How to stick to a routine that’s constantly being interrupted

I like routines. I like to get up at the same time every day and do the same things that I did yesterday in the very same order. Some of the things in my routine are: writing an hour right after waking up, doing yoga, practicing a different language, answering emails, and analyzing data. When I stick to my routines, I feel content, relaxed, clever, happy, and (usually) focused. I also get an incredible amount of work done, and it’s often pretty fantastic stuff. Other people agree: routines can make you more productive and creative.

Prairie sunrise I by JB Yoder

How routines make me feel | Photo:JBYoder on Flickr

When I don’t stick to my routines, I feel scattered and stressed and like everything is impossible. And I have no graphs to show my advisor at our meetings. Aside: if you think your mom’s disappointed face is bad, you’ve never showed up to a meeting with your supervisor without a figure. The first half of this post is about why my routines get screwed up and (hopefully) doesn’t apply to you. The second half is about fixing routines and, if you like routines, maybe you’ll find it helpful.

Sometimes I don’t stick to my routines because I am a human being. Most of the times I break my routines it’s because I got a migraine or was worried about getting a migraine. Some days the interruptions are small. I go to the office to work, but it’s hot and bright, so I go to the library or a coffeeshop. Some days/weeks the interruptions are large: I can get out of bed only to vomit, and sometimes not even then. I’ve had a lot of migraines this spring, and while I don’t think it will always be this bad, I need to figure out a way to keep moving forward in between my migraines, to squeeze more life into the time between the times my life is reduced to a collection of painful and unpleasant sensations.

First, the challenges

After a migraine I feel tired and stupid and not like working at all. Some of that is the migraine postdrome. Some of that is emotional recovery from x days of torture. The day after a migraine often involves such feats as showering, grocery shopping, and watching 2-[upper limit redacted due to extreme shame] episodes of <some wonderfully awful scifi show>. When I do start working, there are a thousand little things to catch up on – I feel like I have to clean my house, catch up on emails, and get some errands done before I can start my real work.

Starting my real work can be a bit of a hurdle, too. Migraines turn off my brain pretty hard and often for days at a time. Getting back into the groove of a project can take a considerable amount of time. (What was that variable? Why did I decide to use this dataset? Where did I put that stupid file?) Of course I organize and document like someone who expects to have those questions on a regular basis, but referring to those notes takes time. Making those notes takes time too.

There are also so. many. days. when I am just tired. I wake up feeling all normal and content and interested in my work, but by the time I’ve done yoga, practiced Russian for a half hour, written for an hour or two, and gotten halfway to campus, I need a nap, have a headache, and kinda feel like puking. If I go home and sleep like the dead for 4 hours, I spend the evening doing busy-work like answering emails and kicking myself for being lazy. If I don’t go home and sleep, I might have a super productive day. Or I might get a terrible migraine and be stuck in the department bathroom vomiting for 6 hours. WHO KNOWS.

I spent the first half of this post whining. Now here are some ideas I have for trying to maintain my routines in the face of frequent and unpredictable interruptions. Maybe they will help you with your routines.

Restart my routines 

Whenever I break my routines (because of migraines or other things, like laziness), I feel super guilty. To distract myself from that guilt, I do something like read what everyone shared on twitter in the last 6 hours. Then I feel guilty about being lazy. Repeat.

This is not a very effective strategy. Instead of feeling guilty, I should be like “oh well” and just restart. This is easier with a ritual. I will make that ritual unplugging the internet for half an hour and getting a fresh cup of tea.

To perfect mornings

Work when I feel like working

Sometimes I’m too strict about my routines. I might be really hitting my stride writing one morning, but when my hour is up, I stop and do yoga. I shouldn’t do that unless I have a meeting or some other urgent reason to get on with my routines. Writing is hard, my schedule is flexible. If I’m really into it, I should let myself go a bit. Will my day really be ruined if yoga happens at 10 instead of 8?

Make my routines fit how I (usually) feel

I know that I’m most productive for 3-4 hours after I wake up and between about 5 and 8 pm. I should adjust my routines so that I’m doing writing and data analysis and language learning in those times and email and yoga and cleaning other times.

The places I do different parts of my routines also matter. My office is often a terrible place to work. It’s bright and hot most of the day and it’s got 8 other very distracting people in it. If I have a migraine or am recovering from one, it makes me feel awful. If I don’t have a migraine, it can give me one. Even when I feel fine, it’s hard to get work done with all those people around.

But I need to spend time there because it’s important for people to see me working (since I’m sick so goddamn much) and because it’s kind of helpful and awesome to be part of my lab group. I feel much less a part of my lab when I only go in once a fortnight. Solution? Go in three days a week in the late afternoon. The heat and light will be waning, so I’m less likely to feel bad. Most people will still be there when I arrive, so I can catch up with my labmates. I can do paperwork and answer emails for a few hours and by the time I hit my prime productive hours, most people will be gone.

