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Routine Not Rigidity – Create a Framework

Maintaining a routine can relieve stress; becoming rigid in keeping it does the opposite

I’ve found that having a routine has really helped me navigate the Covid 19 crisis. I’ve heard it from experts, and I must agree: maintaining a routine keeps stress at bay. As a person who retired from teaching public school and who now works from home in a variety of capacities, I need routine in order to get anything done, either creatively or in my job as an online teacher consultant. However, I noticed an interesting twist recently when I took my obsession with making a schedule too far.

I was enjoying the productivity and feeling of accomplishment each day as I did my daily household chores, completed my ‘work’ for the day, and pursued my hobbies. Normally, I use what I call a ‘framework’, which is less about ‘time slots’ and more about the tasks to be completed within a larger block of time. However, I noticed that somedays I didn’t always fit everything in as I had hoped – mostly writing.

To backtrack just a bit, I enjoy making schedules, and there’s nothing like a brand new beautiful planner to get me feeling excited about life’s possibilities. Paradoxically, I also like the freedom to do things spontaneously, and don’t always like being locked into my schedule. I think that’s why I have always preferred to call my organizational structures a ‘framework’.  When I know what I have to do, it frees my mind from trying to keep track, more able to focus on the task at hand rather than thinking ahead to everything else that needs to get done. At the same time, I am free to pursue my creative interests without the annoyance of a timer. (Even if it is just one going off in my head!)

Back to my story, I realized that I was not getting as much writing done as I wanted. I read somewhere that writing first – actually scheduling it in – was more productive than waiting until later when “there was time”. I believe this to be true, so I decided to move my writing time from the afternoons to the mornings. However, this meant that some of my other things would have to be pushed to the afternoon. It also meant that my two new ‘hobbies’, learning German and practicing piano, would be pushed to late afternoon.

I tried it for a few days, sticking rigidly to my new schedule based on time slots. First of all, I found my stress level rising because I was checking the clock more frequently than necessary. As well, I was obsessively looking at my schedule, even though I knew what was on it. When it finally came time to get to my hobbies, the joy was gone. I did my German lesson, but there was no pleasure or excitement in it; I practiced the piano out of obligation, feeling a lot like I did as a child when I was forced to take piano lessons. It was suddenly a chore, not a joy! On the positive side, I did get more writing done.

It didn’t take many days before I realized I had to take stock of this ‘new’ method. I knew I would not be able to sustain it – nor did I want to! I decided to keep the morning writing in place, since it really did seem to work in terms of productivity. Writing in the morning got my brain engaged in the story earlier in the day, so I also found I wanted to do more writing later in the day as well. However, I knew that pushing my new interests to the end of the afternoon was just a recipe for death, so I went back to shortly after lunch with those.

So, what had to give? Well, it turns out that any ‘work’ related tasks I didn’t finish in the morning were just as easy to pick up in the late afternoon, without detriment. I guess the brain knows – and accepts – that when there is work to be done, you just do it! The biggest positive change, though, was not putting a time limit on activities. I went back to the ‘framework’ method that I knew worked for me instead of arbitrary time slots that just seemed to make me anxious.

My takeaway? Routine is still a very good thing. It fosters commitment that makes you more productive, which then leads to a sense of accomplishment and contentment. However, becoming rigid in maintaining that routine becomes counter-productive and can even affect your state of wellbeing and mental health. Do yourself a favour and try using a framework instead.

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