Pandemic Habits: Keep the Good and Break the Bad
If you’re like most people, then the pandemic disrupted your daily schedule and your routines went out the window. Adjusting to the new normal required changing routines and acquiring new habits – some good, some not so good.
Change is again on the horizon as the pandemic loosens its grip on the United States. As things shift to a post-pandemic cadence, it provides a unique opportunity to re-examine your habits and choose which ones you want to keep – and which ones should go.
Although habits are deeply ingrained in the brain and can be hard to break, research shows that lasting change is possible.1,2 Understanding how habits take shape can help you dismantle and replace the ones you don’t want and keep the ones you do.
Your brain on habits
Although it isn’t obvious, much of your daily life is built on habits – automatic behaviors you do without thinking, including everything from how you grocery shop to how you respond to criticism.1,2
In some ways, your brain depends on habits. Reliance and repetition make things easier for the brain by giving it less to do – creating an efficient way for your brain to function and think. But this can make it hard to change a habit, even when it’s hurting you.1,2
Habits are primarily managed in the part of the brain that encompasses the basal ganglia.3 When a behavior is repeated, the basal ganglia automate the routine, which creates efficiency and saves energy for other mental activities like focusing, planning, and making complex decisions.3,4
Have you ever driven someplace and not remembered the actual drive to get there? That’s the basal ganglia at work. The brain’s process of turning familiar routines into a habit allows you to get in the car, put on a seatbelt, and drive to the grocery store to buy milk while talking on the phone at the same time.
How are habits formed?
There are different theories on how habits form. One theory is based on a process called the habit loop, popularized by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.5 The idea is that a combination of three components creates a habit – cue (trigger), routine (behavior), and reward.
Stress (trigger) can cause you to eat (behavior) and temporarily make you feel better (reward). Each time you do something to find relief or soothe yourself, you reinforce the learning so that the behavior becomes an automatic habit.5
There’s also the concept that simply repeating an action forms a habit. Each time you perform a behavior, a neural pathway in your brain becomes activated and reinforced – “hardwiring” a habit in your brain. This theory supports recent research that proposes habits form when you repeat a behavior, even if you don’t get a reward or pleasure from it.6
How to change habits you no longer want
A “bad” habit is usually a response to soothe a need in your life, or make you feel better in some way – like online shopping to fight boredom or drinking when you’re stressed.
There’s no single effective way to break a bad habit. Although you’ll need to experiment to find what works, here are some strategies to help you reach your goals and form new habits.
Remove friction. In the study of habit formation, one thing that makes it harder to reach your goal is often called friction. Reducing friction means removing an obstacle so a task is easier to do. Friction typically comes in three forms – distance, time, and effort. 2
Do you want to make it easier to increase physical activity by going for a walk after dinner? Then wear your workout gear or tennis shoes while eating. That way, you remove the obstacle (friction) that is causing you to lose momentum – sitting down after dinner to put on shoes or taking the time to change your clothes.
Add friction. Adding friction to your routine can also help change a habit. Want to reduce nighttime snacking while watching TV? Create friction by not buying your go-to snacks. That way, the foods you crave aren’t within easy reach. You can still get in your car and go buy them – but you’ve made it harder to do so – an important step in breaking the behavioral routine of a habit.2
Have a replacement. You need to replace the habit you’re trying to change with one you would prefer to perform. For example, the next time you feel like scrolling through your Facebook feed instead of working, your replacement behavior might be to answer one more email. Each time you do the new behavior, you create a new association and memory of what to do when faced with the cue that leads to the bad behavior.2
Some habits like drinking alcohol and eating chocolate are harder to break because they make you feel better – even if only through a temporary chemical boost. When choosing the new replacement behavior, it will help to choose something that is also rewarding.1,2
Keep in mind that replacing an old habit with a new habit doesn’t erase the original behavior. Both remain in your brain and it can be easy to slip back into an unhealthy habit. You must force your body to do something different because it won’t do so voluntarily. But with repetition, you can strengthen the new behavior and create “healthy competition” for the original one.2,4
Do one small thing. What can you do in the next five minutes, hour, or day that can help you move toward your goal? Maybe it's taking a 10-minute walk before your next meeting. Or going to bed 15 minutes earlier. Doing something, even if it's small, helps you build the confidence and momentum to keep going.
Set SMART goals
A good goal-setting strategy is the SMART goal checklist.7 For example, if you want to lose weight, then make sure your goals meet the following criteria:
- Specific. A good goal includes specific details. A goal to exercise more is not specific, but a goal to walk 30 minutes after work every day is. You’re declaring what you will do, how long you will do it, and when.
- Measurable. If you can measure a goal, then you can determine how successful you are at meeting it. A goal of eating better isn’t easily measured, but a goal of eating 1,200 calories a day is.
- Attainable. An attainable goal is one you have enough time and resources to achieve. If your work schedule doesn't allow spending an hour at the gym every day, then it’s not realistic. However, one weekend and two weekday trips to the gym might be possible.
- Relevant. It's important to set meaningful goals. Examine the behavior you want to change and why – the why is important because it will help motivate you. Instead of saying, "I want to lose weight," say, "I want to be able to get down on my hands and knees to play with my kids."4
- Time-limited. Pick your goal and set a deadline. If you want to lose 10 pounds, then mark a finish line on a calendar and strive for that. Setting a time limit can motivate you to get started and stay on course.
How to keep good habits
Coming out of the pandemic and returning to your former life will create a battle between old and new behaviors. Many of the tactics that can help you break an old habit are the same ones that can help you keep a new one.
Plan how the habits you want to keep will fit into your post-pandemic schedule or adjust them accordingly. You might need to move your morning reading time to lunchtime or walk for 30 minutes instead of an hour.
Habit stacking is a helpful way to strengthen a new habit. This involves connecting the new habit you want to develop with an existing habit or routine. For example, if you want to incorporate more relaxed breathing into your day, then set a plan to practice two minutes of deep breathing after every meal.
Research shows that people need positive reinforcement to set habits – and they need it often.1,8 It helps to ask for support from your partner, spouse, or friends, or to work with a health and wellness coach or join a support group.
If you find yourself falling back into an old habit, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, show yourself compassion. Revisit your goal. Review your plans and take note of where and why you stumbled. Then start again.
Regardless of the habit you’re trying to change, you must be more relentless than the behavior that produced it in the first place. You’ve done it once – you can do it again.
- Kwasnicka D, Dombrowski S, White M, Sniehotta F. Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories. Health Psychol Rev 2016;10:277.
- Breaking bad habits: Why it's so hard to change. National Institute of Health News in Health. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2012/01/breaking-bad-habits. [Accessed May 11,2021.]
- Lanciego J, Luquin N, Obeso J. Functional neuroanatomy of the basal ganglia. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med 2012;2(12):a009621.
- Pretty J, Rogerson M, Barton J. Green mind theory: How brain-body-behaviour links into natural and social environments for healthy habits. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2017;14(7):706.
- Duhigg C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.
- Miller K, Shenhav A, Ludvig E. Habits without values. Psychol Rev 2019;126(2):292-311.
- SMART goal setting guide. American Council on Exercise. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/6763/smart-goal-setting-guide. [Accessed May 10,2021.]
- Homan K, Sirois F. Self-compassion and physical health: Exploring the roles of perceived stress and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychol Open 2017;4(2):2055102917729542.