Most of us have a love-hate relationship with the idea of committing to a New Year’s resolution, particularly if it involves a change to our daily routine. The dawn of a new year offers both a “clean slate” for revisiting personal goals that have gone off track and an opportunity to embrace something new that might enrich our lives. Unfortunately, most resolutions are abandoned within a few weeks of ringing in the new year, often because they are poorly defined and unrealistic – too vague or too grand, or both.
Many people prioritize health goals when adopting New Year’s resolutions, so it is worth considering the research finding that simply adhering to a daily routine provides a substantial mental health benefit for both children and adults. Within this context, the decision to articulate and adhere to a personal daily routine per se can be more important than the specific activities selected.
Routines offer a sense of predictability and control and provide a feeling of accomplishment. They help boost self-esteem since the frequent repetition of an activity builds competence. A daily routine provides structure and flow to our days since they include a set of activities that each have a defined beginning and end. They reduce the number of decisions to be made, do not require conscious effort or thought, and reduce stress by freeing up time and energy for other tasks.
What Does the Research Say About the Importance of a Daily Routine?
According to Mental Health America, “a routine is a tool used to improve mental health by organizing the overwhelming everyday tasks into a pattern that seems easier to accomplish”. Psychology Today emphasizes the science behind the connection between routines and mental health: “The importance of routines has been associated with a variety of mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, addiction, depression, among others.” When we adopt strategies for organizing ourselves and know what to expect, it is easier to manage problematic symptoms and to actively engage in the thoughts and behaviors that support mental health and overall well-being.
Research on the effects of disruptions to circadian rhythms (episodes of rest and activity in an individual’s typical day) also points to the importance of routines for both mental and physical health. Even small changes in one’s routine can have a significant impact. For example, data collected over many years about the effects of shifting to daylight savings time each year consistently show an increase in both heart attacks on the Monday after the switch and in fatal car crashes during the week following the change. Daily routines help to set our body clocks, signaling the brain about sleep and wake times, about the need for rest and for nourishment, etc.
With respect to children, a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology demonstrated how family routines help children decrease impulsiveness and oppositional symptoms. Considering that such symptoms are frequently the result of dysregulated emotions, it makes sense that routines are effective because they help children know what to expect, and thus feel safer. Other studies have linked family routines to the development of social skills and academic success, and to increased family resilience during times of crisis. Consistent bedtime routines have been shown to be associated with both improved sleep habits and family functioning. And, oppositional defiant disorder and behavior problems in general are more common in children who do not have consistent morning, mealtime, homework, and bedtime routines.
The Benefit of Setting a Daily Routine for Children and Adolescents
Routines help children in numerous ways, but first and foremost, they help children feel safe. A child who knows what to expect will feel less anxious and be better prepared to cope with unfamiliar settings or stressful situations. These situations include points of transition from one setting or activity to another, especially those that involve separations from parents/caregivers (e.g. a handoff to a babysitter or being dropped off at school).
Routines also help children develop competence and ultimately, independence. The repetition of tasks in a particular order helps children learn a variety of self-care and daily living skills and develops both organizational and self-regulation capacities. Adherence to a routine cultivates a sense of responsibility and the ability to self-motivate – e.g., “I do my homework first and then I have free time to play and relax”. Routines can also help children develop a sense of excitement and anticipation of future events – pancakes on Saturdays followed by a visit to the park, for example.
Routines can also help to reduce power struggles in families. With consistent and predictable routines children are clearer about what is expected of them and about “how we do things” in this family. While children will still resist at times, having a routine to fall back on will help parents stay calmer and more matter of fact in guiding children through their days.
Finally, for infants and very young children family routines are the building blocks for attachment and for relationships. Bath and bedtime rituals, feeding routines and play times – all contribute to a child’s sense of belonging, trust, and safety.
Common routines for school-aged children and teens can include:
- Morning dressing, eating, and school preparation activities
- Homework routines
- Daily and weekly chores
- After school activities such as hobbies and sports
- Preparation for the next day, such as organizing a backpack or laying out clothes at night
- Social/play time
- Family time
- Bedtime winding-down routines
The Benefit of a Daily Routine for Parents
The creation of family routines takes time and effort, and typically some “trial and error” is inevitable before effective routines are identified for any given family. The positive effects of routines, however, extend to parents and caregivers as well.
- Having established routines reduces the number of decisions to be made in any given day thus freeing up time and energy for unanticipated and/or more serious problems that need to be addressed.
