The science behind all that 'create a routine' advice

Experts have dispensed this guidance throughout the pandemic. Here’s why it works.

In Tennessee, Kellee Inskeep helped her second-grade distance learner stay on track with colorful paper schedules posted around the house and a morning family meeting.

In Spokane, Washington, Holly Cartmell says her three children always look forward to “virtual travel Tuesdays” to different parts of the world.

And though the Piper family of Colorado got rid of school time constraints, they still kept virtual school classwork in the same order as it had been in-person.

Throughout the pandemic, experts have leaned heavily on one particular piece of advice to cope with uncertainties around coronavirus-related disruptions: “Create a routine.” You’ve likely heeded this advice to help your family make sense of the upheaval of quarantines and cancelled plans.

Some work; some add to the stress. But understanding why the experts seem to constantly recommend routines—as well as how they work from your brain’s perspective—can help you create routines that work for you and your family.

Shocker: It’s complicated.

Though creating and sticking to a routine seems straightforward, the cognitive process involves many different skills that occur in many different regions of the brain. For instance, the parietal, frontal, and temporal lobes are involved in fostering attention; the prefrontal cortex promotes impulse control and self-regulation. The striatum, deep in the center of the brain in the basal ganglia, is also involved in learning as well as habit-making and breaking.

Researchers are still working to understand just how all of these brain parts work together in pursuit of healthy routine creation. But according to Daryaneh Badaly, a clinical neuropsychologist with the Learning and Development Center of the Child Mind Institute, it’s likely all about learning and remembering patterns as well as feeding reward centers.

Translation: When you do something that works for you and feels good, you’re more likely to do it again. “And if that behavior helps you, if there’s positive reinforcement, you’re more likely to do it again,” Badaly notes. “Then it becomes a repeated behavior, and that becomes a routine.”

Repetition signals importance.

As a sleep researcher at the University of Kentucky, Lauren Whitehurst thinks a lot about circadian rhythms the body’s internal cycle based on day and night. Those external cues strongly influence our internal processes, kickstarting certain hormones and neurotransmitters at certain times throughout a 24-hour period.

Though Whitehurst won’t go so far as to say that sleep and wakefulness is a hardwired biological “routine,” the daily pattern of getting up and going to sleep reinforces its importance to our brains.

Giving the body regular cues signals to the brain that an activity is important. And by doing something repetitively over time, Whitehurst says it begins to trigger an automatic response, which in turns helps the brain prioritize the behavior.

Routines allow the brain to do work elsewhere.

A big benefit of a more automatic response, or making a decision in advance about a course of action, is that the brain has increased mental resources for other tasks. Eliminating the need to constantly make decisions about a particular set of activities reduces “cognitive load,” Badaly says.

Routines never quite reach the level of habit, which can be completely automatic at a neurological level. Habits are often triggered by a cue, like a drive past the grocery that triggers a turn into the parking lot, even though that’s not your destination; routines require conscious intent. (That’s also why it’s harder to get back into school routines after prolonged breaks.) But creating predictability reduces stress, which in turn can give your brain more energy to concentrate on other tasks.

Badaly points to individuals with ADHD as an example: For those with a reduced ability to focus, everything requires more effort to plan and decide how to enact that plan. “For them, a routine is very helpful, since you reduce the effort for what needs to be done over time,” she says.

Stability equals a sense of purpose.

People who tend to engage in routines also rate their lives as more meaningful. Those feelings have been shown to be connected with better overall health, reduced mortality, and improved social appeal.

Here, too, the research is still ongoing. But Samantha Heintzelman, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, says that by providing stability, routines may likely free up the brain from detrimental worries.

“One aspect is a sense of coherence, of having structure and stability in daily life, that seems to help us make sense of the world around us,” Heintzelman says. “That helps us act in the best ways, the most adaptive ways.”

With that peek behind the cognitive curtain, here’s what the experts say about how to help your family set healthy, helpful routines—and when they can be detrimental to your health.

Identify the reason for your routine. Understanding the goal for why your family needs a particular routine is critical for success, Badaly suggests. Knowing the what and why of a task helps identify the elements of a routine needed to make it happen—and make it stick.

Start small. Heintzelman says that the advice to “create a routine” is often misconstrued as a totally new thing that needs to be imposed. Instead, think about activities already present in your life from which routines can naturally grow, whether it’s making time for walks, sitting down for dinner together, or having an afterschool debrief. After all, it’s not the activity that has to be special—it’s the regular attention to the activity itself that provides the sense of stability and well-being.

Sleep absolutely matters. The process of shifting deliberate actions into more-automatic behaviors is energy intensive. (For example, many people set an alarm clock to wake in the morning. But over time that routine might prompt the body to begin a more automatic, less energy-intensive routine of waking without the alarm.) That’s why Whitehurst stresses the value of sleep to help find the energy for sticking to habits, developing routines that work, and rolling with uncertainties.

Evaluate your progress. An overbearing dedication to a routine can crowd out opportunities for new experiences, so Heintzelman suggests checking in with yourself on how well a routine is serving your family’s needs.

“We need novelty to learn and grow as individuals, and routines can help us keep everything else in check so we can explore new things,” Heintzelman says. “But if you’re so fixated on the routine and not pushing your boundaries, that can lead to stagnation.”

Recognize when to try something else. Badaly notes that people tend to give up on routines when they don’t see immediate results. Give things time, but if your efforts to create structure and end up creating more stress, it’s OK to start over.

“Part of interventions that involve creating routines also need a concept of acceptance: saying, ‘I can’t control this,’” Badaly says. “Accept, acknowledge, and focus on what you can change.

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