This is not a blog post about formulating the perfect routine for success, or showing you “a day in the life of…”. This is a blog post about creating a daily routine that is personalised, meaningful and attainable.
Going back one year ago, I had absolutely no good habits what so ever. Seriously, zero daily routines. I felt completely out of control. I had no regular wake-up time, bedtime, meal times, nothing! The only daily habits that stuck were self-destructive ones.
I felt unconfident about myself and my future. I had no predictability or consistency in my life. In an attempt to prove to myself that I could regain control, I decided to do a 3 day fast. Although this is not something I necessary recommend, instead, I recommend developing a plan of healthy and realistic habits.
Developing healthy routines can be really beneficial for autistic people. Particularly during periods of autistic burnout where your executive functioning is greatly affected. An autistic burnout can throw off healthy habits, reduce your ability to make decisions, lower motivation, and make it difficult to carry out daily activities. One of my tools for coming out of an autistic burnout is to work towards my already established daily routine.
I have posted snippets of my daily routines on social media. However, have not emphasised enough how meaningful each part of my daily routine is to my mental health and well being.
I hope this in-depth explanation can help you create your own ideal daily routine. One that is meaningful and can be used as a tool to get you through the most difficult periods of low executive functioning.
Morning Lemon Water Ritual
We all need to drink water to survive, so my first and most important habit is an essential human need that I turned into a daily ritual. The first thing I do each morning is to purposely and meaningfully show how much I care about myself by drinking a glass of water with lemon juice.
The only reason I add lemon juice is to transform the need for hydration into a more enticing practice of self-care. Hydrating my body before it yearns for it each day sets my internal voice to one that is self-loving. Encouraging me to be proactive rather than reactive to the needs of my mind and body.
One low effort ritual means that even on my lowest days when everything seems impossible. I am still able to practice, one single part of my routine. This easily attainable habit has stopped me from reaching rock bottom many times and been a stepping stone in recovering from periods of depression, low executive functioning and autistic burnout.
Immediately after hydrating myself with lemon water, I meditate for 20 minutes. The meditation technique I practice is called transcendental meditation. This technique teaches you to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. Meditation helps me:
- Regulate my mood
- De-excite my mind and body
- Plan and prioritise the day
- Clarifies problems and indecisiveness
- Improves social interaction and behaviour
- Reduces impulsivity, stress and anxiety
Dancing to my favourite energizing music helps lift my energy levels and puts me in a good mood. Dancing every day has positively impacted my social interactions. It makes me feel free and comfortable within my body, as well as less stiff and self-conscious in my appearance and communication with others. I become more socially uplifting and attractive, which helps me reduce social barriers.
Morning Fresh Air Walk
Leaving the house and going outside every day is extremely important for my mental health. Walking in the morning makes me feel grounded, energised and focused for the day.
Even though I may not converse with other humans outside, seeing other people reduces a sense of isolation, creates a sense of belonging within the environment, and makes me feel less dissociated. I prefer going out in the morning, as seeing people out together in the evening makes me feel more lonely. Spending days alone at home without leaving the house causes an overwhelming sense of social anxiety when I do finally go out again.
Additionally, listening to a podcast, audiobook or calling a friend whilst out walking can reduce agoraphobic anxiety. However, a phone conversation is not my preference since it may not be positive and uplifting. Listening to a podcast or audiobook has more certainty in being beneficial as it does not drain my energy or lead to negative thoughts for the rest of the day.
Eating breakfast around the same time every day helps with my circadian rhythm and reduces uncertainty about future meals. Missing breakfast can create a confusing sense of structure for the day. Eating the same breakfast each day reduces the need to make decisions, which can be difficult when your executive functioning is not working so well.
When taking particular medications, it is also necessary to make sure you are eating well. In particular, ADHD medication that may suppress your appetite throughout the day, causing you to forget to eat, and later make you feel on edge, jittery, faint and anxious.
I always struggle to fit in the afternoon meditation, though the second meditation of the day does help significantly. Missing an afternoon meditation means there is more to work through during the following morning meditation.
