• Routines can support cognitive functions, boost your health and provide social opportunities, an occupational therapist says.
  • Regular work processes allow employees to spend less cognitive energy on recurring tasks, helping them to focus on more complex assignments.
  • Small ways to build a routine include waking up at the same time every day, using a timer to organize your activities or taking up hobbies.

The word “routine” can bring to mind words like mundane or ordinary. During the pandemic’s disruptions to daily life, routines may have felt boring and restrictive. However, as an occupational therapist and researcher of the impact of activity and participation on mental health, I know that routines can be powerful tools. They can support cognitive function, boost health and provide meaningful activities and social opportunities.

Early in the pandemic, researchers pointed to the value of daily routines to cope with change. As the two-year anniversary of the pandemic coincides with the relaxation of public health measures across the country, reflecting on routines and their value is useful when moving toward a “new normal.”

Routines support cognitive function

First, having a daily routine and regular habits supports cognitive function and may even free people up to be more creative. Research has found that having regular work processes allows workers to spend less cognitive energy on recurring tasks, which can support focus and creativity for more complex tasks.

Think of typical morning routines that existed before the pandemic: helping family members get on their way, taking a usual route to work, grabbing a warm beverage along the way, saying hello to coworkers, flipping on a computer or opening a calendar. Having habits like these can set the stage for a productive work day.

Someone carrying takeaway coffees.
Simple habits, such as getting a takeaway coffee, can set the stage for a productive day
Image: UNSPLASH/Tamara Bellis

A review of the daily rituals of influential artists found that many artists have well defined work routines which may support their creativity rather than constrain it. Memory research shows that regular routines and habits can support older adults to function better in their home environments.

If taking medications at the same time and putting the keys in their spot is part of a daily routine, less energy will be spent looking for lost objects and worrying about maintaining one’s health, freeing up time for other things people want to do in their day.

Routines promote health

Regular routines can also help people feel like they have control over their daily lives and that they can take positive steps in managing their health. For example, making time for exercise within routines can help meet recommended daily activity levels. This is especially relevant now, since research shows that people who reduced their activity levels during the pandemic could experience enduring health effects.

Silhouette of someone doing yoga.
'Making time for exercise within routines can help meet recommended daily activity levels.
Image: UNSPLASH/kike vega

As people increase activity outside their homes, they might consider taking transit to school and work, returning to organized fitness activities and the gym and opportunities to include movement throughout the day. Other ways that routines can support health include regular meal preparation and getting enough sleep, activities that seem simple but can pay dividends in healthy aging over a lifetime.

Routines provide meaning

Regular routines can also go beyond the streamlining of daily tasks and add some spice to life. Evidence indicates that a health-promoting activity like walking can offer chances to enjoy nature, explore new places and socialize.

Research on the concept of flow, a state of full absorption in the present moment, shows that activities like sports, games, fine arts and music can be fulfilling and reinforcing. Regular participation in meaningful and engaging activities can also contribute positively to mental health.

Small steps to build routines

An hourglass.
Try using a timer to organize your schedule.
Image: UNSPLASH/Alexandar Todov

If you think your daily routines could use a tune up, consider some small steps:

  • Use a day-timer or smart phone app to organize your activities and put the things you want to do in your schedule.
  • Choose a regular time to wake up and to go to bed and try to stick to it most days of the week.
  • Make physical activity manageable with neighbourhood walks or bike rides a few times a week.
  • Start a new hobby or re-engage in a past one, like playing sports or games, making arts and crafts, playing an instrument or singing.
  • Keep an eye out for meaningful activities that may be popping back up in your community, like a book club at the library or a social walking group.

Routines have the power to help us manage our health and our work, home and community lives. Two years after the pandemic changed everyone’s lives, people now have an opportunity to consider the routines they want to keep and the meaningful things they need in their daily lives to stay productive, happy and healthy.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.