I’ve always been quite routine-orientated. I like structure. A plan. I enjoy being organised and writing lists. At work, I always had a colour-coded “To do” list written on a pad in different coloured sharpies.
During the first lockdown in March 2020, I was living alone and had just gone self-employed. My London job often saw me working more than 40 hours a week, and so to suddenly find myself with about a third of that work meant I needed to find another way to bring structure to my day to keep my mental health in check. I didn’t want to spend all day lying around doing nothing, especially as I was spending so much time alone. That’s nice on occasion, when it’s an act of self-care, but not a good idea for any of my particular “isms” on a regular basis. Boredom, for me, is a dangerous thing.
So I wrote down a list of all the things I liked doing, all the spiritual practices I did and all the tools I had at my disposal to keep me feeling mentally well and spiritually aligned. I created a big coloured chart, sort of my own daily well-being timetable. Every morning I’d draw up a bold, bright plan for my day on a big sheet of paper or in my journal. And then I’d cross each item off when I’d completed it. It helped me feel productive and gave me a sense of achievement. And I found it helped me to stay more balanced.
I’m not alone in finding routines like this helpful for mental health. Research has found that routines can help with a wide range of mental health-related disorders, including anxiety, which was my main driver at the time.
Like many people, I had a range of emotional responses to the pandemic – fear, anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness – and, at times, I really struggled, but my daily checklist helped motivate me. It gave me a reason to do the things that are I know are good for me but that, without structure, I avoid doing. Things like like going on a walk, doing something creative, meditating, writing my gratitude list, making sure I do my stretches and foot physio exercises, drinking enough water and looking after my sleep health.
Once life and work started to come back, I had to cut the list back, and it became a checklist in the Notes app on my phone. I kept the most important things that I knew I needed to make time for during my day.
One of the reasons I went self-employed was because I’d burnt out, so it was important not to just jump back into work, work, work over everything. I didn’t want the things that help me to fall to the wayside but, equally, I didn’t want a list of tasks so long that they became another burden that stressed me out. So I settled on 12 categories, each encompassing a number of tasks/tools that I’d like to be part of my daily routine, and I try to do something (if not everything) from each category every day.
Here’s what I settled on:
As a spiritual person and someone in recovery, prayer has been part of my daily routine for the last six to seven years. It’s changed in that time and it’s personal to me. I pray for those I love, those I’m struggling with and for the highest good for all. I seek spiritual guidance rather than asking for specific things. It’s a time for quiet reflection and it takes less than five minutes. It helps me to get out of “self”. I also personally love doing card readings and as part of my morning prayer ritual, I will pick a card from my Universe Has Your Back deck or my daily guidance angel cards deck which are beautifully illustrated and just give me a little daily boost.
Sometimes I’m really into meditation and other times I have to force myself to be willing to even do five minutes, so having it on my check list helps me to do at least some form of meditation daily. Meditation is one of the things that most helps bring calm and restore a bit of balance to me. It really helps with anxiety, especially if I do tapping (if you have anxiety try tapping it is so effective. I found it more effective than anything else I tried.) Sometimes I just sit in silence and breath but other times I use a guided meditation.
Ever since I developed a problem with my foot while on holiday in Canada, I’ve had lower body pain/muscle tightness and joint stiffness. As well as the exercises the osteopath gave me to do, stretching and yoga really help, so I try and do something every day. Some days it will be morning and evening other times just one or the other. Some days I will do a full yoga class. Others just 10 mins of my foot physio. The point is it’s better to do something than nothing so whatever form it takes I try and stretch and do my foot exercises every day.
I am a writer for a living, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I find writing therapeutic. I love journaling and also enjoy writing my blogs. I try and journal every morning. Sometimes I also do it in the evening or, if the mood takes me, just jotting down how I feel during the day. I recently brought a Legend Planner, and I love it. It’s really good for goal setting and setting intentions.