Like breakfast, dinner can also play a vital role in our circadian rhythm – helping us to regulate a consistent bedtime. Dinner time is also my favourite time of the day. It marks the end of the day when I finally allow myself to relax and wind down. I usually create a meal schedule or eat the same meal each day to help reduce indecisiveness and the need to make decisions. Eating the same meal everyday for dinner may not be for everyone. So, rotating the meal every few days or weeks has really helped me with issues around decision making and meals.
Evening Clean Up
Cleaning up the kitchen, work area and dirty washing before bed allows me to wake up without being surrounded by chaos. Starting the following day with a clear head and without obstacles in my environment makes me more focused on the day’s tasks. Cleaning up regularly each day reduces negative thoughts that may come with the overwhelmingness of an environment that is out of control.
Every day at 9 pm, Alexa says “Tiffany, let’s get ready for bed and wind down”. I’m reminded to get ready for bed, brush my teeth and finish cleaning up for the evening so that I can get to bed for 10pm.
Following an evening routine sets me up for getting to bed early and having a good nights sleep. Without these steps in place, I get confused about the actions I need to go through before sleeping and likely to stay up too late.
By default, I would be considered as a night owl. However, I found being an early bird greatly benefits my mental well being. The evening hours are when I feel most depressed and lonely. So, sleeping during these hours reduces negative thoughts. Waking up early also makes me feel more confident, less anxious and puts me in a better mood for the day.
I also found having an inconsistent bedtime leads to an increased time it takes me to fall asleep. Whereas, consistently getting to bed around the same time each night, soon enabled me to fall asleep in as little as 10 minutes. And, I have suffered from severe insomnia my whole life.
Positively Limiting Bad habits
Part of my optimal daily routine involves limiting certain activities together with adding healthy habits. I looked at the patterns of when during the day I usually felt most anxious, depressed or lonely, and wrote down what might be directly initiating these feelings.
I noticed that walking in the evening made me feel more lonely. I felt more depressed and dissociated when listening to music after 6pm (unless it was jazz or classical music). I became anxious and hyperactive after evening phone conversations with friends. Scrolling through social media in the morning slowed me down and made me less focused during the day.
These are essentially my bad habits. Addressing these habits will reduce negative thought cycles accumulating each day. Examples of my positive limitations are:
- Taking a walk in the morning instead of in the evening, to reduce loneliness.
- Limiting social interactions and phone calls in the evening, to reduce overexcite of my mind and body, making it difficult to fall asleep.
- Stop listening to music after 6pm to stop a pattern of regular negative deep thinking.
- Allow yourself to look at social media after 3pm, but not before so you keep focused on the day’s tasks.
- Restrict the use of technology in bed and late in the evening. I make sure my laptop stays in my work area and does not come to bed at night with me.
- If you smoke, limit the number of cigarettes per day to a maximum of 5; and stop smoking after a set time of the day.
- Drinking a maximum of 2 coffees a day and before 3 pm if you know from experience that it causes anxiety or affects sleep quality.
Limit bad habits, without making them entirely forbidden or to the point of being unattainable. Limitations should benefit you, make you feel better, and not become a form of obsessive self-control, discipline, or self-hatred. Limiting rather than forbidding reduces thoughts of low self-esteem, and leaves room for you to celebrate your own achievements.
Establishing a specific daily routine whilst you feel more capable allows you to try and test a daily routine that works best for you. Once you know your daily routine works well for you and makes you feel great, you can start relying on it during more difficult periods. It gives me reassurance and hopes that I am capable of getting back on track and will soon have good days where I feel myself again, one step at a time.
It’s often thought that autistics’ characteristic of needing routine is a negative one. However, this characteristic can be used as a positive tool to help us when our executive functioning is not working well.
Some days I can easily follow my routine without any effort, and other days I find it impossible. Regardless of how I feel each day, my routine always gives me a guide to work towards. I try to follow my optimal routine as much as possible without pressure and self-loathing. On my lowest days, the only part of my routine I manage is my lemon water ritual, and I celebrate myself for this.