The Importance of Routines, Even Interrupted by a Pandemic

I grew up constantly uncertain, thanks to an unstable home life as a child, parents who moved around a lot and, starting at 16, being without a home of my own. The trauma from those experiences began to prey on me, it wore me down and mingled with my diagnoses of A.D.H.D., depression and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, making it almost impossible for me to concentrate, work, and generally be productive and happy on a daily basis.

At some point, by chance, I started to realize that the more I implemented boundaries and schedules — waking and eating and meditating at specific times, working out, writing down the next day’s schedule — the more I started to feel not only some control, but also happiness. By setting routines for myself, I was able to shield myself from chaos.

“It helps you feel like you’re in control,” Charles Duhigg, who wrote “The Power of Habit,” said in an interview. “It helps you remember how to do things that — maybe because of your A.D.H.D. — you’d forget because of short-term memory.” In his book, Mr. Duhigg explores the sort of ouroboros — the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail — I was performing on myself. I needed some sort of cue, a routine and then a reward. I hadn’t thought of rewards as part of the process, but they are essential.

For me, I thought the reward was peace of mind. What I didn’t realize was I was also giving myself other little trophies: If I went to the gym five days every week, there was a little voice in my head that would say “You’ve earned two slices of pizza.” When I’d clean the house on Sunday morning, I’d always crack open a beer by afternoon. And sometimes you aren’t even conscious of the rewards you’re giving yourself for routine, and I find those are the most important ones. With those rewards, I’m being good to yourself, telling myself I did something, so I earned something.

“You’re forcing yourself to anticipate rewards,” Mr. Duhigg said. “All of that is really good.”

For Esmé Weijun Wang, author of the essay collection “The Collected Schizophrenias,” “Routines and rituals are a core part of maintaining my mental health,” she told me. Ms. Wang’s routines include “my analog planner, where I journal, manage my appointments and jot down tasks — that, along with an array of other notebooks and binders, organize things in a way that help life to feel less overwhelming.”

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