Vaccination rates are up around the US. Even new hot spots around the globe are getting help to control infections. Ready or not, the world is beginning to open up. It’s exciting. And anxiety-inducing.
Even setting aside pandemic risks, the return to all the obligations and invitations we’ve said no to for more than a year can be stressful. An unlikely tool can help: the daily rhythm.
The daily rhythm is a twist on a traditional schedule that’s popular in Montessori and Waldorf education circles. “Rather than focusing on what time things happen, we’re focusing on the general flow of what happens next,” says Theresa, a Seattle-area mother of two who is AMS-certified in infant and toddler Montessori education and is the creator behind Montessori in Real Life. (Theresa doesn’t share her last name publicly to protect her children’s privacy.)
For kids, the benefits are clear. “Young children really thrive on routines and set ways to do things,” says Angeline Lillard, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.
But Theresa says it’s not only her kids who benefit from a daily rhythm—it’s been good for everyone in her family, especially during the pandemic.
I’ve found this to be true too. While I initially set up a daily rhythm for my kids, I decided to set one up for myself after I slammed into my own pandemic wall this winter. Among other problems, my normally robust step count had fallen into the quadruple digits, and I couldn’t remember how I used to fit in long daily walks, a cornerstone of my own self-care. Once I established my daily rhythm, it all became clear. The calming effect was nearly instantaneous. Like those mini Montessorians and wee Waldorfians, having a daily rhythm helped my world to feel right-sized again.
Why Routines Feel Good
Why do routines, like daily rhythms, feel so good? There are many factors at play. One is our circadian clocks (also known as circadian rhythms). Your circadian clock regulates a number of functions in your body, most famously the sleep-wake cycle. Researchers have found that circadian rhythm disruptions are connected to mood problems.
Dilara Yuksel, a postdoctoral fellow at SRI International’s Human Sleep Research Program, is one of these researchers. During the pandemic, she and her team surveyed nearly 6,882 adults in 59 countries about their sleep habits and changes in mood. They found that stricter quarantine and pandemic-related changes were associated with worse sleep health. In turn, “we found that poor sleep health was associated with more psychological distress,” Yuksel says.
While Yuksel’s study didn’t address causality, findings like these help explain why routines were a key recommendation in the World Health Organization’s #HealthyAtHome campaign to encourage well-being during the pandemic. And why in early 2020, as communities began to quarantine due to Covid-19, so many experts urged us to keep to a routine to support our mental health.
During times of massive and catastrophic change, like the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, routines can be especially beneficial. Now that many of us are beginning to come out of the pandemic, does that mean we can leave routines behind, like so many sourdough starters?
Not so fast. Coming out of the pandemic is a big transition too. Even good change can be stressful, even traumatic. Navigating a reopening world with our mental health intact requires us to strike a balance between stability and flexibility, something a daily rhythm is well suited for.
How to Figure Out Your Daily Rhythm
The process of figuring out your daily rhythm can seem like a black box. But it doesn’t have to be mysterious. In fact, it's simpler than you think.
- Notice what you’re already doing. Theresa suggests making a list of what you do from the beginning of the day to the end of the day over a series of days. “Then, after three days, look back and see the patterns,” she says. “Whether or not you think you're following a rhythm or routine, you probably are.” When I tried this, I noticed that, even though I liked the idea of exercising in the morning, in reality I rarely had the momentum to get out the door first thing and, instead, naturally felt a pull to move my body just before dinnertime.
- Work backward from the basics. When establishing your daily rhythm, Theresa says you can start with what you need to do in a day and your non-negotiables, which for her family includes regular bedtime. In Yuksel’s opinion, going to bed and waking up at consistent times (within an hour is fine, she says) should be a key component of your routine, in addition to healthy eating and physical activity.
- Include what’s important. Once you have your basics covered, make sure to dedicate space in your daily rhythm for what’s most important to you. For Theresa, time outdoors and cooking together are important, so she makes sure to include them in her family’s daily rhythm, “while still leaving spaces for blanks.”
