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Finding the balance between novelty and routine

Last week, I traveled a lot (like over 20 hours in the car). I love the novelty of traveling, and usually traveling means doing fun or happy things. But traveling also brings about a rupture to daily structure. The people you are with likely have different routines. Eating times are often dependent on rest stops.

There are not too many folks with binge eating disorder that I have talked to that have not described valuing novelty and change in their daily life, and yet one of the first interventions used in the treatment of binge eating is creating regular patterns. Binge eating treatment is a delicate balance of creating structure and routines and honoring values of novelty and change. So, today, I wanted to talk about the not-so-sexy side of the pendulum - routines.

Types of Routines

There is a term in Enhanced Cognitive Behavior Therapy called "Regular Eating." The focus is on consistent timing every day, allowing for the body to be able to expect eating times. With time the body is hungry at meal and snack times, and full at non-eating times. Part of the work to create Regular Eating patterns is also around changing the environment or creating new routines. If previous binge eating habits occurred around the drive home from work, patterns leading up to the drive may be altered or maybe a new route may be found. Many people skip meals earlier in the day which often leads to greater hunger later in the day. In those instances, patterns that lead to skipping meals are explored.

Beyond eating routines, it is important to establish routines that balance activities that build energy and increase relaxation. We are all this bell curve of energy - we naturally increase energy levels throughout the day and then they start to wane throughout the day. The timing and amount of energy fluctuates for every person, but overall, it is the same pattern.

It is important to our mood to incorporate activities where we feel effective and masterful. For anyone who has been in therapy, we call this behavioral activation. We all must feel accomplished, and what one person considers mastery another might not. Activities of mastery also change within our lifetime. For a person going through an episode of depression, brushing their teeth may make them feel effective. That same person once through the episode of depression, may feel accomplished with work.

Another key activity in behavioral activation are pleasurable activities, and just like activities of mastery, they vary from person-to-person and from one period to another. However, the key to engaging in pleasurable activities is to be mindful while doing them. I know all of us mental health practitioners out there talk about mindfulness, and it sounds a bit hippy-dippy at times. And believe me, sometimes it is, but when I talk about mindfulness, I mean it in a way where you are completely present with the moment and engaged with whatever you are doing. Think about watching television. If I was to binge watch a show I have seen a hundred times, I’m likely not fully present in that moment. However, the same activity under different circumstances, can be the most present and pleasurable activity.

Another continuum to consider are social activities. Humans are social creatures that need to be around others. We socialize for many reasons – one being that it acts like a mirror into ourselves. I share thoughts and feelings and ideas with the people around me and I see their nonverbal reactions that help give me perspective to how those thoughts sound to others. It helps us learn, but it also can help us feel like we belong. We witness a reaction to our sharing, and it is reciprocated with understanding and empathy, we remember that we are not alone.

The other end of the continuum is activities where we can be alone. A lot of times these types of activities are ones where we can have introspection. Another reason for alone time is to (purposefully) disengage. Even the most extroverted characters need alone time.

I spoke above about Regular Eating, which falls into activities we do to take care of ourselves. Hygiene, eating, movement, sleep, cleaning, finances all take care of ourselves. We do these kinds of activities because they keep us going and because they remind us that we are important.

Finding Routines

The key to routines is that we allow for flexibility and keep the foundation the same. For those of you who say they hate routines because they are monotonous, I would disagree. It's about finding out what is underneath those routines and keeping it novel within the framework.

Think about the habits you have that are helpful. What do they do for you? Do they energize you, deactivate you, connect you to others, help increase your creativity or sense of accomplishment?

You probably start the day with hygiene activities. Often responsibilities, like hygiene, are repetitive and do not require much brainpower. Hygiene is also cleansing and rejuvenating. We do this kind of activity because they help build energy without taking much energy and often are good bookends to the day.

Important Note

It’s also worth saying that you may be going down the “productivity trap” with all this talk about routines. I mean, the trap we all go down when we start thinking about how we can be more effective, more productive machines. We don’t build routines to be better robots, but to be better humans. If you find yourself going down the “productivity trap,” say to yourself, “This is one of those productivity thoughts,” and let it pass by. Now, refocus and tell yourself, “I’m thinking about routines so that I can focus on my own self-care.”

I thought about my normal routines to give examples, but I want to emphasize the work needed in finding out YOUR fluctuations in energy and needs throughout the day. If you are a homework kind of person, I’m going to leave you with some takeaways. Write down all your current routines. Do you grap your phone upon waking? Do you set out your clothes the night before? Then name which are helpful and which are not as much. With the ones you identify as helpful, write down what the function of the activity is for you.

You can even take this activity a step further and talk to someone professional about your habits and how they can be adapted to better direct you toward your values and the person you aim to be.

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