Blues Qs is an advice column covering all things clinical depression, written by Bezzy Depression community guide Sam Dylan Finch. Diagnosed with clinical depression over a decade ago, Sam has seen it all — from medication mishaps to grippy sock “staycations.” He’s here to help you navigate your own depression journey with a little humor and a lot of heart.
If you’ve ever searched the internet looking for advice about depression, you’ve probably heard something about keeping a routine.
And this is for good reason! Recent research suggests a daily routine can be an important way to protect yourself from stress and boost resiliency in the face of mental health challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my experience as a Depressed Person™, staying in bed all morning has rarely helped improve my situation. Getting a little momentum, however, can make a big difference in how the rest of my day goes.
The “how” part of a routine is a fair question, though. Depression already makes it challenging just to get out of bed (something we talked about in last week’s column).
It’s a tall order to remember a bunch of tasks and complete them in a reasonable time and order — particularly when depression can impact your executive functioning. Executive function is key for things like task initiation, working memory, motivation, and more.
It’s no wonder our routines fall apart the minute we experience a depressive episode.
Keeping a routine while depressed isn’t impossible, though! It just requires a little creativity and a lot of self-compassion. If you’re wondering where to start, take into consideration the following advice:
“I want to keep a routine because an article on the internet told me to” is not really sustainable motivation. Doing something just because someone said so is rarely motivating on those days when everything feels like it’s falling apart.
So what’s your motivation for following a routine?
Maybe you want to engage in healthy habits to improve your depressive symptoms. Maybe you’re curious if a routine will help the rest of your day go smoothly. Maybe you just hate how you feel when you stay in bed all day.
Whatever it is, keep it top of mind as you start to experiment with your routines. Staying grounded in your motivation will make your routine more likely to stick.
I find that visual apps like Tiimo and Routinery work well for people with depression. Using an app to set up your routine can take away the work of having to remember each and every step. Plus, it helps keep you on task by timing each step.
Consider setting gentle alarms on your phone to prompt you to open up the app and get started.
Instead of creating one aspirational routine that includes everything you’d like to do, I recommend creating two routines in your app: one that is for a low energy day and one that is for a higher energy day. That way, when you start your day, you can decide what you have the bandwidth to do.
Your low energy routine can include just the essentials — like taking your medications, eating breakfast, brushing your teeth, etc. — while your high energy routine can include tasks like exercise, meditation, making your bed, and other activities you’d benefit from doing but wouldn’t be considered essential.
By having two routines, you can release some of the perfectionism that says your routine has to be the best every time and can help you feel less intimidated by giving yourself an easier option.
When you start to imagine your routine, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities. A quick Google search will show you that the internet has plenty of suggestions to offer — Journaling! Movement! Gratitude!
It can quickly snowball into a series of chores that feel too big to tackle.
The acronym “SMART” can help remind us how to set goals for ourselves:
Specific: Instead of setting a goal to journal, think about how you can get more specific. Could you choose a topic in advance? Maybe journal about your day, what you’ve been feeling, or what you’d like to accomplish. Getting more specific can help reduce overwhelm.
Measurable: When journaling, think about how you can create a measurable goal instead of an open-ended one. Maybe set the goal of writing one page or journaling for 15 minutes.
Achievable: Make sure your goal is actually achievable and reasonable given where your head is at! If a page isn’t doable, make it a paragraph. If 15 minutes seems too lengthy, aim for 5.
Relevant: If journaling isn’t helpful to you, maybe you’re setting the wrong goal altogether. Think about what goals feel most relevant to your overarching needs — for you, maybe stretching or eating breakfast will have more of an impact than journaling will.
Time-bound: Setting a block of time for each piece of your routine can keep you on task and let you know when to move on to the next activity.
Routines are not a race! Be realistic about the amount of time different steps will take and include “buffer time” — time to transition between tasks — to ensure you’re able to move at your own pace.
If you find yourself rushing through your routine, you won’t get to actually enjoy it, which defeats the point. Make adjustments as needed to ensure you’re able to take your time and luxuriate a little as you move from task to task.
People who eat breakfast have been shown to have improved depressive symptoms and less stress compared to those who don’t, making the old adage about breakfast being the most important meal not such a stretch after all.
I personally think that it’s best not to panic about what constitutes a healthy breakfast because obsessing about food isn’t necessarily healthy, either (and the research shows that any breakfast is better than no breakfast at all!).
If you’re looking for some easy nutritional guidance, though, I suggest the thirds rule — when looking at a typical plate, aim for a third protein, a third starch, and a third fruit or vegetables, with fats and dairy added as desired.
You know what’s very underrated? An afternoon routine. In my experience, stacking your morning or evening routine with a lot of tasks can get to be overwhelming and makes it less likely you’ll follow through.
But if you have flexibility in your schedule, a 3 p.m. routine can be a great addition to your day. It allows you to recenter and do some of the tasks that your morning and evening don’t have space for. You might also find that your energy levels are higher at midday.
For example, 3 o’clock is a great time to take a brief walk, get some sun on your face, stretch your body, or write a quick gratitude journal entry. You might even take a midday shower if you have the time.
If you struggle with energy in the morning or evening, think about how you might incorporate an afternoon routine.
A routine is not meant to feel like a punishment.
I’ll repeat that: A routine is not meant to feel like a punishment.
When setting up a routine, think about what types of activities typically feel rewarding or gentle. A routine that’s stacked high with chores will not be a routine you’re likely to stick with, making it important to balance things out with activities you like (or have liked in the past).
While it’s true that depression can sap the joy out of just about anything, try to opt for activities you have historically found pleasurable — reconnecting with those activities can help you transition from a state of depression to one of self-care and groundedness.
Let’s wrap this up with a quick list, shall we?
This is, perhaps, the most important advice I can give about keeping a routine. Every day is not going to be a slam dunk, and sometimes you’ll hobble along as best you can with little progress to show for it.
But that doesn’t mean you’re failing! Here’s a secret: You can’t “fail” at keeping a routine. Your efforts, however much you have to give, are worth something — whether that means you complete an entire routine from start to finish or only manage to run a comb through your hair.
Self-compassion is the most important ingredient for living with depression. You deserve to move through the world with kindness and consideration. Depression is considered a disability for a reason, which means some days are simply going to be hard. That isn’t a reflection on your worth or your efforts.
Your best is good enough, friend, even on the days it doesn’t feel like it. Keep at it and you’re sure to find that your routines will become more intuitive and your depression a little lighter.
Medically reviewed on July 27, 2022
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