Pandemic habits: The good, the bad, the changeable!


by Baylor Scott & White Health

Aug 31, 2020

Sudden life changes — like let’s say, for example, a pandemic — can have profound effects on our daily routine. With an upended routine can come changes in behaviors that lead to the formation of habits, both good and not so good.  

Perhaps during quarantine, you have found you are exercising more (go you!) or you have increased your nightly cookie intake (that’s okay!). The good news is behavior change research has shown that habits, both good and bad, are formed with the same criteria. That means they can be changed similarly as well.

As we all hope for and look forward to life post-pandemic, it’s a good time to assess the new routines and habits you’ve picked up. By understanding key components of habit design, you can begin to utilize these steps and secrets to evaluate your new habits — and decide to either solidify or break them.

Evaluating your pandemic-induced habits

To begin habit change, you must first ask yourself the question, “Do I want to change a habit”? This question can look like:

  • Do I want to create a new healthy habit?
  • Do I want to solidify healthy behaviors I’ve been practicing?
  • Do I want to break a habit that’s not so good for me?

The bottom line is… do you want to do something differently? If you answered yes to any of the above, let’s begin!

How to change a habit in 5 steps

1. Know your why.

The best place to start is with awareness. After all, how can you change if you don’t know what it is you want to be different?

First, we need to reflect. Right now, I want you to think about the habit you want to change. And more importantly, the reason for making this change. What is your why? Dig deep here.

This is a process — it’s a journey. We need to constantly be adapting and changing to meet ourselves where we are.

Notice what thoughts and emotions arise as you are thinking about your change. Look at them without judgement. If you want to lose weight because you want to look better in your clothes, fabulous! If you want to stop smoking so your kids will be proud of you, great! Perhaps you want to eat healthier so you will have more energy, awesome! Whatever your why is, that’s yours to keep… with kindness.    

2. Identify your craving.

Now that we have created some awareness, let’s talk about how to change. Here is where the secrets come in.

I want to start with the behavior change loop because it describes how all habits are formed. Behavior change scientists have found that as habits are formed and executed, they tend to go through the same neurological loop:

  • Cue: What tells you to do the behavior
  • Routine: The action of the behavior repeated
  • Reward: What tells your brain that the habit was worth it

Several studies have further added that there is actually a craving that’s powering that entire loop. In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he explains that “Only when your brain starts expecting the reward — craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment — will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.”

So, if you can identify the craving, you can then manipulate that in your favor. Take this example. Let’s say you have a habit of eating popcorn in bed every night while watching TV. How did this habit develop?

  • Your cue to eat the popcorn was turning on the TV.
  • Your routine was… eating the popcorn!
  • And the reward was feeling a sense of ease and unwinding.

But, were you actually hungry when you were eating the popcorn? I wasn’t! When I was trying to break my nightly popcorn habit, I broke down the behavior change loop for myself to see what I was actually craving. I discovered I was actually bored and for some reason just watching TV wasn’t cutting it. I wanted to be doing something with my hands, too. Once I realized this, I was able to turn that craving into something more productive, and I now have a beautiful crocheted blanket to show for it.

3. Make the habit really easy or really difficult.

In order make a positive habit easy, start small to grow big. Too big can be too overwhelming. If you’re anything like me, something too big can lead to analysis paralysis. I don’t know where to begin, so I just don’t do anything at all.

This is not to say you can’t have big goals or dreams! But in order to adopt a new positive habit or break a bad one, it can be helpful to break down the big picture into small pieces.

Another way to simplify a habit is to hack your environment. Make your environment so conducive to performing your task that you have no choice but to do it. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear explains that you don’t necessarily need to be a disciplined person — you just need a structured environment. So, change your environment such that it works for you.

  • Place healthier foods at eye level so you see them each time you open the fridge.
  • Keep a pair of workout shoes in your office.
  • Have a filled water bottle next to your desk at all times.

Conversely, you can use this same system to your advantage if you are trying to break a bad habit. Make it difficult to do. Alter your environment so you are not tempted or so that you have to go way out of your way to complete the habit.

4. Start habit stacking.

Habit stacking is one of the best tricks I have learned so far for creating a new habit.

James Clear outlines this method in Atomic Habits. In habit stacking, you choose a current behavior that becomes your cue that tells you to do the next behavior. His formula looks like this: “After (current habit), I will (new habit).”

For example, I used habit stacking and starting small to begin a meditation habit. After I take my medicine in the morning, I immediately sit down to meditate. Taking my medicine is my cue for meditating. And I started with 1 minute of meditation each day for a week –– now I’m up to 13! The secret is to tie your desired behavior into something you already do.

5. And finally, create a consequence or celebrate!

By celebration. I don’t necessarily mean throwing yourself a party for reaching your goals, but I mean reflecting on your success. Your brain likes to know it’s doing the right thing.

In a study about physical exercise done by Henk Aarts, Theo Paulussen and Herman Schaalma in Health Education Research, they explain that, “in the traditional view of habit formation, satisfactory experiences enhance the tendency to repeat the same course of action, mainly because the behavior becomes more strongly associated with the goal one initially wished to attain.”

They go on to explain that the opposite can also be true by saying, “Conversely, dissatisfaction weakens the link between behavior and goal, decreasing the probability a person will continue the behavior.”

So, when you accomplish something, relish in your success. BJ Fogg takes this a step further to say we should celebrate each time we perform the habit. For example, after I meditate, I give myself a little pat on the back. On the flip side, if you make your habit undesirable, it’s likely you won’t want to keep doing it. For example, paying your spouse $20 each time you don’t complete your workout.

Ready to change your habits?

There are many ways to change habits. And a lot of books and research out there that promise they have the perfect method for you. I have personally found many different methods to be helpful.

I challenge you to pick one and try it for yourself. Keep experimenting with what works for you, because what works for you might not work for someone else. And, keep in mind, what works for you now might not always work! This is a process — it’s a journey. We need to constantly be adapting and changing to meet ourselves where we are.

Pandemic life has not been easy and chances are, it won’t be smooth sailing for a while. Have compassion on yourself for any negative habits you may have picked up during this stressful time, but start thinking about how you can turn those negative habits into positive ones! And if you’ve used this time to start new healthy routines, use these tips to keep yourself motivated.

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