Have you had to adjust your routines during the COVID-19 pandemic? How is it going? I’m surprisingly calm, yet also completely discombobulated—a strange combination. To handle this new reality, I’ve had to make significant changes in my daily routines.

I’ve been in a strange state during this pandemic. I can be very present when I’m with someone one-on-one. The rest of the time, I’m all over the map. I’ve tried to call someone by typing their number into my smartphone calculator; I spent 15 minutes trying to find my glasses; I showed up a full day early for an appointment. And so on.

I know from experience that this scattered behavior means my mental hard drive is overloaded. So much is processing in the background of my mind that everything else gets slowed down as a result. Writing takes longer. So does administrative work. And my efforts at chores are comical: on my way to do one thing, I get distracted and end up doing another instead.

I’ve tried buckling down on myself, but it’s like trying to pick up a watermelon seed. The harder I push, the more my goals squeegee away. I’ve finally gotten that there’s only one way through this: accepting “what is.” I need more time than usual to accomplish tasks, and more “fudge time” between activities. And I need a sense of humor about my confounding inability to get things done, even with all these adjustments in place.  My mental bandwidth just ain’t what is usually is.

Finding the right kind of structure—under stress

Part of me wishes I could let go of any schedule and just do whatever I can, whenever I can. But I know myself. Without structure, I get anxious. But on top of that, I need to work, not only to earn money but because the sense of meaning and accomplishment I get from work is a powerful vaccine against fear.

So I’ve been softening my daily routine to be less like an oak tree and more like a reed. A reed can bend to the ground when the wind blows hard, then spring back up again. In that spirit, I’m keeping some structure—but making it flexible.

For example, in “normal” times, I’d get up as soon as I heard my alarm ring. Now I stay warm under the covers for as long as an hour. I didn’t plan this: I just couldn’t get myself out of bed. For the first week, I struggled not to call myself lazy. But it dawned on me yesterday that by staying in bed, I’m giving myself much-needed time to rest and reflect.

Now, I just add this extra time when I set my alarm, and I love it. Thoughts and ideas float past. Solutions float up for problems. I get up feeling deeply relaxed, and I’m less scattered during the day.

Routines can inoculate you against stress

I got this idea of flexible routines from my writing coach, Daphne Gray-Grant, who inspired me to incorporate more flexibility in my routines during this stressful time. I’ve been working on a book since January, and just after the pandemic became serious, I had written Daphne, wondering how to honor my writing schedule while facing the reality that I’ve become exhausted over the past few months. She wrote back,

We are living in an extraordinary time and I think being flexible is extremely important. I know you are really excited about your book and it’s important to acknowledge that while still preserving your energy and your sanity!

Daphne and her husband unschooled their kids—triplets, no less—so she is no stranger to overwhelm and its essential antidote, flexibility. Her blog post, Stop Trying to Be Productive During the Pandemic, helped me readjust my perspective about the pandemic and how to approach it.

Accepting “what is” by assessing your responsibilities

If you have young kids—or adult kids—at home; if you are suddenly working from home, or not working at all; or if you are simply more scattered than usual, as I am, then creating flexible routines can help keep you sane. You may decide to lower your expectations in some areas of your life, while stubbornly maintaining your usual standards in other areas.

I suggest sitting down with a piece of paper and a pen. Take a deep breath, then begin to write down everything you have to do.

Next, go through your list and circle the things you truly HAVE to do, like feed yourself, the kids, and the pets, get some work done, and get some sleep. Include activities that will prevent you from spiraling down into stress: exercise is particularly effective at preventing stress and reduce anxiety.

Finally, consider your “have to” list. What activities are non-negotiable for you? How can you best fit these items into your day? If there’s more on the list than you can possibly fit in, ponder what might happen if these things did not get done, or got done less often or less thoroughly. In a time like this, something has to go…and you don’t want that “something” to be your sanity.

How to adjust your routines: three principles

I learned about the principles of frequency, duration, and intensity from an article in the paper years ago by a personal trainer. At the time, I paid particular attention to his approach because of a recent, excruciating attempt to join the Jane Fonda aerobics craze. Being a twenty-something, I dove directly into a 90-minute, high-impact class—a high duration, high-intensity activity if there ever was one. My calves were so sore afterwards that I hobbled around like a 90-year-old man for a week.

By contrast, the personal trainer in the article recommended a more prudent approach: increasing the frequency of an activity first, then the duration of the workouts, then the intensity. For example, if you were currently walking a mile three times a week and wanted to train for a 5K run, he’d suggest you increase your walks to six days a week, then increase your distance to two miles, then three. Only then would he suggest adding intervals of jogging to your walks.

I’ve found it helpful to consider these principles of frequency, duration, and intensity as I’ve adjusted my routines for these unprecedented times. For example, at Daphne’s suggestion, I drastically cut the duration my daily book writing time, from 75 minutes a day to five minutes. But I kept the frequency the same. By writing even a tiny bit each weekday, I stayed connected with the book. As I’ve caught up on sleep, I’ve gradually increased the duration of my writing sessions.

On the other hand, I’ve maintained both the frequency and the duration of some of my activities, like my restorative rests. I rest in a modified “legs up the wall” yoga after lunch each day 15 minutes, while applying a compress to my eyes (I have a dry-eye condition). I’ve tried skipping this or shortening it, but my eyes suffer noticeably. Worse, I’m less present for my afternoon sessions. So these rests are on my “non-negotiable” list.

With my Sunday yoga practice, I’ve left the frequency and the duration alone. I didn’t want to skip or shorten this long yoga session, because it grounds me so solidly for the week ahead. But if I’m tired, I simply adjust the intensity. I do fewer standing poses. I rest in child’s pose in between rather than “resting” in downward dog. And I double the length of my savasana, or “corpse pose”— an apt choice if I’m feeling dead tired.

Building our strength in the face of fear

In the weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic mushroomed, each of us is coping in our own way. Though our individual circumstances may vary wildly, we have one thing in common: our uncertainty about the future. If we allow our deep-processing, highly sensitive brains to spin into overdrive, we can easily exhaust ourselves and the people around us.

It is challenging to stay calm when there is such strong current of fear in the air. But think of it this way: the more powerful the current, the more quickly we can build our strength by swimming against it. Later, when our lives settle into a “new normal,” we will be unfazed by daily events that would have rattled us in the past.

More sleep, early-morning mental “float time,” daily walks during which I process and think through things, longer meditation sessions—these have turned out to be my significant stress-relievers during this pandemic. What are yours? To stay strong and get stronger, please take the time you need to put your best overwhelm-management routines in place. Then stick to them with exquisite gentleness—and lavish flexibility.

Image: David Aler on Unsplash