Routine can bring positive changes for body and mind, which is exactly what our writer found when she took inspiration from a new self-help book and started journaling for six minutes twice a day
The word ‘routine’ might sound a lot like ‘rut’ in two syllables — boring, repetitive, samey, dull — but the reality is that our bodies love a bit of routine. Particularly in the morning, where established habits and rhythms can help set us up for the day, aiding mood, sleep, and overall well-being. Ayurveda — Sanskrit for ‘life science’ and developed in India around 3,000 years ago in conjunction with yoga — has always known the benefits of a repeated morning ritual.
Pre-pandemic, a morning routine for us may have involved alarm clocks, caffeine, processed foods, shoe-horning kids into clothes and cars, rushing, stressing, traffic — all before a day’s paid work. Even if there are no kids involved, this is not an ideal way to start your day. And then lockdown happened, and the grind of a stressy start was replaced with structureless nothingness, which might have felt like a novelty initially, until it didn’t.
While we make much of evening routines — winding down, avoiding screens and stimulants before bed, sleep hygiene — mornings tend to get overlooked, yet how we start our day is paramount, whoever we are and however we live. The benefits of grounding ourselves before we engage with the world affect how our days goes, as well as our longer term well-being.
The Ayurvedic practice of dinacharya — ‘daily routine’ — is the exact opposite of what we do in the West, with our email checks while still in bed and our processed cereal bars eaten on the hoof; it is a long, slow, almost ritualised start, without interruptions or distractions, involving self care for the body and mind. It might sound unattainable, but it can be adapted to even the most full-on life, or the most structureless. You just need to make it a habit.
But first, how do you go about changing ingrained habits so that you can create new ones? Apart from getting up earlier to make space for a new routine, how do you implement change from rushy-stressy to slow and present?
Start with your head. An excellent tool is The 6-Minute Diary, created by 33-year-old German entrepreneur Dominik Spenst. Like the rest of us, he had always been focused on external attainment — what he calls the “ifs” of life (if I come top of my class, if I earn loads of money, if I get a big house etc) — when a horrific motorbike accident in Cambodia left him bleeding out on a remote roadside. Rescued by a passing tourist, he spent four months in hospital, had 12 operations, and thought he might lose his leg.
But during all of this, something odd happened. Instead of sinking into despair, he spent the thousands of hospital hours reflecting on how “real success is inner success”. He disassociated from his outer circumstances and realised that sustained daily gratitude and self-reflection were key to living happily in the present, rather than always postponing happiness by having one’s thinking controlled by the “ifs”.
Spenst recovered and The 6-Minute Diary was born, its core purpose to create inner change. “Small habits have a huge impact,” he writes. Positive psychology, creating new habits, and self-reflection are the fundamentals of the diary, which is exactly as it sounds — three minutes in the morning to note down three things you’re grateful for (it can be anything – your duvet, a cup of tea, being alive), and three minutes in the evening to reflect on “great things I experienced today”. Again, it can be tiny things — the whole point is to retrain your brain towards the positive here and now.
Creating new habits, says Spenst, removes decision fatigue and the need for willpower, which is finite and fades as the day goes on. He says: “40% of our behaviour is repeated every day, purely out of habit.” It takes about 66 days for a new habit to become part of us.
“In the beginning, the effects are fractional, but given time, they become radical,” he writes. Currently, there are about 700,000 people worldwide using the diary as a daily tool. To see how it works, I used The 6-Minute Diary for a month before writing this.
You need to do it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It becomes a habit very quickly, and because it’s brief and easy, the habit of noticing the good stuff and reflecting on how you are becomes something small but great to bookend your day. And as it’s old-school pen and paper, there is no space for falling down distracting digital rabbit holes.
So back to dinacharya, or the physical side of a positive morning routine. “Studies have shown that people who have a daily routine sleep better. People who don’t sleep well are more prone to mental health issues,” says psychotherapist Philippa Vafadari, who encourages clients to incorporate dinacharya-type structure and routine into their mornings as part of their therapeutic work with her.
“A client of mine was in a very bad place at the beginning of lockdown. They have gradually managed to establish a daily routine which includes journalling, meditation, weights exercises and walking. They describe feeling optimistic for the future and feel a great sense of pride in what they have achieved. It wasn’t learning a new language or how to tap dance. Just exercise, harnessing the mind and reflecting on their emotional life.”
This is backed up by a study reported in The Lancet, which took place in the UK over four years, involving 91,105 people aged between 37 and 73. It found that disrupted sleep and circadian routine increased the risk of depression, bipolar disorder, mood instability, neuroticism, loneliness, lower happiness rates, lower health satisfaction and — to use the technical term — generalised feelings of bleurgh: “Disruption of sleep and circadian rhythmicity is a core feature of mood disorders and might be associated with increased susceptibility to such disorders.”
Dinacharya involves getting up early — in India, practitioners get up before sunrise (impractical in Europe, where sunrise times vary too much, imagine trying to adhere to this in Scandinavian summertime). The point is to get up a few hours earlier than you usually do, which will automatically have a positive effect on your sleep and make you want to go to bed earlier. The whole point of dinacharya is to create and maintain balance in the body; it works as a preventative.
“Ayurveda aims to remove the causative factors of imbalance in the body (disease) and return the body and mind to balance (homeostasis),” says Philippa. “It does this in a number of ways, but one of the main perceived causes of being out of balance and unwell is a poor daily routine. Dinacharya is the optimal daily routine. It effectively induces and maintains homeostasis.”
The classic routine is quite long and prescriptive — you may not want or have time to incorporate everything, but here are some basic guidelines. Give it a go for a month and feel the difference.
Get up early — 5.30am to 6.30am — so that you have time to yourself, alone and undisturbed. You’re in good company — Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Anna Wintour, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Apple’s Tim Cook, Disney’s Bob Iger and quite a few successful people all rise at or before the crack of dawn. Drink a large glass of warm water with lemon. This kickstarts the metabolism.
Wash face, clear sinuses, scrape tongue, brush teeth. Tongue scrapers are easy to use and sold in places like Boots. Have a poo. It really is this basic. The lemon water should aid this, but it may take a while to regulate your body. Don’t worry if you don’t. Practice 10-20 minutes of yoga (or longer if you can). Whether you’re a regular yogi/yogini, or are just starting out with Adriene on YouTube, it’s all good. Sun salutations are an ideal place to start.
Practice pranayama (breath work) for another 5 1-10 minutes. This can be simple 1:1 ratio breath counting — breathe in for four counts, breathe out for four counts — or alternate nostril breathing if you’re more experienced. Give yourself 5-10 of abhyanga, or self-massage. We associate massage as something passive which we receive from others, but abhyanga — literally ‘love with oils’ — has the same effect on the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which encourages the body to rest, heal and digest. Our body can’t tell the difference if it is being massaged by our own hands or someone else’s.
Self-massage lowers stress hormones, helps adrenal function and increases oxytocin levels, and also helps regulate the immune function. Using warmed coconut or sesame oil, massage upwards from ankles and wrists towards the heart, and massage the stomach gently in a clockwise direction to aid digestion. Practice meditation for 5-15 minutes. Everyone freaks out about meditation, but just use an app like Headspace or Calm if you’re a beginner. Take a warm shower followed by a healthy balanced breakfast and you’re good to go.