The importance of routines and habits during times of crisis


Over the last four weeks, I have created and delivered several webinars for my clients’ employees and for small business managers and directors on "How to transition to working at home and stay sane!". I specifically used the phrase "working at home" rather than "working from home" as I see a significant difference between the two. When people normally work at an office, and have a "working from home" day, by default it is not therefore a normal occurrence. What we are doing today is, for now at least, a "new normal" and for some it may continue to be that way into the future.

During these last four weeks, as I listen to clients, friends and colleagues talking about how they are managing at this time, I have reflected on what has changed for me. My normal life is "working at home", and has been for about twenty years, and yet I noticed there have been some changes. In putting together the webinar and drawing on both my experience and research, one of the big things to come out is the need to create new routines. I noticed how those who had not created new routines for working at home, were finding it more challenging than those that had. Building new habits and routines is something that can reduce stress and anxiety by making things feel "normal", even if it is the "new normal".

In essence, routines are a series of habits. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear refers to routines as "stacked habits" – which I happen to agree with. There are many definitions of the word "habit". A simple one that resonates with me is:

"Habits are things that create joy and/or comfort, and which are sustainable over time."

So why do we need habits?

Not only do habits give us joy or comfort, they often make our lives easier and simpler. Think of your morning routine: get up, make your bed, have breakfast, shower, get dressed, go to work, catch the 8:15 train, walk to the office, get a coffee, sit down and start work. How does it feel when, on a "normal" weekday, something interrupts that sequence? Perhaps the train is late, or someone stops you on the way to the office, or the coffee queue is longer than normal? Today, our normal daily habits have been interrupted, causing discomfort. This also holds true for those of us who have a home office. Our habits are being interrupted by everyone being at home. Until we reset and create new habits, things don’t feel smooth, causing stress. Which begs the question:

How do we start new habits and why?

Often, the "why" is the easiest.

  • What’s the motivation?

  • What will it give you?

  • What might become easier?

I am an endurance walker. Walking regularly is very important to me in order to maintain my fitness for my endurance walks each year. When I don't get to walk, I miss it. I usually complete long walks on weekends (14-17 miles at a time) and this has become less feasible recently: my habit has been disrupted. I've had to create a new habit: I now complete my exercise in shorter bursts early each morning. In this way, I don't have to dodge too many people while fulfilling my need and desire to walk.

The "How" might be more difficult. How do you start a new habit? A simple answer is: one day at a time. Here are some thoughts to get you going:

  1. Start with something that you can’t say "no" to.

  2. Make it easy.

  3. Break it down. If you want to write a novel, commit to one paragraph (or even one sentence!) a day. If you want to learn to meditate, commit to one minute a day. Then add one more minute each day. The Couch to 5k App uses this theory.

  4. Remove any barriers that might stop you. I got my walking clothes out and ready the night before, so it was easy for me to get dressed and out the door. Making a cup of tea before going out would potentially stop me, so I drink a glass of water and just go (and save the tea for when I get back!).

Put simply, think about and understand the barriers which inhibit you from starting, remove the barriers and then focus on the motivation.

What are some strategies to employ, which may sustain great habits?

  1. Set schedules not deadlines (examples: 5 times a week, not every day)

  2. Have a ‘never miss twice’ motto – its ok to miss once

  3. Focus on what it will give you, not the performance

  4. Create stacked habits (lots of incremental habits) to make a sustainable routine

  5. Have the mindset needed for the habit and the habit of creating that mindset


In Tracy’s recent post, Business as Unusual, she refers to rituals and routines. One of these is getting dressed for work. This is a great example of a habit that creates the mindset that this is work.

I read in The Times on April 25 that there is "... plenty of research to show when routines are broken as they are now, that this is the best time to form new and lasting habits". Perhaps a new habit could be one of those things you meant to start doing and never got around to? Which habits that you have started now, will you continue with once we move into the new normal or our new future ways of living? If you haven’t yet created new routines or habits, what would you like to start in order make your life easier, more joyful and more comfortable?

In my case, for ages I have been saying that I wanted to go for a walk in the mornings before starting work. It never happened … until now. Now I get up and out at 7 a.m. for a 3.5-mile walk. Initially, the incentive was to avoid other people outside. But what I began to notice was how much better I felt when I did it. Every week for the last four weeks, I have walked early in the morning for at least five days out of the week. (It’s okay to have a day off!) This is something that I will continue even after this time. For my final comment, I originally wrote: "once we are through this…", however, I have reframed that sentence now to: "I am going to be walking at 7 a.m,. five times a week". This is my new habit – and I love it!

As you read this and think about your own habits and routines, how might this support your clients in working at home and staying sane?

Hilary Oliver is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.


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