Use Structure and Routine to Get Through the Day

The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.

In order to survive a suicidal crisis it is important to find ways to avoid ruminating about your pain and worrying about the future. The best way to do this is to live one day at a time. Limiting your time horizon to a single 24-hour period will help you avoid being overwhelmed and make managing your crisis easier.

While struggling with your discomfort, you may wonder, “How can I possibly live one day at a time?”  The answer is to structure each day with simple, doable activities. The idea is to stay occupied with both meaningful and mundane activities.

Identify Activities to Structure Your Day

Work or Volunteering

If you are working, you are fortunate because attending to a job offers built in structure. I remember being on a New York subway when I was thirteen and striking up a conversation with a man in a suit and tie. When I asked him why he went to his job he replied, “Because when I get to work the rest of the day takes care of itself.” 

A job can give you a place to go to be around people and to focus on a task or project. In some instances, it provides a sense of purpose and meaning. But even a mundane job that lacks inspiration will get you out of your home and shift your focus. 

But what if you are unemployed? There are still a number of ways to fill your day with structure and routine. One way is to arrange to volunteer with an organization whose mission you believe in, in an environment where you can focus on supporting others, even if it is only for a few hours a week. Reaching out to help other people will help you to get free from “the prison of self.” and create a sense of purpose and meaning for your life.

Other Ways to Structure Your Day

If you’re not working or don’t feel up to volunteering, there are other ways that you can fill your day with activities. Look through the list of activities below, and see if you can find at least one that you enjoy doing. Then imagine how you might incorporate it into your life.

  • Enroll in a class on something that interests you (painting, cooking, creative writing, music, etc).
  • Find courses or workshops at your local community center.
  • Schedule visits to the gym with a trainer. Many fitness places have trial packages if you are not a member. 
  • Plan to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a friend or relative.
  • Find a movie or a concert to attend. 
  • Call a friend. Put a different friend in your calendar to call each morning. 
  • Set a time to go on a bike ride; either by yourself or with a friend.
  • Attend a meditation group.
  • Schedule a time to see an exhibit at a local museum.
  • Arrange to spend time in nature.
  • Reach out to a friend with a garden to spend time planting, weeding or harvesting with them. 
  • Shop for groceries and find items you enjoy eating.
  • Set up self care appointments (with a doctor, dentist, hairdresser, at a massage school etc.). 
  • Sign up for a book club with people who inspire you. 

Not only will these activities keep you focused on the present and thinking less about your despair or suicidal pain, but they will also provide you with a sense of accomplishment that comes from setting and achieving goals.

Structuring your days and weeks so you are engaging with people and attending events brings you into contact with new opportunities in the world: new friends, projects to become involved with and endeavors you can care about. 

If you do one activity and follow up with another, you’ll build momentum, and continue to engage in more positive activities.

Do What You Can

If you are suffering from debilitating depression or some other condition that prevents you from doing very much, just do what you feel capable of.

I have known people who were so depressed that all they could accomplish was getting up, going to the gym, and coming home. If this is true for you, give yourself credit for your effort. Even if you can just get out of bed, take a shower, eat, and get back to bed, that is a structure. Doing something, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. 

During one suicidal crisis, in a session with my therapist, I was bemoaning my disabled state and comparing myself to my successful brother:

“Your brother may work on the 66th floor of an office building in Manhattan,” she said. “but your ‘work’ right now is to heal from this illness, a much harder job than being a vice president of Citibank. Just managing to stay functional, given your level of pain, is a major achievement. I’m sorry that no one is giving you stock options for your display of courage.”


If you suffer from depression, your symptoms may very well be  worse in the morning. It is easy to lie in bed and ruminate about your pain. As one person put it, “When I awake, my body hasn’t walked a step, but my mind has already run a marathon.” 

Fortunately, the symptoms of depression often diminish as the day goes on. If this applies to you, then I encourage you to find activities that will give you a reason to get out of bed and engaged with the world. As the day progresses, you can anticipate the evening when the dark cloud lifts and you can end the day with some much-needed peace of mind.

Outpatient Programs

If you suffer from serious depression or another mental health disorder and you feel you need a more full-time structure, you can apply to an intensive outpatient program for three to five days a week. Local hospitals or mental health agencies run such programs. There you can participate in educational support groups that teach you the skills to manage your symptoms and improve your mood.

Create a Schedule

The way to bring structure and routine into your life that takes the least amount of effort, is to have things scheduled ahead of time. Knowing that you need to be at a certain place at a certain time is calming to the nervous system. 

What I suggest is to use a simple schedule book and begin scheduling these activities into your calendar. If you can’t focus enough to create your own schedule, ask someone else to help you.

Create a Weekly Ritual

Another way to bring structure into your life is to create rituals. Many of the activities that I have listed can be turned into rituals by repeating them on a regular basis (weekly, biweekly or monthly). Rituals are a great antidote for the suicidal mind because they give you something positive to look forward to. Looking forward to something will activate the chemical dopamine in the brain that creates pleasure. If you can anticipate a good experience  coming your way, it gives you a reason to move forward.

During my episode of suicidal depression, every Thursday night at 9pm, I would go to a friend’s house and watch an episode of “Mystery” on PBS. I loved these well-done BBC adaptations of famous British mystery authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. No matter how difficult my Thursday had been, I knew that if I could make it until 9 pm, I would have the distraction of being absorbed in trying to solve a crime.

Create a Schedule for Your Day

Create a schedule for your day in your own calendar, or using the Create a Schedule for Your Day form. Below, you will see some sample scheduling ideas from Gabe, one of my peer support group members who was battling depression. Make sure that you have created a schedule for your weekends since days off are less likely to have structured time in place. Don’t forget, you can also include a ritual as part of this schedule.

You don’t need a grand scheme of recovery. You just need to live step-by-step,and life will unfold in accordance with your highest good.

Gabe’s Sample Schedule
Time Activity
11:30 am
work out at the gym
1:00 pm
lunch with a friend
2:00 pm
3:00 pm
Volunteer Work
5:00 pm
Dinner and a call with a friend
6:00 pm
12-step meeting
9:00 pm
Reading or Journaling
10:00 pm
Bedtime Ritual
11:00 pm