Either from reading or from personal experience, you’ve probably learned that having a routine is good for your mental health. That’s true, but switching things up has its own benefits. Plus, you can’t improve anything you’re not willing to change.
Here’s what the science has to say about whether you should stick to your daily routine or mix it up.
Sticking to a routine reduces stress, improves the quality of your sleep, and can help you eat better too.
For example, the Journal of Public Health noted that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments advised their citizens to maintain their routines as much as possible. That’s because a solid routine makes people more resilient and less fearful.
That’s right: routines aren’t just good for mental health, they’re good for public health.
That might make you think that sticking to your routine is the best way to keep getting those health benefits. To the contrary, the science journal Nature Neuroscience found that adding variety to your daily routine can boost activity levels in your brain and make you feel happier.
It’s especially beneficial to mix up your environment, even in small ways like by taking a different commute to work. Try sampling a new coffee shop or stopping in a park you normally walk past. Even a few minutes of novelty can boost your mood.
So, if sticking to a routine and switching it up are both good for you, how are you supposed to know what to change and what to keep? Well, the most important elements of a strong routine are regular exercise, enough sleep, and a healthy diet. If you don’t have those basics ironed out, focus on them as your first step.
Here’s what Talkiatry psychiatrist Dr. Austin Lin had to say about each of these routine essentials.
“I recommend about 30 minutes per day of physical activity,” says Dr. Lin. “Routine exercise, whether it’s high or low intensity, benefits your mental health and lowers your risk of depression.”
“We’re gaining a better understanding of how much our diet can affect our mental health. Right now, I recommend plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, and antioxidants. Limit your intake of red meat, refined grains, and sweets. This type of diet helps to decrease your risk of depression.”
“Sleep is very important for your mental health,” Dr. Lin says. “Do your best to adhere to proper sleep hygiene to reduce your risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.”
Sleep hygiene means good sleep habits, like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and keeping screens out of the bedroom.
Once you’re getting enough exercise, sleep, and quality food, you can start experimenting with the rest of your routine to find what works for you, while leaving yourself opportunities to try new things. For example, you could try setting aside 30 minutes every day to study a new skill or topic that interests you.
Whatever you change about your routine, be sure you’re still making time for the things you love most about your life, because that’s what’s going to keep you feeling motivated and fulfilled.
So, now you know that striking the right balance between consistency and experimentation can make for a happy, healthy routine. But even the most carefully crafted routine can’t solve everything.
If you’re tweaking your routine to manage your mental health symptoms, or if a change in your routine is exacerbating your symptoms, consider making some time to see a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist can help you manage symptoms like anxiety or depression, which can be signs of a mental health condition. Take our assessment to see if Talkiatry is the right fit for your needs.
Talkiatry is a mental health practice, and our clinicians review everything we write. However, articles are never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may need mental health help, talk to a psychiatrist. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Austin Lin is a double board-certified adult and addiction psychiatrist who has been in practice for over 9 years. At the center of Dr. Lin’s clinical approach is a strong emphasis on establishing trust and using a collaborative approach to help patients develop an individualized and cohesive plan so that they are able to achieve their goals.
Dr. Lin's practice focuses on medication management. Typically, he offers this in conjunction with supportive therapy, motivational interviewing, and/or cognitive behavioral therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. Occasionally, Dr. Lin may recommend that additional therapy is needed and ask that you bring a therapist into your care team in order to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Lin received his medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. He went on to complete his residency in psychiatry at Harvard South Shore, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, where he served as Chief Resident and earned his 360° Professionalism award. He then had additional training in Addiction Psychiatry through his fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. After completing training, Dr. Lin has worked as an Addiction Psychiatrist and Director of Adult Services in the Trauma and Resilience Center (TRC) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). He specialized in treating patients with a history of depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use disorders.
Dr. Lin has held an academic appointment at UTHealth, and he has spent his professional career supervising and teaching medical students and psychiatry residents.