A smiling woman in athleisure standing outside near a body of water as she goes for a walk as part of her mental health routine.

3 Expert-Backed Tips for Building Mental Health Routines That Stick

Plus, the daily habits experts recommend trying to boost physical and mental wellness.

By Kylie GilbertOctober 23, 2023


As kids, we thrive on a predictable routine to feel safe in the world. But as adults, “our day-to-day routines also have a tremendous impact on our mental health,” says Jessi Gold, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. We like structure and knowing what to expect—and when we don’t know what’s coming, it can lead to anxiety, she explains.

Creating sustainable mental health routines and daily habits is also crucial for reaching any health and fitness goals, from eating more greens to running your first 5K. So, how can you set goals and form a mental health routine that you’ll actually stick with? And what does a routine that benefits your physical and mental health look like? 

Ahead, we’re unpacking the science of mental health routines, their impact on your life, and some specific daily habits that can improve your mental well-being.

Why Is Routine So Important for Mental Health?

“Many people don’t realize just how much their routine—sleep, eating, exercise, work, how you like to do things—impacts their mental health until they’ve had their routine disrupted,” Dr. Gold says. Maybe that’s a time when you had to pull an all-nighter or miss your favorite workout class. For many, it was the disruption of daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic that proved just how crucial routines are for buffering the impact of stress. 

“In sports settings, we [coaches] use routine a lot because when you’re nervous or anxious about something, the familiar routine is calming and can reduce a lot of unnecessary anxiety,” explains Judy L. Van Raalte, PhD, a psychology professor at Springfield College and a certified consultant for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

Daily routines—or repeated behaviors that become second nature and require little conscious thought—also remove the stress of decision-making. For example, if your routine is to eat oatmeal every morning, you won’t have to spend precious time deciding what to eat for breakfast. That frees up brain power for more important decisions as the day goes on that are more deserving of our stress and energy, Van Raalte says. (In fact, President Barack Obama cited decision-fatigue research as the reason for always wearing gray or blue suits while he was in office: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make,” he said in an interview.) 

How to Build and Maintain a Daily Routine

Ready to create a daily mental health routine that works for you—and that you can actually stick with? Here are some expert-backed tips for establishing and maintaining a daily routine that fosters better mental wellness:

First, Ask Yourself These Two Questions

Reading about the morning routines of CEOs or other people you admire can provide inspiration, but it’s important to have self-awareness about what’ll work for you, Van Raalte says. Before you decide to start a new habit or mental health routine, she suggests simply asking yourself:

  • Is this something I want to try?

  • Would that work for me? 

For instance, if you hate running, don’t force yourself to do it just because it works for someone else. If you don’t love meditation even though your friends rave about it, don’t force it, Dr. Gold says. 

“I think we focus too much on trying to shove someone else's coping skills into our own toolbox,” she says. Instead, make sure your daily habits are things that you genuinely want to do and they’ll be easier to maintain, she says.

Set Small Goals—and Have Self-Compassion

Accomplishing any new health goal requires creating daily habits and mental health routines. But research shows that making a goal that’s too big, or trying to tackle too much all at once, tends to backfire. (Looking at you, New Year’s resolutions!) 

“We like to think that we are more flexible than we are, but it’s a lot harder to change habits than we think it is. It requires a lot of self-compassion,” Dr. Gold explains. Her suggestion: “Start with very small goals—so small it feels almost silly!—that you can do easily and build from there.” (It’s also helpful if those goals are specific and achievable.) 

For example, if your goal is to read an hour every night rather than scrolling on social media, a small “micro habit” to get there might be reading one paragraph. If you want to build strength, you might start with just one push-up or squat a day. 

And remember: It’s important to have self-compassion if a habit doesn’t stick. Does exercising in the morning just not work for you, perhaps? Rather than beat yourself up about it, instead realize that routine isn’t a fit for you and that working out might be better reserved for afternoons or evenings instead, Van Raalte says. 

Treat Self-Care as a Non-Negotiable on Your To-Do List

When we get busy with work deadlines or other responsibilities, it’s easy to let that daily walk or meditation practice fall off our to-do list. But as counterintuitive as it may seem, research shows that taking breaks can make us more productive. “It feels like just another thing on our to-do list that we don’t have time for, but it’s actually going to make us better at the thing we were trying to do in the first place,” Dr. Gold says.

So even if you don’t have time for an hour-long workout, for instance, be sure to take even 10 minutes for your self-care (like a quick yoga flow or stretch on the Peloton App). Just make sure it’s something you enjoy. “A lot of burnout comes from not getting meaning and purpose in your day-to-day life,” Dr. Gold says. If you aren't getting that from work or other areas of life, Dr. Gold suggests asking yourself where else you can find joy in your day—and then make it a non-negotiable. 

“When I want to do something but am feeling time pressure, I ask myself, ‘Do I not have the time or am I not making the thing I want to do a priority?’” says Peloton instructor Jeffrey McEachern

In this photo for an article about mental health routines, Peloton instructor Jeffrey McEachern is smiling and going for run outside.

How to Incorporate Exercise Into Your Daily Routine

The power of exercise is hard to overstate when it comes to relieving stress, and anxiety, and our mental health overall. In fact, research shows that regular exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication, Van Raalte points out.