Hide the small stuff

I can use location to deal with the little stuff that feels incredibly urgent to me. Feel like I can’t focus until the dishes are done? Go to the library a few blocks from my house to work for the morning. Inbox overwhelming my attention? Go to the coffeeshop that doesn’t have internet. Then I can go back to those things in the afternoons, when I’m about as clever as a dog and usually want to nap.

Give myself enough time

I need to make sure my routine actually includes 7-8 hours of work time every day, and at least 4 of those “hard” work, like writing or figuring out a step in my data analysis.

Use blocks, not days to schedule work tasks

Like basically everybody, different parts of my projects need to be worked on simultaneously. In a perfect world, I’d set aside Monday mornings for subproject A and Monday evenings for subproject B, but migraines destroy plans like this. If I get a migraine Monday morning, A gets skipped. Then I’m freaking out about being behind on A when I’m supposed to be working on B and then I get might stuck on B because A wasn’t finished.

I could just try to double up and work harder for a day or two, but my migraines are too frequent for that to actually work.I could shift my projects around for a week or two, but that means I’m constantly rescheduling things in my head and that’s stressful too.

So, instead, I can just make rotating blocks for my project. My (new) routine splits work up into morning and evening segments. I have a list of subprojects that get worked on, in turn, in each segment. A isn’t assigned to Monday morning and B to Monday evening; I do A in the first segment I can work and B in the second segment I can work, whenever that is. Less guilt, and everything gets worked on. Eventually.

So, to summarize: my routines make me happy and make my work awesome, but migraines keep blowing things up. I’ve come up with a few ways to make my routines more robust. Maybe you have some advice for me, too? This has got to be something that lots of people deal with. I’m not the only sickie out there and parenting has to be worse.


  1. Margaret says:

    You have developed *excellent* techniques for dealing with your interruptions. I especially like your routine (tea!) to restart your routines, and I think I might adopt it. I don’t have to deal with chronic illness, but am a parent. Having read your blog for a while, I’d have to disagree with “parenting has to be worse.” I’m a parent, and while there’s plenty of tiredness and schedule disruption, it’s not as chaotic as your migraines (especially after the first six months), nor as disabling. I’m actually in *more* of a routine now that I have a kid, because kids like routines too.

    The major difference, I would say is the loss of flexibility. You can choose to work in your most productive times (if you’re not feeling sick) — first thing when you get up and from 5-8. Those are exactly the times I cannot work — in the morning, I have to get my son up, dressed, fed, and off to daycare, before I can do any work. From 5-8, I’m picking my son up from daycare, playing with him, getting dinner ready, giving him a bath (sometimes), and putting him to bed. I would love to work first thing in the morning, but it’s just not possible.

    The only thing I might add that I think you do already, but didn’t mention explicitly, is to make sure you get some downtime. If you’re feeling well, make sure at least some of that time is spent doing something you enjoy. Yoga probably fits the bill for you. I think it’s hard for those of us with compressed time (for illness or for parenting) to not try to squeeze work into every corner of our lives. Do some things you enjoy. And don’t feel guilty. You need that time to keep sane and to keep enjoying life.

    • sarcozona says:

      It’s good to hear that parenting isn’t as disruptive as migraines. But the loss of flexibility would be really hard – I don’t think I could have migraines AND a kid!

      I didn’t mention downtime explicitly, but it’s something I struggle with. I feel ok with downtime that’s cooking or yoga or playing piano, but less so with downtime that’s stuff like reading silly novels, gardening, or watching Star Trek. Even though I really enjoy these things and find them restorative, I feel guilty for giving myself time for them. Guess I’ll have to work on that!

  2. Bear says:

    I found this sooo helpful. I have Meniere’s disease with associated migraines and they just kind of kill any kind of routine for x amount of time, then I have this whole guilt cycle where I feel bad for being unproductive, spend time I could be productive feeling bad, and then feel bad for spending my time feeling bad when I could have been spending it being productive… I really like the idea of having a ritual to get back into routine, I’m going to try hot drink and turning off the internet. For down time, ever since I realised that I have my best ideas when I’m specifically not working, I’ve found it easier to do ‘silly’ things.

    Thank you for writing this.

  3. Frankie says:

    Thank you, Sarcozona, just for putting yourself and your struggles out there. I just responded to your blog about conferences and I recognize myself a lot in this blog too. I like your ideas about a flexible routine; need to put some thinking time in how this could apply to me. Chronic pain and chronic fatigue come in waves of different intensity at different times, just as the unpredictability of migraines. What I read between the lines of your blog is grace: to have the grace to be kind to yourself and take care of yourself, as well as having the grace to be happy and satisfied about the work that you CAN do when you feel up to it. Maybe our product(ivity) is like jade or lapis lazuli, instead of oil or coal: rare, but oh so precious.

  4. Melissa Blasick says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been struggling with migraines and my love of routines for over 25 years, but just like you the unexpected headache seems to always get in the way. My husband is always telling me not to be so hard on myself, and after reading your story I am finally in agreement with him.

  1. […] because routine is one of the best ways to prevent migraines. I wrote about a plan I made for sticking to routines that are constantly interrupted by migraine attacks. After a few months of trying hard to implement that plan, I have a few […]

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