I love reading; it’s something I’ve always enjoyed but, up until recently, I hadn’t been making time for it. If I was reading anything, it was self-help or personal development books, which is great, but I missed the escape of a good novel. This is a joy I re-discovered in lockdown, so I wanted to keep that up. I like to keep my mind active and learn new things, so reading a variety of books means I’m flexing my mind muscle. I’m really enjoying reading in bed first thing in the morning and when I go to bed at night. I also have a monthly subscription to Psychologies magazine and listen to spiritual or mindfulness podcasts when I’m out on a walk, cooking dinner or in the car.
Creativity is important to me, so I try and bring some aspect of it to my daily life, whether that’s practising my guitar, drawing, painting or even doing a puzzle. During the lockdown, I created so much art. I always loved drawing, painting and making things when I was younger, but self-doubt and lack of confidence in my abilities meant I let it go by the wayside from my late teens onwards. For me, creativity is one of the most powerful practices I mindfulness. It is one of the few things that truly switches my head off in a good way. I can get lost in art for hours, not worrying about or overthinking anything but still expressing and fleeing my feelings, not blocking them out. For me, it is something I really enjoy, so I didn’t want to let it go. I also believe that this part of my creativity surely must stimulate my creativity at work too!
One thing that was very important to me during lockdown and which I’m making an effort to continue now is connection. I want to nurture my relationships with friends and family and be part of my community. I volunteer twice a week for a homeless charity and the local radio station. I make sure I make time to connect with someone I love, other than my partner (who I see every day) daily.
That may mean meeting a friend for a coffee or lunch, spending time with my family or simply giving someone a call. Connection is so important, and it’s something that’s been even more so since the pandemic separated us from others and put social distancing between us. I’m usually a big hugger, and I missed that. I still haven’t seen some of my friends who live further away for almost two years. For me, connection is key to well-being. Yesterday I picked up the phone and called a friend I hadn’t spoken to in ages, and I felt so lifted after our chat, and we finally had a chance to go and stay with some other friends for my birthday weekend, which was great.
Working is not just about making a living; it’s such a big part of our lives that I wanted to put a daily reminder on my list to go into my work mindfully and with integrity. I try and have balance in my workday these days, permeating it with breaks and even a 10 min lie down in the afternoon. I’m more productive working fewer hours by stepping away from my computer more. I’m earning more now, working half the hours I used to. I never thought that would be possible. But I didn’t realise how unproductive it was to be staring at a screen for eight hours straight, feeling stressed. As a writer, I need to feel inspired and going on a walk in the middle of the day or stopping to have a cup of tea or to meditate or exercise helps me clear my head and get the creative juices flowing.
The guilt I used to have about making time for myself during the workday, after being indoctrinated for years by the 9-5, is finally slipping away. Sometimes I still feel like I should be working longer hours. I guess I could, and I could earn more, but then I’d be compromising my mental health again, and it’s not worth it. I feel like I have a great balance that works for me right now. My mantra now is “do less, attract more”. I turn my work phone off at 6pm, and it doesn’t go back on until 9am. I also don’t work at the weekends unless I have an event on. I have set time limits on my work and personal phones for email, social media and any other apps that don’t facilitate spiritual growth, which means I can’t use my phone without disabling the time limit between 9pm and 9am. These boundaries are so important to me.
Also, under this category, I include my daily chores. How messy my home is is always a reflection of my mindset. I’m a very tidy and organised person, so if I’ve left stacks of washing up or piles of clothes, it’s usually a sign something is going on. My problem is not being OCD about it and having to have everything spotless and tidy before I can do anything else. This has been a massive procrastination technique for me in the past, so on my workdays, I will set myself a few manageable tasks to keep on top of things – yesterday, it was taking the bins out and doing one load of washing. Chores also mean taking responsibility for life admin, paying bills, making calls and dealing with things. There’s a seemingly endless stream of chores, but I can’t do them all and work full time, so by breaking them down into daily tasks, I find I can leave the things that are not on the list and still feel like I’m on top of it.
