by taking up running’ is not specific enough. The most effectively formed implementation intention will detail exactly how the goal will be achieved: ‘I am going to exercise more by taking up running. I will run three times a week, at 9.00 am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays’. This way, when 9.00 am Monday comes around, we know it is time to get out the running shoes
- Action is the antidote to anxiety. Nothing fosters anxiety more than having nothing to do. Taking action, whatever type of action, will help increase feelings of autonomy and diverts our attention towards the action and away from ruminating over whatever was causing us to feel anxious
- Routine helps us feel as though we are achieving something, whatever that may be. In times of crisis and uncertainty, the reassuring feeling of accomplishing tasks can help motivate us to keep going, even if we don’t feel like it.
My top tips
So how do you put this into action? Here are my top tips for creating your own Coronavirus work-from-home routine:
- Create a timetable. Timetables are not just for school kids. Make yourself a timetable detailing what you are going to do and when. Be sure to cover everything you need to include such as work tasks, cooking, taking care of loved ones (whatever that looks like for your own situation), exercise and relaxation
- Include detailed timings. What time will you get up? When does your work day start and finish? What time will you go to bed? Research shows that one of the most important contributing factors to good quality sleep is a regular wake up and bedtime. When our usual routine has gone, it is easy to stay up late and sleep in late but ultimately this may disrupt your sleep, which in a time of crisis, maybe the last thing that you need
- Get specific. Once you have set your timetable, be as specific as possible in each of the ‘lessons’ or sections. What will this week look like for you? For example, when it comes to the exercise slots in your timetable, get specific about the type of exercise you are going to do each day. For example, perhaps Monday afternoon is a cardio session, Tuesday is for legs and so on. Getting as specific as possible will reduce decision fatigue, increase your implementation intention and make your routine easier to stick to. As far as possible, be specific with your work tasks as well. For example, can you allocate certain times of the day to check email? If this needs to be done regularly then perhaps you can allocate the first or last ten minutes of each work hour to email. Alternatively perhaps it works better for you to block out a whole hour or two to focus on emails. Block out other commitments that cannot be moved such as virtual meetings and then consider what else needs to be done in the time left available
- Plan your meals. We all need to reduce the amount of time that we are doing grocery shopping and by planning your meals you are protecting yourself and others by staying at home and also reducing decision fatigue by knowing exactly what you will eat and when. This will also help you to avoid unhealthy temptations by increasing your implementation intentions around eating and if, like me, you have felt anxious about having enough food for the family, planning meals will reduce this anxiety by taking action and planning out what everyone will eat and when based on the food you have available
- Help your team set a routine. If you are a manager or a leader, consider how you can help your team to create healthy routines for this new way of working. Perhaps scheduling a regular check-in or virtual team meetings at a fixed time each week will help. Alternatively encouraging team members to stick to a normal working day with their usual start and finish times. However, it is important to bear in mind your team members individual circumstances. It might be that they are supporting children with school work during the main part of the school day and for them, it is easier to do their own work later on. The key is that we can form our own routines and be flexible at the same time. A successful routine is successful for me but may not work for anyone else. Encourage your team members to consider what routine may work best for them
- Review your routine. The key to successful behaviour change is reflection. After you have been working with your routine for a while, reflect on how it is working for you. Is it still helping you to get things done, feel in control, and reduce anxiety? If not, has something changed in your circumstances to mean that this no longer works? What could you change to make it more effective for you? Just because something worked well in the past does not mean that it will always work for you. Be prepared to flex and tailor your routine as your needs and situation changes.