Here’s How Your Pandemic Routine Is Good For Your Brain

It’s never too late to start!

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A woman in pajamas washes her hands. Staying inside can mean you relax your routines, but some regul...
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For many, staying at home means no commute, no set mealtimes, no need to get out of your comfiest pajamas, but it's anything but a vacation. People who are staying at home to flatten the coronavirus curve, experts say, should stick to a routine in order to help their mental health.

Dr. Sarita Robinson PhD, CPsychol, SFHEA, ICPEM, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire and expert in survival psychology, compares the social distancing many people are practicing to the time between Christmas and New Year, where people tend to stay at home and do very little. "We can very quickly start to lose track of time and feel like all the days are merging into one," she says.

Boring though they may seem, regular schedules are necessary to combat that sense, in part because the brain loves routine. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle that while having a bowl of cereal whenever you want feels great for a bit, the brain eventually begins to crave regularity. "Not being able to engage in habitual behaviors (work, school, exercise, social interaction) can be incredibly distressing," he says. "While not having regularity can in the short run feel freeing, as time passes, most people will experience a sense of confusion, loss of motivation, and a feeling of being lost."

What Routines Do To Your Brain

The human brain is conditioned to develop and repeat habits, rather than thriving in a daily free-for-all. As a behavior becomes habitual, you you start doing it automatically. "Forty percent [sic] of the time we're not thinking about what we're doing," social psychologist Professor Wendy Wood told the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2014. "The thoughtful, intentional mind is easily derailed, and people tend to fall back on habitual behaviors." These leave us free to think about important problems as they crop up, like how to mop up the spill that's suddenly appeared on the floor, rather than devoting brain space to our morning routine. We rely on these automatic patterns when we're stressed and distracted.

Psychologists think that habits are essentially labor-saving devices for the brain, because making decisions all the time about everything is hard. "Rather than having to decide how to live each moment afresh, we can navigate our lives using a simple strategy: (a) other things being equal, choose whatever we chose before, and (b) organise [sic] our lives in such a way that we are faced with the same choices, over and over again," behavioral scientist Professor Nick Chater wrote for The Conversation in 2018. However, he points out that everybody needs to balance regularity and spontaneity.

How Routines Help You During The Covid Pandemic

Research on daily routines during COVID-19 published in Journal Of Global Health in December 2020 found that there are two types: primary routines, which are necessary for keeping you alive and healthy (think, sleeping and eating), and secondary routines, which are important but not as crucial (like working, studying, and exercising). In pandemics, both of those can be upended, but the study found disruption to your primary routines can be the most harmful to your health. If you're eating breakfast at any point between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., or going to bed at whatever time because, hey, it's not like you have to get up early to catch the train, you may be doing yourself some damage.

We also flourish when we're balancing regularity and spontaneity. One study published in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin in 2018 found that people with routines tended to find more meaning in life. Patterns of regular behavior have also been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and ADHD, and conditions like insomnia. People with daily schedules, according to a 2016 study in Health Psychology Review, may also have more self-control when it comes to making decisions that will help them long-term.

How To Set Up A Routine

Sticking to a regimen is a helpful way to minimize stress and reduce anxiety, both in and out of pandemic times. "I would recommend sticking to a set waking time, set meal times, and a set bedtime," Dr. Robinson tells Bustle. An exercise plan, a set workspace for those who are working from home, times for walking outside or talking to friends, and other kinds of scheduling can all help your brain out. "The result is a day that can be as structured as you want, and that will remind you that your life has predictability, which reduces distress," Dr. Klapow says.

One study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry suggested that people struggling without routine in pandemic isolation build a fresh one around five different areas: learning, connecting with others, practicing mindfulness, physical activity, and giving to others. From that foundation you can build in spontaneous living room dance parties, marathons of cookie-baking, and at least one why-not nap.


Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D, clinical psychologist

Dr Sarita Robinson PhD, CPsychol, SFHEA, ICPEM, principal lecturer in psychology

Studies cited:

De Ridder, D., Gillebaart, M. (2017). Lessons learned from trait self-control in well-being: making the case for routines and initiation as important components of trait self-control. Health Psychol Rev. 11(1), 89-99. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2016.1266275.

Diamond, R., & Willan, J. (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019: Achieving good mental health during social isolation. The British Journal of Psychiatry,217(2), 408-409. doi:10.1192/bjp.2020.91

Dunn, W. W. (2000). Habit: What’s the Brain Got to Do with It? The Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(1_suppl), 6S-20S.

Hou, W. K., Lai, F. T., Ben-Ezra, M., & Goodwin, R. (2020). Regularizing daily routines for mental health during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of global health, 10(2), 020315.

Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2019). Routines and Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 688–699.

Wood, W. (2017). Habit in Personality and Social Psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(4), 389–403.

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