- Watching children learn routines and thus increase their independence can help parents feel more confident about their parenting abilities.
- Routines can help parents avoid power struggles and conflict about minor day-to-day decisions (e.g., what to have for dinner).
- A clearly articulated routine helps both children and adults with ADHD or other neurocognitive differences to stay organized and reduces the chance of things slipping through the cracks. This in turn can reduce the stress and anxiety that exacerbates the challenges of managing neurocognitive differences.
- Creating and adhering to routines fosters the development of time management skills and this can improve one’s efficiency in other areas of life, e.g. in one’s work context.
- Routines that drive the chores and responsibilities of everyday life can free up time for families to play and enjoy each other.
How Educators Can Support Students and Families with a Daily Routine
Teachers and students are so accustomed to the rhythm of school schedules that they may not appreciate how structured and routinized school life is. Bells that signal periods of learning time, transition time, lunch time, free time, etc. provide a sense of structure and safety in our schools. In addition, individual teachers typically create and enforce routines that are specific to their own classrooms.
School professionals can help students and parents by making explicit the benefits of the structures and routines that everyone takes for granted in schools. Explicit teaching about these benefits can provide children and families with the motivation and confidence to establish and maintain home-based routines.
Elementary school teachers might consider conducting an activity during which children can articulate and commit to routines in multiple areas of their lives. Psychologist and author Mariana Plata emphasizes the importance of choosing personal, relationship, and work/school routines. Personal routines might include self-care, time to pursue interests/hobbies, time for social media/gaming; relationship routines involve creating times/activities to share with family and friends; school routines include setting up times for homework and studying, for seeking extra help at school, etc.
Parent newsletters and/or workshops can be offered to discuss with parents the importance of sleeping/eating/homework/free time/screen time/recreation/household chore routines. It is also helpful for parents to be informed about classroom rules and routines so that they can discuss and reinforce them with their children at home.
Self-Care Routines: Creating One That’s Right for You
Parents and teachers who devote themselves to raising and educating our nation’s children are doing those children a disservice if they ignore their own needs. With that in mind, perhaps the most important action that you might consider this January is to examine and enhance your own daily routines. Here are some tips:
- Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write down a daily schedule. Decide what format works for you, e.g., a time schedule or a list of items to be checked off each day. Those who perform daily tasks at approximately the same time each day, however, tend to be more successful at sticking with routines. Make full use of smartphone or other device features that will signal you when it is time for an activity.
- If you are considering changes to an existing daily routine, try one change at a time. New habits take time to form, and the time varies depending on the person and the complexity of the behavior. One group of researchers found that it took an average of 66 days to form a new habit, so expect it to take at least 2 months before a behavior becomes automatic.
- Track your progress with a calendar or chart of some kind and reward yourself when you’ve stuck to your routine for a designated time period. For example, buy yourself a new gym shirt after one month of exercising 3x a week.
- Choose small, achievable behaviors. For example, rather than aiming at “losing weight” or “being healthier”, plan to drink an 8 oz glass of water before each meal.
- Be kind to yourself if you miss a day.
- Don’t let go of flexibility and spontaneity. The goal is not a rigid, either-or perspective. Maybe it’s OK to leave the dinner dishes in the sink one time while the family rushes out to a special game or school event.
- If you are looking for some ideas of routines with a high payoff, consider these:
- Invest in the development of good sleep habits. A 2021 CDC study of 273,695 adults in the United States found that people who averaged 6 hours of sleep or fewer per night were about 2.5 times more likely to report frequent mental distress than those who averaged more than 6 hours of sleep. Poor sleep adversely affects one’s heart, weight, mood, memory and more.
- Establish boundaries and guidelines for your use of social media and electronic devices.
- Take steps to nurture and strengthen your relationships. In May 2023 US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the epidemic of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in United States. Loneliness is a serious public health concern that is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline. Loneliness can raise one’s risk of premature death by 26 percent and the health impact is comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day.
- Find ways to practice positive psychology – that is, activities that research has shown to be associated with positive mood and well-being. One example is participating in activities that inspire awe (e.g., experiencing the wonders of nature, engaging with art or music). Another example is engaging in a regular gratitude practice, e.g., keeping a gratitude journal or creating a regular process for sharing expressions of gratitude with family and/or friends.
Whatever personal routines you choose to create or enhance in 2024, ESS wishes you a happy, healthy, and productive new year!
The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine – PMC (nih.gov)
Why Routine Is Important for Mental Health – Optimum Student Support