Routines help us regulate our minds and bodies and for people with bipolar conditions this can be specially important. We want to try to avoid anything that will upset our balance any more than necessary. Routines can also help us improve our self control.
By making sure we get to bed earlier and plan our days and weeks better we’ll stand the best chance of being more productive and feeling more useful. This can lead to less ups and downs or shorter periods of disrupted moods.
Get to bed at a reasonable time
I’m a night owl, I function at my best workwise and socially between about 8pm and 2am. I feel creative and focused and get so much more work done than in the daytime generally. Mornings can be hard for me as my brain feels sluggish and it can take a while to get going.
On the flip side I’ve found that too many late nights in a row can make my bipolar symptoms worse. I’ve found myself getting hypomanic which then often leads to low mood after a while. When in a depression I will often stay up very late, mostly just watching whatever is on TV, unable to drag myself from the couch to bed. The next day I’m tired, irritable and unmotivated.
The morning after one particularly late night my partner told me that if I stay up late it means I don’t care about her or my children because I’m making my condition worse. My initial response was that she didn’t understand what I was going through, and the depression caused me to have a hard time getting to bed. Thinking about it though I knew she was right. It’s a self-control issue more than anything else.
I made a commitment to test out a more regular sleep routine. My goal was to be in bed by 11pm Sunday to Thursday with an allowance for a 12am bedtime one night of the weekend and 2am the other. This still gave me a bit of party time, which is important to me.
The result was that after a few weeks I felt much more with it during the day time and there was a marked improvement in my stability (I have ultra-rapid cycling so it’s often quite easy to see the result of a modification in my regular activities.)
Here’s how I did it:
1. I used my main reason for wanting to get better to motivate me. Knowing that I was making life harder for my wife and children gave me the kick in the behind that I needed to take action.
2. Even when I was feeling hypomanic I still tried to get to bed at a reasonable time. Sometimes it was more 12am than 11pm but at least it wasn’t 2 or 3 am.
3. When I got into bed I used my mindfulness training to bring myself to the present and slow down my brain activity. At the beginning I would sometimes still lie awake for an hour or more but eventually I would get to sleep. Now I very seldom have an issue getting to sleep since my brain has got into the routine.
4. I try to get up at a similar time each day. I do sometimes find this hard and if I am in a low mood will occasionally sleep a little longer but on the whole I’m up by 7.30am.
5. On my once-a-week late night I make sure that I’m in bed by 2am. I love a good party and it can be difficult to drag myself home when I’m having fun but I find it really helps to keep me in check. So maybe I’m not quite the party animal I used to be but I enjoy myself still and feel like I’m living a more productive life and have improved some of my relationships by being more predictable.
6. If for some reason I can’t stick to my regular bed time I don’t give myself a hard time, I accept it and get back on track as soon as possible. I find occasional variations to the routine don’t cause me ups or downs any more.
Earlier bed times can help us cope better with stress and allow better control over emotions and moods. This is one step in your path to making yourself the best version of yourself that you can be.
Daily routine and to-do list
Throughout a lot of my life I’ve had trouble concentrating for long periods. I’m very easily distracted. When I don’t have a productive day I often feel worse about myself and this can lead to low moods. When I give in to my distractions, I can sometimes become hypomanic as I focus on the fun stuff rather than the more boring daily things that have to get done. This makes it even harder for me to concentrate and can eventually lead to weeks of non-productivity.
I’ve been working from home for many years now and there can be lots of distractions so I have to be quite firm in my plans. I have to fit in exercise, meditation practice, walking the dogs, fetching and carrying the kids, making meals for them, spending some time with them etc.
What I’ve come to realise is that as much as I like the freedom to do what I want when I want, it’s the routines that really help to keep me more stable. If I know what I have to do each day and when I have to do it by then I’m more likely to focus on getting it done.
I’ve created a simple outline of all the things I know I have to do each week. This outline is pretty much non-negotiable. If someone wants to change something then they need to give me notice so I can plan for it. I try to do similar activities at the same time each day if possible as this builds strong habits.
Weekly outline example:
07.15 Wake up 07.15 Wake up, Shower
07.30 Exercise 07.30 Walk dogs
08.30 Shower 08.30 Make kids lunch
08.45 Eric to school 08.45 Eric to school
09.10 Breakfast & meditation 09.10 Breakfast & meditation
09.30 Work 09.30 Work
12.45 Fetch Eric & lunch 13.00 Lunch
13.30 Work 13.30 Work
16.45 Make dinner 15.45 Fetch Eric
19.30 Kids bath 16.45 Make Dinner
20.15 Kids in bed 19.00 Attend philosophy course
20.20 Work/study/read/TV 22.00 Work/study/read/TV
23.00 Bed 23.00 Bed
Your weekly outline may be simpler or more complex than this one but start working on yours today if you haven’t already so that you can begin to become more organised. It takes some effort to stick to the time table if you’re not used to it but slowly you’ll find that you don’t even need to refer to it as much, your brain just knows what you need to do at what time. I set alarms on my phone for the important things like fetching my kids from school in case I’m too focused on my work to realise the time.
Sometimes with the best of intentions something does change. If so then try to get back on track as soon as you can so that you don’t go too far off course.
Also make sure that others are aware of your timetable and how important it is for you to stick to it. My wife and I share many duties so it’s vital we both know who’s doing what each day. Sometimes we’ll agree to changes but keep these to a minimum unless it’s unavoidable.
Then each day I also create a to-do list of specific work or other activities, that way I can keep focused on my goals. I quickly jot these down before I start working. You can use a piece of paper, post-it notes, your phone or your computer if that’s where you’ll see it most. I use the Sticky Notes program in Windows.
If you don’t work, volunteer or look after anyone else then you may have more time for self-improvement, exercise, house work or other activities but it’s still important to get into a routine so that you can be the best version of yourself that you can be.
Even after significant practice I still have days where I can’t concentrate or just have no motivation. Accept that off-days will occasionally happen and don’t let them get you down even further. Sometimes, if after a really good try, I still can’t follow my to-do list, I’ll give it a break and do something else like exercise, go for a walk, mindfully meditate or do another physical task. After a while I’ll try again.
Lastly, no one likes a boring life so it’s important to shake it up every now and then. Make sure you’re getting some time to relax and enjoy yourself and do something different. I like to watch live bands, stand up comedy or just go out with friends. I often feel refreshed afterwards and ready to get back into the routine.