As a recovering bulimic and someone who had a 25 year long eating disorder I absolutely have to prioritise my food every day. When I don’t I still have the tendency to go off the rails and into behaviours that make me feel crappy. If I’m away for a weekend or on holiday for example and my routine is broken, I don’t have a stop button and I tend to over eat so by the time I come home I feel rubbish. I haven’t binged, purged, taken laxatives or starved myself for more than two years now and that’s a miracle but I still struggle to know what it is to eat intuitively, mindfully and in a way that is not restricting or binging in disguise. So I have three meals a day on my list and I sit down at a table to eat them. Not in front of the TV, as that’s another time I will go into zombie mode and over eat. Prioritising nourishing myself and enjoying my food. I’m just embarking on a low sugar plant based diet on the recommendation of my doctor to deal with chronic inflammation (inflammatory arthritis), hormonal imbalances and some other things. I was worried I’d struggle but I’ve been doing MindfulChef and this has really helped once again giving me a plan and structure to follow (I have a friends and family discount code for anyone interested).
Under the nourishment category I also include keeping hydrated. I drink three to four litres of water a day and do at least one daily tea ritual. I call it that because I really feel like drinking herbal tea is a moment of self kindness, a time for a pause, a breath, a moment of meditation. I was an absolute coffee addict and cutting down my coffee and caffeine intake has made a difference. I was having five or six coffees a day and a lot of those were espressos but I was finding it was affecting my gut health so now it’s one a day, decaf where possible and more tea.
Daily movement is important to me but, as an ex eating disorder sufferer, my relationship with exercise has been all or nothing – unless I do an hour every day, I might as well not bother. So now I’m much kinder to myself. I do some form of movement every day, mainly going on a daily walk and then on top of that, I try and exercise three to five times a week, even if it’s for a short time. This may be a gentle jog, a swim, a home workout that’s low impact. Some form of movement to get my heart pumping and my muscles working. I also try and hit my Fitbit goals every day. That’s 10,000 steps, 7km, 10 floors and 22 zone minutes. My Fitbit also helps me to not be sedentary all day by giving me little reminders to get up from my desk, move about and do a few steps.
I’m in recovery, so making sure my programme is part of my daily routine is essential, as it is easy to become complacent after almost seven years. My recovery is what brought me to spirituality and mindfulness in the first place, and it’s what has helped me make positive changes in my life that go far beyond simply not drinking or taking any mind or mood-altering substances. These include no longer getting into toxic relationships, quitting smoking, leaving my job when I burnt out, paying off all my debt, breaking my caffeine addiction, learning to sit with my feelings and express them more healthily, gaining the self-confidence and self-esteem to be able to speak up for myself, to become more self-sufficient, becoming who I really am authentically. The list goes on and on.
My programme gives me the tools to examine myself, my motivations and my actions on a daily basis, to support other women who have the same struggles as me, to connect to a power greater than myself and to get out of my own way, and it has a whole load of tools for me to do that, some of which are listed separately above (prayer, meditation, journaling). However, one of the most important aspects of that for me that I do every single day is my gratitude list. I write 10 things I’m grateful for every day. Rain or shine. When I’m full of self-pity and anger, and when I’m full of love and joy. I send it to other women, and they send me theirs. It’s a beautiful daily practice and one of the key ones for me.
The final category is rest, and within this, I’ve included aspects of self-care like having a soak in a bubble bath, going for a massage, having a lie-down or afternoon nap, even doing a 10-minute face mask. Something restful and kind to myself.
My sleep health also comes under this, and that’s getting to bed early, turning off devices and winding down before bed by reading, listening to a meditation or drinking a calming herbal tea. I also love Tissrands sleep better range and have their rollerball and massage oils which smell of lavender jasmine and sandalwood and help promote better sleep.
This is what works for me and what helps keep me feeling balanced on a daily basis. I use it as a tool kit, not something to berate myself with if I don’t do every single thing under every single category every single day. I like getting up early, so I do a lot of the spiritual practices, yoga and exercise between 6am, and 9am before the workday even starts.
This week, two different people mentioned the Miracle Morning to me, so I saw that as a sign and ordered a copy. I was already halfway through writing this blog at the time, and, as it’s about morning routines and is supposed to be really powerful, I thought I’d read it to see if I can enhance my own mornings. Having a routine has been a lifesaver for me. I love the balance and structure it brings to my day and the fact that having something on a list encourages me to do it when I don’t want to, which is usually the exact same time I most need to.