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Creating and Maintaining Routines - Why Is This So Hard?


by Jennifer Elkins, LPC


Routines: we know we need them, yet many people think of them as “traps” that kill spontaneity and promote complacency. Actually, a routine could allow for more spontaneity, freedom, and opportunities for growth. Sticking to a routine creates an environment of stability and predictability, which helps us feel safe and reassured that things are being taken care of. And when we feel secure, creativity and spontaneity will grow and thrive.


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 entire process of setting up a routine as doomed from the beginning; many may not even try at all.


The reward-driven, dopamine-seeking individual with ADHD may feel “trapped” by the idea of keeping to a daily routine, and may instinctively rebel against it. Or, they may never get around to implementing a new routine at all. 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, and 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, and they doubt their capabilities for following through with them, so they end up paralyzed by anxiety and retreat from the new routine entirely.


Depressed individuals, drained of motivation and poisoned by an apathy they just 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 to yourself 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 you’re blaming yourself for your unhappiness.


Anxiety hitches its wagon to both ADHD and depression, but it can also show up as its own 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. If your anxiety centers on social aspects, for example, 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 own judgment, isolating and just staying at home, or even stockpiling supplies to get ready for the Zombie Apocalypse… it’s all based on a fear - real or imagined - of something. And it can stop us in our tracks.


There are many tricks to getting organized. For example, with an ADHD client, I might suggest that they set a deadline for the end of the week, and each day, work for 1 hour on their 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”. For anxious clients, we may examine underlying fears or combat irrational thinking processes to clarify goals and set reasonable expectations from routines.


I know that 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 own therapist, I was able to identify my goals, prioritize my needs along with others’ needs, and create a daily routine whose purpose is to add balance, accomplishments, and fulfillment to my world. And it is totally worth it.


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


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