Experts Explain Why You Can’t Stick To A WFH Routine

A woman lies on the floor, unable to stick to a routine during the coronavirus pandemic
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A break from your typical daily grind can be restorative. Think surprise snow days, or that mental health day you took last fall. But as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, you've probably had no choice but to upend your everyday life, with no definitive end date in sight. Even though everyone and their mother says having a routine is key to keeping your mental health in check, your days are so all over the place, you forgot the concept of "Tuesday." Forced change is hard, and that's likely why you're struggling to stick to a routine right now.

"In times like this, those struggling to keep a routine are not alone," says Dr. Ariane Ling, Ph.D., psychologist and clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. Everyday habits that you're used to, like commuting, going to the gym, heading out for coffee, or dropping your kids off at school, aren't possibilities anymore. These events served as markers for structuring your day, Dr. Ling tells Bustle, but it can be hard to keep track of time in their absence.

It's not only a loss of physical structure that has your days all twisted up, says Dr. Michael Richardson, MD, family medicine doctor with One Medical, a membership-based primary care practice. "It's important to recognize the extreme mental fatigue we are facing," Dr. Richardson tells Bustle. "We are under a state of chronic stress, and our grasp of the pandemic is ever changing, creating spikes of new stress in our life as we adapt to the changes. It is not surprising that we need to muster up even more motivation than we would typically need to do our everyday activities."

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For the sake of your mental well-being, you might want to keep some of your everyday activities the same. It's both relaxing and hilarious to work pantsless (who needs pants?), but showering (it'll help you wake up) and changing clothes can help give you some semblance of normalcy. Are you used to going out for coffee every morning? Give yourself that daily dose of business as usual by making your favorite brew each day (your partner or roommates will appreciate it, as will your local coffee shops that are delivering ground coffee instead of lattes).

If you're finding it hard to figure out how to set a new routine for yourself, Dr. Ling advises starting small. Think about what you already do every day and try to build on that. "Pair activities together," she says. "For example, pair your daily mindfulness activity with brushing your teeth." It's important to keep it simple, especially when you're just setting out to develop new habits.

Even small activities can be especially daunting if you're already prone to experiencing depression or anxiety, Dr. Richardson says, so it's vital to keep in touch with your mental health care providers. Celebrating every victory (like taking a shower, taking your meds, or drinking a glass of water) is extra important right now.

To help alleviate any quarantine-related productivity guilt you might be feeling while trying to build this routine, Dr. Ling suggests focusing on your values. That's going to help you more than thinking about what you think other people are doing or what you think you should be doing, she says. "It's much easier to keep a routine that is filled with one's personal interests aligned with values rather than tasks that one 'has to get done.'"

If you've spent more than a few days (or even weeks) locked in an unstructured, emotionally unsatisfying loop, Dr. Ling says that the best thing you can do is be kind to yourself. "In the end, people often have a hard time keeping up their routines because they fall off the wagon and then think, 'oh what's the point in keeping this up?' The idea here is if you take a day where all you did was watch TV, to be kind to yourself and try again the next day."


Dr. Ariane Ling, Ph.D., psychologist and clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health

Dr. Michael Richardson, MD, family medicine doctor with One Medical