In a previous post, I talked about WHY daily routines are so crucial to maintain mental stability. To recap quickly, it’s because routines help to regulate our circadian rhythms, and they also reduce our stress by removing some of the chaos and unpredictability of our day-to-day lives. So now let’s talk about HOW you can implement a routine in your life.
Just as diabetics must comply with dietary restrictions as well as take insulin, so those of us with bipolar must take responsibility to learn about how the disorder affects us personally, and to build a healthy lifestyle that will minimize our chances of triggering a bipolar episode and maximize our chances of maintaining a normal mood. – Excerpt from my memoir Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country (p.262)
There are two methods for creating new habits: slow and steady vs. radical. Most people find it more manageable to implement change incrementally – start with one new manageable habit and gradually add others on until you’ve got a whole new daily routine. Imagine walking slowly into a cold river, one small step at a time. This slow and steady method carries a lower risk of making you feel overwhelmed and causing you to burn out and revert back to your old lifestyle within a week. The radical method consists of diving into the deep end (or jumping head first into that cold river!) and making all the changes all at once – “all or nothing”. I’m a fan of this method because I get to reap the rewards of change much faster.
Either way, decide which method will work best for you and commit to it!
The Slow & Steady Method
Examine your typical day and determine what parts of it are recurrent and easy for you to control: sleep/wake up times, meals, exercise, chores, personal time, hobbies, etc. Create a daily schedule with those controllable/regulatable activities set in the same time slot each day and make a commitment to stick to your schedule. Study your schedule to find places where you could insert a new, healthy habit, and add that in using bold, colourful text.
Place a physical copy of your revised schedule – or many of them! – somewhere you’ll be sure to see it (like beside your bathroom mirror, at your keyboard, or on the fridge) so that:
you have a visual reminder of what you should be doing and when (no “out of sight, out of mind”!)
you can hold yourself accountable for what activity you should be engaging in at any given moment.
Each week, add another new healthy activity to your schedule.
The Radical Method
Having a daily schedule has the added benefit of helping you become more self aware of what you actually spend time doing, and I’ve found that typically helps me become more efficient at my routine tasks – I get through them faster and then have more relaxation time.
After successfully sticking to your dedicated times for activities in Level 1, examine your routine and see which activities and tasks you could cut, reduce, or combine. Keep your mental wellness in mind as you do this. For instance: let’s say that you have a girls’ night every two weeks, but that those friends mainly just complain about work/partners/kids/school/etc. and that makes you feel drained and annoyed, then perhaps you could cut that activity.
If you’re always running out of time in the day, see if it’s possible to reduce activities – e.g. if you like to watch TV or a movie to unwind after work, but you always lose track of time and then can’t exercise, then you could either switch the order of those activities (exercise FIRST and then watch TV for a shorter amount of time afterwards) or you could reduce your TV time by setting a timer for 30 minutes so that you have time to exercise.
Alternatively, you could combine the two activities – e.g. invest in a foldaway exercise bike and only allow yourself to watch TV if you’re using the bike at the same time.
Get in the habit of tracking or charting all that you can: your activities, your mood, your symptoms, your sleep, etc. This may feel like a nuisance for the first couple of weeks, but then it’ll become second nature. Keep your charts close by in a place where you’ll be most likely to use them: beside your bed, beside the coffee machine, or in your phone.
Consider what kind of life would best support your mental health. Write down all the things you would do if you were living your dream life. What kind of support network would you have? What relaxation and self-care activities would you practise on a regular basis? Pick one or two of these items and outline the steps that would enable you to achieve these things. Incorporate those steps into your daily routine so that you don’t just continually put them off.
Don’t be afraid to tweak and adjust your daily routine as you discover what works best for you. Have fun with creating – and implementing – it!