Creating and Maintaining Routines – Why Is It So Hard?

Routines: We need them, yet many think of them as “traps” that kill spontaneity and promote complacency. 

The Benefits of Establishing Routines

  • Stability and Predictability: Routines provide stability and predictability in our lives, reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Increased Productivity: Following a routine helps improve productivity and efficiency by eliminating decision fatigue and providing a structured framework.
  • Improved Mental and Emotional Well-being: Routines can promote a sense of control, reduce feelings of overwhelm, and contribute to overall mental and emotional well-being.
  • Enhanced Creativity and Spontaneity: Contrary to popular belief, routines can foster creativity and spontaneity by creating a stable foundation for exploration and growth.

Challenges in Establishing Routines

But creating and sticking to routines, especially if you have ADHD, depression, or anxiety, can feel overwhelming, frustrating, and torturous. Individuals with mental or behavioral health disorders may view the routine setup process as doomed; many may not even try.

The reward-driven, dopamine-seeking individual with ADHD may feel “trapped” by the idea of keeping to a daily routine and instinctively rebel against it. Or, they may need help to implement a new routine. They may be motivated by the prospect of doing something new or different (in this case, “setting up the new routine”), but the “setting up” of the new routine is more enjoyable for them than actually doing the new routine. That part of the process gets all their attention and effort.

They hyperfocus on creating the most extensive, perfect, and complete list of daily “to-do’s” ever, but then they’re exhausted from the sustained mental effort it took for them to dream up their ideal routine, or, they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of starting all these tasks. They doubt their ability to follow through with them, so they become paralyzed by anxiety and retreat from the new routine entirely.

Depressed individuals, drained of motivation and poisoned by an apathy they cannot shake, will likely struggle with even considering, much less creating and implementing, a routine; paradoxically, a purposeful, balanced routine would help them immensely. But it’s so hard to do anything at all when you’re affected by depression – a hallmark symptom of which is the lack of motivation to do anything at all. Even small tasks take loads of extra effort when you’re depressed.

It’s hard to be nice and treat yourself to “the gift of” a solid routine when you don’t feel like being kind to yourself because you’re not happy and blaming yourself for your unhappiness.

Anxiety hitches its wagon to both ADHD and depression, but it can also show up as its vehicle of destruction. For those with anxiety (GAD, OCD, panic disorder, PTSD, social anxiety, phobic disorder) problems trying to create and stick to a new routine can be very intimidating. Suppose your anxiety centers on social aspects, for example. In that case, fears of being judged publicly might prevent helpful additions to your routine from being included, like going to a gym or health club or joining a group or organization with common interests.

Anxiety shows up in so many different ways: worst-case scenario thinking, doubting your judgment, isolating and just staying at home, or even stockpiling supplies to get ready for the Zombie Apocalypse… it’s all based on fear – real or imagined – of something. And it can stop us in our tracks.

Strategies for Successful Routine Creation

There are many tricks to getting organized. For example, with an ADHD client, I might suggest they set a deadline for the end of the week and work for 1 hour on their daily routine. Do it in small chunks. Or, for a depressed client, we might explore different motivators, track “small wins,” or identify a “bare minimum routine.” We may examine underlying fears or combat irrational thinking processes for anxious clients to clarify goals and set reasonable expectations from routines.

The Journey to a Balanced Routine

Making a routine and staying on track with it is a tall order. I struggle with sticking to a routine, too. With help from my therapist, I could identify my goals, prioritize my needs along with others, and create a daily routine that aims to add balance, accomplishments, and fulfillment to my world. And it is worth it.

Consider talking to a therapist if you struggle with creating and maintaining a routine. Not only can they help you create a rockin’ routine, but they’ll also help you understand your strengths and coach you on navigating any mental blocks that may have been preventing you from reaching your goals. Routinely!