- Make sure to edit. Once you create your daily rhythm calendar, don’t think of it as set in stone. “I think sometimes people set routines and forget that we can make edits,” says Gary Dillon, a New York state licensed psychologist and owner of Ally Psychological Therapy.
How to Get Started
Although both Montessori and Waldorf education systems are famously low-tech, I opted to embrace technology when I adapted the daily rhythm.
Here’s how I did it: I used my calendar app to create a daily rhythm calendar. I plotted my ideal daily routine on one recurring calendar and overlaid corresponding reentry activities on another, giving myself a smooth runway to the new normal. You can do it this too.
Create a Separate Calendar
First, create a separate daily rhythm calendar in your preferred calendar app. To make the calendar maximally useful, make sure you’re creating it in an app that’s easy for you to access across devices, like iCloud Calendar or Google Calendar.
For iCloud Calendar, you can create a new calendar right on your iPhone. Navigate to the default calendar app. On the bottom center of your screen, tap Calendar. Next, click Add Calendar on the bottom left. Give your calendar a unique name (like “Daily Rhythm”) and color (mine is yellow, which creates a nice contrast with my primary calendar). Click Done.
If you’re using Google Calendar, you’ll need to go on a computer to create a new calendar. In your browser, type calendar.google.com. On the left side of your screen, under the month at a glance, you’ll see Other Calendars. Click the + (plus) icon just to the right to add other calendars. From there, you’ll be prompted to name it. Then you can click the Create Calendar button. Your new calendar will appear under My Calendars on the left side of your screen. You can click the three dots to see options for your new calendar, including color.
Add Recurring Events
Next, populate your daily rhythm calendar with the parts of the daily rhythm you identified earlier as recurring events. You may decide to have some events repeat every day (like walking for me) or only on certain days of the week. (My husband, kids, and I do a Family Funday on Sunday mornings.) To mimic the flow of the daily rhythm in Montessori and Waldorf and avoid drilling down to the minute, concentrate on bigger chunks of time.
To create a recurring event when you’re in iCloud Calendar, click the + (plus) icon in the upper right corner. Add a title and starting and ending times. Right under these, in the middle of your screen, you’ll see Repeat. The default setting is never. Click on it to select Every Day, Every Week, or whatever is appropriate. Click Add.
To create recurring events on Google Calendar, the process is similar. Create a new event like you usually would (both computer and mobile device work). After you add the title and select the time, you can click Does Not Repeat to see the repeat options, which include every day, every week, and custom. Click Save.
Put It Into Action
While creating a daily rhythm calendar felt good to me right away, the real magic came when I began to use it as a tool to make better decisions about scheduling events on my personal and work calendars.
- Daily rhythm as a filter. When I got an invitation for a late-night writing class from a writer I admire, part of me wanted to say yes because I love her teaching. It was easy to talk myself into the idea that it wasn’t that late. But when I looked at my calendar app and saw just how much past my bedtime the class was, I knew saying no this time was the wiser choice.
- Daily rhythm as a template. A vaccinated friend recently pinged me for a get-together. When I looked at my calendar app, I could see my daily rhythm calendar includes movement before dinner prep. So I invited my friend to join me on an afternoon walk. I got to see my friend and keep the flow of my day. Win-win.
When I told Dillon about this calendar hack, he offered a word of caution. While routines can be helpful, it is easy to fall into the trap of being “critical and judgmental of ourselves if we’re unable to maintain a routine.” Especially now, he says, “we have to be self-compassionate, understanding, and accepting with ourselves in all areas, including routine.”
I kept Dillon’s advice in mind when another friend asked if I’d come by his lawn for a socially distanced happy hour last week. When I looked at my daily rhythm calendar, I saw that the invitation conflicted with my daily movement and dinner times. I also hadn’t seen my friend in person in more than 13 months. I texted back: Yes.