Whether you’re trying to get back into working out again or want to start a brand-new exercise routine, here’s some advice for including fitness in your daily mental health routine:

Start with Just Five Minutes

An hour-long workout can feel intimidating, making it more likely you won’t do it at all. Instead?

“Start with just five minutes and you’ll probably end up saying, ‘Oh, I actually like this! I’ll keep doing this!’” Dr. Gold says. “It's a lot easier to keep going once we've started. It's the starting part that's really hard. So don't bite off more than you can chew.”

Find a Workout You Enjoy Doing 

The workout you actually do is the one that’ll be most effective for your physical and mental health. If you’re struggling to stick with an exercise routine, focus on finding an activity—maybe that’s mat Pilates, walking, or rowing—you actually enjoy. Jeffrey’s advice? “Start, make it fun, and the rest will follow in time.”

Find Your ‘Why’

If you’re struggling to make exercise a habit, it can also be helpful to pinpoint what’s driving you. Something you’re intrinsically motivated to do (for example, working out because you want to improve energy and decrease stress) is going to be easier to stick with, Van Raalte says. Simply put: “If you care about it, you’re more likely to do it,” she adds. 

Lay Out Your Workout Clothes the Night Before 

If you're trying to make exercise a part of your morning routine, this simple tactic can remove one extra barrier in your way. It’s a tip that worked for Jeffrey when he was struggling with making time for running before tackling the day: “I started laying out my running clothes the night before, so when I got up, they were right there,” he says.

No matter what time of the day you choose to exercise, simply putting on the clothes can help you follow through, Van Raalte says. You’re already wearing the outfit—chances are good you won’t want to take it off without having worked out, even for just a few minutes!

Other Habits to Help Improve Mental Health

In addition to exercise, there are a few research-based, expert-recommended habits that can help boost your mental well-being. Here are a few to try incorporating into your mental health routine:

1. Get Direct Sunlight for 10 to 15 Minutes a Day

A 2022 poll from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that nearly 40 percent of Americans experience a decline in overall mood during the winter. You might not be able to escape to a sunny island, but you can find ways to increase your light exposure at home. 

One way to do just that: Get outside on a daily basis, even for just a few minutes. Even in the winter or on cloudy days, the sun is much stronger than many people realize. (It’s why wearing SPF should also be a daily habit you add to your list, too!)

“If you have a job where you’re mostly inside all day, find a window, or step outside for a few minutes—it can make a big difference in your mood,” Dr. Gold says. Research shows that going outside (shades-free) in the daylight for even 10 to 15 minutes can have significant health benefits on sleep quality, energy, and mood.

2. Spend Three Minutes Reflecting on Three Positive Things

Our brains have been hardwired through evolution to focus on the negative to keep us alive, Dr. Gold explains. However, spending time each day intentionally concentrating on the positive can have a huge impact on mental health. 

She suggests trying “Three Good Things,” an exercise created by Bryan Sexton, PhD, director of the Duke Center for Healthcare Safety and Quality. Every night, just before you go to bed, simply spend no more than five minutes reflecting on three things that went well for you during the day. Among healthcare workers, this exercise was shown to improve emotional exhaustion, depressive symptoms, and happiness after just one month, and Dr. Gold says it can be helpful in any profession.

You can also try this first thing in the morning (remember: it’s about doing what works for you!). “Every morning, I open my curtains, take in the light, sit on the corner of my bed, and write down three things that I am grateful for,” Jeffrey says. These can be as simple as the roof over your head or a good night’s sleep, he says, but focusing on gratitude in this way can help you feel more focused, boost happiness, and quiet worrying thoughts. 

3. Incorporate a Friend Into One of Your Daily Habits

“Find a friend and pick something to do together for your mental health,” Dr. Gold suggests. 

That could be meeting up to go on a walk, taking a workout class together, or connecting virtually. Perhaps you plan to take the same indoor cycling class before work, or maybe you FaceTime each other when you’re taking your five-minute sunlight break. 

Not only can the buddy system help you stay accountable and stick to your mental health routine, but social relationships can also have an even more powerful impact on your overall health. Studies show that social relationships have positive impacts on our physical and mental health by reducing the impact of stress and fostering a sense of meaning and purpose in life. (All fantastic things.)

Knowing When to Seek Professional Help

Not sticking with your daily mental health routine because you’re too busy is to be expected sometimes. However, if you’re not able to stick to a routine because you’re sad or have lost interest in activities you once enjoyed (and it’s gone on for weeks rather than days), these are signs it’s time to seek professional help, Dr. Gold says. Other signs of depression include not taking care of your basic hygiene (like brushing your hair and teeth), isolating from people, or oversleeping, she adds.

If you’re struggling with depression, a mental health professional can help you work on daily strategies as part of a comprehensive mental health plan. They can also be a helpful resource when it comes to things like setting goals or creating a balanced schedule that allows time for self-care.

And remember: “There is no wrong time to talk to a therapist,” Dr. Gold says. “They can help notice things you might miss, give you feedback, motivate you, and help you work on specific skills to reach your goals.”

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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