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Pandemic habits: How to keep the good ones, end the bad ones

UPDATED: Wed., April 7, 2021

By Sunny Fitzgerald Special to the Washington Post

With the rollout of coronavirus vaccines picking up, there’s a lot of talk about resuming our pre-pandemic lives. But although many of us might welcome such a return, we also may have made changes over the past year – such as prioritizing our health, creating new family traditions and learning new skills – that we’d like to carry forward.

As the world starts whirring again and people return to offices, schools and schedules, the risk of lapsing into our pre-pandemic ways is real. “We’re going to be faced with two sets of habits: pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. And we’ll have to choose which to repeat,” said Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”

“It’s usually easier to act habitually, so we may end up returning to what we’ve done before the pandemic.”

So, “don’t leave your habits to chance,” said B.J. Fogg, a behavior scientist, the founder and director of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab and author of “Tiny Habits.” “Now, as things shift back, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be deliberate about what habits you want to keep and what new habits you want to form.”

Here is some advice from the experts to help you do that:

Identify or reaffirm your goals

Set aside time to write down your goals, then list which behaviors support them and which hinder them, said therapist and mental health podcast host Celeste Viciere. For example, if you’ve made improving your mental health a goal over the past year, you might decide to prioritize behaviors such as meditation, exercise or therapy sessions that you started during the pandemic.

On the flip side, Viciere said, be honest in your audit and consider any habits you’ve developed that might be counterproductive to your goals, such as drinking more alcohol. “We often know there are things we’re doing that aren’t working for us,” Viciere said, “yet we never create a plan to change them.”

And, Viciere said, you can add reminders: Post your purpose on your mirror or the lock screen on your phone, for example. “It’s easy to fall in line with the pace of society if we’re not mindful.”

Schedule – and scale back

If you plan to keep a habit, Viciere suggested treating it the way you would something required for work or survival. “Put it on your calendar the way you put a meeting so it doesn’t fall by the wayside.”

Fogg recommended looking at your expected routine to strategize where desired habits will fit best. That might mean moving your morning walk to your lunch break if that morning time slot will be spent commuting. And if you’re struggling to fit in everything, he says to “make it tiny” – a strategy to make creating and maintaining desired habits more manageable.

So, perhaps take a 20-minute walk instead of a 40-minute one. Or maybe your family dinner can be 3 out of 7 days rather than all seven. Or try meditating for two minutes instead of 20.

Scaling back, even just when circumstances require it, can help you avoid becoming discouraged or giving up, he said. “Think about taking this bigger habit and keeping it alive in a tiny form.” And if time opens up in the future, the desired habit will already be rooted and ready to grow.

Be creative and realistic

You might find that some things you’ve had time for over the past year are not possible in their current form. But, Fogg said, “a little bit of thought and planning can help you transplant those habits.”

For example, if you’ve been starting your day with a book, a call with a loved one or language study, but you’ll need that time to get ready and on the road to work, consider how you might incorporate those habits in a different form: listen to an audiobook, call your parents while you’re preparing breakfast or have a conversation with your French tutor on your commute.

Fogg said to ask yourself: “What have I discovered that is more satisfying or important for me than what I was doing with that commute time before?”

And if what you really need is some quiet time, don’t feel obligated to fill the space. During the pandemic, many of us have given ourselves permission to stop subscribing to the culture of busyness. With more hours spent at the office, on the road or at children’s soccer games, for example, you might need to accept that there simply isn’t time for everything.

Design your environment

If you want to form or maintain a habit, the experts say you’ll need to put the pieces in place to make it as effortless as possible. “Figure out what the triggers are that allow you to do [the desired habit] relatively seamlessly,” Wood said.

For example, if you started making dinner as a family during the pandemic and want to continue doing so, that might mean ordering groceries online to save time and ensure the ingredients are in your kitchen.

Or, if a daily jog has been beneficial, and you want to keep it in your schedule but won’t be home before dark, bring your gear to the office and hit a nearby park or, if possible, a company gym during lunch or before commuting home.

For habits we would like to eliminate, experts recommend adding friction and removing cues. “Take active steps to redesign your environment and make those unwanted habits hard to do,” Fogg said. These can be small changes such as placing something out of sight, whether that’s putting candy in a cupboard or removing an app from your phone.

For those who struggle with a true addiction, experts strongly advise seeking a professional who specializes in the specific issue.

Incorporate immediate rewards

You’ve probably read somewhere that repetition is key to forming habits and that, on average, it takes 66 days for behavior to become automatic. But Fogg said that’s not the case.

Although research conducted in 2009 by Phillippa Lally and colleagues at the Health Behavior Research Center in London is widely cited in discussions about habit formation, Fogg said it shows a correlation – not causation – between repetition and the formation of habits. Fogg’s research shows that “it’s not repetition; it’s emotions that create habits,” he said.

While performing a habit, Fogg said, you need to “reinforce the positive.” This can mean replacing critical self-talk with encouragement and celebration, he said. For example, if you’re unable to do as many pull-ups as you’d like, rather than beating yourself up, praise yourself for your form, effort and progress.

You can also use rewards. In the case of the latter, the experts said, don’t put it off. “Habits form from immediate rewards,” Wood said. “So, if you want to start exercising, for example, it’s not enough to treat yourself at the end of the week. Make sure the reward is something you experience as you do the behavior.” That might mean finding workouts you enjoy or listening to podcasts or watching television while doing them.

Consider your circle

Friends and family can provide support in the form of accountability, reinforcement and celebration. “Sometimes, it can feel like a battle when you’re trying to change habits, especially when many people have been isolated [during the pandemic],” Viciere said. “I don’t think we’re meant to do life alone, and community support can be really powerful.”

If you don’t have a circle you can count on, Viciere recommended reaching out to a therapist; organizations that foster community in a particular area, such as reducing alcohol consumption; or online forums where you can participate without sharing private information.

People around us can also hinder habit formation. In evaluating habits, experts said, you’ll probably need to consider which relationships to keep and which to release.

Take heart

Making changes and maintaining habits can be challenging. But we’ve all been doing it in various ways, and that evidence is an important reminder of what we’re capable of. “The past year shows how powerful our minds are,” Viciere said. “We were able to pivot, create transitions and go with the flow.”

Don’t get discouraged if your first (or fifth) attempt doesn’t stick, Fogg said. “Nobody’s perfect in creating or stopping habits. Don’t expect yourself to be. It’s a skill you can get better at, but, for most people, it’s a process of trying things and designing and redesigning and trying again.” Beating yourself up is counterproductive, and, ultimately, he said, “you change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad. Be nice to yourself.”

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