Why a routine is so important when you work from home

I’m one of the 5 am club members. Yep. I willingly get up at 5 am, that’s two and a half hours before I have to be at work. (Or two hour and twenty-nine minutes before I leave for work when I am working from home.) There are entire books dedicated to the value of being an early riser. In theory it makes you more productive because you get so much done. (I’m going to say that doesn’t hold true for me – mostly because I don’t like mornings and really struggle to be awake, never mind productive. Productivity at 5 am is not my goal.)

Yet I get up at crazy-early-o’clock. Why?

Structure is the foundation of security.

Charlotte Millington

Before COVID, I liked the quiet time. As I have said before, I am an ambivert. That means I need some quiet time to recharge. I get up early so I can drink my coffee in solitude. Every so often I have a health goal, like, when I’m preparing for a pageant or my doctor has just read me the riot act on my cholesterol, then I use my early hours to go work out at the mostly empty gym at work. (Obviously that’s not happening during right now.) Sometimes I use the 5 am start time to sit on the couch and watch funny YouTube videos. Sometimes I use it to read. Always, I am up at very, very early.

Well. Except during COVID. I’ve been sleeping in until 6 am. Some days I even lay in bed until 6:15. It’s not a big deal, right? Wrong. It turns out breaking your routine during COVID is really bad for your mental health.

I work in healthcare. That means I am still working. Two weeks ago when my asthma got bad, I moved to work from home temporarily. That’s when I started sleeping in. Recently, I realized my reflection is changing a bit. It’s not changing for the better, either. I’m getting puffy. I have dark circles under my eyes. I look like I’m not taking care of myself. When I stopped to think about it, I realized what really changed is my morning routine because everything starts with my morning routine. I’m not taking time to myself. That means I am going from sleep to work to activism work in a straight line. There’s no down time.

Journal entry for Friday, May 8, 2020: This morning I set my alarm for 5 am. As always, my entire body rebelled against this intrusion into my sleep. I am not a morning person. I know my own limitations, so in an almost single motion, I got dressed, drank some water, and left the house wearing headphones. I had a nice walk and felt better for it. It was the right thing to do.

So why then, is a routine so important when you work from home?

Structure is the foundation of security. Anyone with little kids knows this. Bath. Teeth. Story. Bed. We all know that one and we use it because it works. Yes, you’ll hear the finest negotiation skills in the industry appear when there is the chance of just one more story. It doesn’t change that this is a really important routine because it guarantees bedtime. As adults, we still need our structure, too. It allows us to feel in control. It gives us the ability to take a massive world issue, like COVID, and still feel like we own enough pieces of our lives to keep it together.

Coffee, cameras, and a gymnastics ribbon. That's how my office looks.
Coffee, cameras, and a gymnastics ribbon. That’s how my office looks.

Think about what were the most upsetting things about COVID and self-isolation. Now break them down into things you can control and things you can’t. You can’t control if you have a job to go to. You can control whether or not you get up at 5 am. You can’t control if you will be able to buy pasta. You can control whether or not you eat dinner at 6 pm. The things you can control are the places where the glue of your life exist. This is where routine gives you control in a situation that feels out of control.

Consider your routine to be the difference between having a situation threaten to drown you in panic versus having a situation get broken down into manageable chunks. If you are working from home, possibly for the first time, this is even more critical.

We know when our work day is done because we walk out the door to our building, get into the car that we backed into the stall in the morning (thank you for that forward thinking), and drive away from the site. Our day truly transitions when we get in the door, change from our stiff work clothes, and take a breath.

So how do you know when your work day is done when your laptop is on the coffee table with Netflix in front of you and you are still in your PJs? What’s the difference between work and home? Can you ever really relax when you just float from one day to the next? Are you ever really productive?

The answer is no. You need to have a routine that clearly defines your role. When you are working, have a work routine. When you are done working, have a “finished work” routine. Close the door on your office. Put the laptop back in your bag and off the kitchen table. Go for a walk to shake off the day. Hug your kids. Practice your baton twirling. (OK – that one is mine.)

The new normal we are living with isn’t going away any time soon. It is up to you to protect your mental health. A routine will help you with that. Whether you get up at 5 am or you just reset to whatever your normal wake up time was before COVID, find your routine and maintain control over the things you can.

Want to know what I’m reading? Click to see my suggested productivity books.