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Routines: The Rhythms of Living





Routines: The Rhythms of Living .

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The natural world is based upon patterns: seasons that progress one to another, sleeping and waking cycles, and the very inhalation and exhalation of breath in rhythmic succession. Occupational scientists study the “forms and functions of human occupation,” or what, how, and why people engage in their daily activities. Occupational science sheds light on everyday, mundane activity, and in so doing adds to our understanding of health and wellbeing. One area of study has been the patterning of everyday actions into habits (smalls units of action that become automatic, such as the way a person might prepare a bowl of cereal) and routines (larger chains of patterned behavior, such as weekly grocery shopping).

Here is some of the current thinking: Routines and habits give our lives continuity and meaning. When patterns of living are disrupted due to a life crisis, such as loss of a job, an illness, or the arrival of a newborn, individuals feel confused and out of sorts. Those remnants of familiarity that can be retained become precious and comforting. (I think of my sense of relief to find myself home even after a delightful vacation… as much as I love my job or a nice trip, I am always so glad to be back in my familiar spaces, resuming my familiar patterns!)

Having routines allows us to quickly make some decisions and get things done in an efficient manner, without having to consciously think through every choice of action. Routines help to create a sense of predictability and contribute to a sense of “this is who I am…”;  “I am the kind of person who always gives her dog fresh water in the morning”; “My clothes are always washed and ironed for Monday morning.”On the other hand, too rigid a routine can prove constricting.  If I give up an opportunity to spend time with dear friends in order to maintain my schedule of ironing, have I made the best choice?

Everyday routines can be reduced by external or internal circumstances. People who must work multiple jobs, or who have very little money have few options for unscheduled activity. Individuals with mental or physical health problems may limit their activities to better cope with fatigue or overwhelming emotions, and avoid experiences that may trigger symptoms. Reducing one’s activities during times of crisis may itself become habitual, resulting in chronic boredom and frustration, even after the period of illness has ended.

People experience unpleasant chaos if routines are grossly disrupted. Those who endured the sudden loss of homes and daily patterns after the Gulf Coast hurricanes suffered great turmoil because of this. Even when one’s life is less than ideal, the disruption of its everyday rhythms can result in a longing for familiarity.

Ideally, routines can provide the structure around which we create interesting improvisation. Either chaos or rigidity could cause someone to miss out on opportunities to engage in enjoyable and healthy activities.

As an occupational therapist, I know that people thrive when they experience a balance of work, leisure, rest, and rejuvenation within a pattern of flexible routine. What constitutes “balance”? Balance is individually determined; beyond meeting physiological needs for sleep, nutrition, and exercise, the proportion of time ideally spent on “work” and “play” can vary greatly. Besides, each of us defines these types of activity uniquely… preparing a meal may be “work” at one time and “play” at another, for example.

Bottom line:
1) Structure is your friend.

2) A balanced variety of activities is needed.

3) All things in moderation!

What if your life lacks the desired moderation and balance described here? Consider consulting an occupational therapist to help you assess and improve your daily routines and balance of activities.