During dinner with a physician friend, he made a comment that stopped me, “After 20 years of seeing patients, I find that whenever trauma takes place in life, the first thing to go is routine.” I had to let that soak in. “Really? Why routine?” I asked.

He shared how seemingly small habits can impact a person as a whole, and when ignored, can have significant effects. The pain in your head from dehydration, for example, because you skipped your afternoon water break or the improvement of your emotional state after a workout. The little things add up.

My focus on having a routine began after that conversation, but when the coronavirus quarantine hit the United States, everyone had to adjust. We’ve all realized there are thousands of things we can’t control, including our normal routines, but letting routine slide will amplify our feelings of being out of control.

I mean, who knew that professional sports would be all reruns? That you could fill up your tank for under $20 and have nowhere to go? As the playwright and heavyweight champ, Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan till they punched in the mouth.” (Did you know Iron Mike had a Broadway show?)

You can’t control it all during these “safer at home” days, but by identifying a few areas that you can control and developing new habits around them, you’ll be able to experience the positive impact routine has on mental health.

Adjust Your Current Habits

We’re all creatures of habit, so by linking a thing you already do, like drinking coffee, to something new, like one minute of mediation, you can increase your success in establishing a new habit. You’re introducing one new thing versus changing everything all at once.

In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear outlines what he calls ‘habit stacking.’ The formula goes like this: After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]. Pretty great, right? Except if you despise discipline.

I’ll be honest – I hate discipline and routine – but I love what they produce. When my alarm goes off, I can’t stand it, but the truth is, when I get up early, I don’t regret it either. I even set my phone alarm to ‘Never Regretted’ so in the morning I hear “Get up. You won’t regret it. You never have.”

By examining your current habits and reflecting on why you are doing them, you can begin to understand what is motivating or not motivating you.

Build a System for Success

One of my favorite quotes from Atomic Habits is, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This means you need to identify your bad habits or weaknesses and build a system where you can succeed. When I wake up, my brain is functioning at roughly 1/30 capacity, so I realized that to improve my morning routine, I needed to mentally prepare for it.

Now I prep each night by putting a big glass of water with apple cider vinegar next to the kitchen sink, so I don’t have to think about it. Then I gather what I need for a morning run and put it by the back door before bed. I’m talking socks to earbuds. Then my only excuse for not doing the run is, well, not doing the run.

So, before the rest of my family is out of bed, I’ve gotten hydrated, gone for a run, and pumped positivity into my head via Audible. It releases my stress from the previous day and gets me mentally ready for the day ahead. By managing your activities, you’re controlling your ability to make excuses, which increases your chances of successfully maintaining a new routine.

Start Adding New Routines

What areas of your life could you gain more control in? Spending, managing material things, reprioritizing how you spend your time, physical health, weight loss, organization? Now is a great time to create new routines and good habits. Here are a few tips and tricks that will help:

  1. Take in resources on the topic of habits and routines, like Atomic Habits by James Clear, or Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven. So much great content here!
  2. Set your goals and create a system. Don’t get bogged down in trying to create the “perfect” approach – it can stop you from acting. You can always improve things later.
  3. Fast from social media or make it a reward for adding a positive habit: ten pushups = 10 minutes on Facebook. You get the picture.
  4. Connect something you like to do to something you need to do, like watching Tiger King only while doing the dishes or cleaning out a junk drawer.
  5. Improve your mental outlook by voicing gratitude for everyday things, like appreciating a hot cup of coffee, or valuing technology that keeps you connected with family.
  6. Acknowledge three things you did differently each day and don’t discount small changes. They may seem insignificant, but over time, a few small changes can make a real difference.
  7. Don’t stop. No one is perfect. You will have moments of weakness and things will happen that interfere with your plans but get back on track and don’t allow yourself to miss twice.
  8. Start small – but start today with just one new habit. Change takes time and momentum will build as you see the results.
  9. Don’t do it alone. Include your friends and family in what you are trying to do. Allow those you trust to encourage you and keep you accountable.

You have an opportunity to exercise control amid rampant unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic and you will be amazed at what you have the power to build and accomplish by creating new routines. You don’t have to passively react to everything coming at you. Using this time to create new routines in your life will provide you with energy, focus, and hope – and hope is a powerful force!

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