'A life of choice': Will pandemic habits have staying power?
TORONTO -- Grabbing a mask on the way out the door and a thorough hand-wash upon returning home, or perhaps more commonly staying home and meeting virtually for work and fun are just a few of the new habits picked up during the pandemic, and experts say some might stick around even after restrictions lift.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to change their habits, something that is usually very difficult for people to do.
“If you want to adopt a new habit, it's like climbing up a mountain, and I imagine so many people would respond to the pandemic as a habit imposed on them,” Sam Maglio, professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on June 16.
Having rules and regulations in place has made it a lot easier for people to adopt the new rules, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing.
“When we talk about habits sticking, people often look to individual factors such as willpower, motivation, and decision. But “friction” in our environment also makes a difference – friction involves factors that make behaviours we want to do easier and behaviours we do not want to do harder,” clinical psychologist and board director with Anxiety Canada Melanie Badali told CTVNews.ca in an email.
WHY HABITS STICK
Determining if these habits will persist post-pandemic gets a bit hazy for Maglio, because while we can see each other's behaviour, we never really know the “why” behind it.
“It is kind of a black box, you don't really know why or what need is being satisfied by that behaviour. So, I would imagine that the answer, the peek inside that black box, might be very different for the different habits that people are expecting to stick around after the pandemic.”
And some habits that people want to maintain, such as remote work, virtual cocktails and at-home workouts, come with benefits. They can eliminate lengthy commutes, for example, or save money by making DIY cocktails and skipping the gym membership.
“A consistent theme through all of that, is people are doing it because they are, at least they think they are, getting some sort of benefit from this new pattern of behaviour that the pandemic forced them to adopt,” said Maglio.
It’s evidence people can find the silver lining in a situation, even one as challenging as the pandemic has been.
“One of the silver linings that comes out of this might be an 18-month hard reset on kind of just going along with the day-to-day and approach to how we’ve always done stuff,” said Maglio.
ROUTINE, RITUAL OR HABIT?
And some of the habits picked up along the way, such as wearing a mask, and washing hands upon returning home have become ritualized.
“Rituals can make your life better by giving a sense of consistency,” he said.
A daily ritual such as making the bed each morning can set the tone for the entire day, he added.
Already, putting masks on has become such a part of our daily lives that when those restrictions begin to lift, some might feel naked without them.
“That ‘where’s my mask?’ might be the phantom phone ring of 2021, where it's something that you think is there, but you don't need to be there,” said Maglio.
Some of our new habits or rituals may make returning to normal life a bit awkward as we readjust to eased restrictions. For Maglio, because his mask hid his smile, he began laughing out loud while checking out at the grocery store, and he’s not sure that it’s a voluntary response anymore.
“It's become automatic to make a sound, because for a while, the visual cue hasn’t been there,” he said.
The automatic behaviour is what he believes will carry on after restrictions are lifted, whether they are good behaviours or bad.
“Having an automaticity, for better or worse, is likely to stick around for a while until we learn that some stuff that we picked up isn't needed or is destructive, and maybe the silver lining is that some stuff is helpful,” he added.
But for some people, wearing a mask and following physical distancing guidelines and other pandemic related restrictions has been more difficult. Badali says that this behaviour is to be expected.
“For some people, putting on a mask before they leave their home may be a routine (they have to think about putting on their mask) rather than a habit (they automatically grab their mask after their keys and put it on),” she said.
Some routines, she added, can turn into habits, especially if there’s a reward involved, such as a midnight snack. So some habits might come on faster than others, and some may be hard to break.
“In general, the habit memory system learns slowly over time and is resistant to change. Habits are like “autopilot mode” – we have to consciously switch out of it but it will remain the default setting for a while as your brain learns a new habit. The good news is that habits are more conducive to change when people are experiencing disruption in routines,” said Badali.
It will be important to pay attention to context as restrictions ease and lift across the country as it may no longer benefit to continue a habit.
“Habit loops may cease to be rewarded or reinforced when public health recommendations change,” she said.
We may also find ourselves quickly and easily returning to old, pre-pandemic habits, because as the saying goes: Old habits die hard.
“In areas where we return to pre-pandemic-like environments, we may find that we shift easily to old habits because habit memories are there to be activated. As the world opens up, we may fall back into old routines and habits mindlessly. There is an opportunity for us to be mindful about routines and habits in a way that enables us to choose what still fits for us and what we want to change,” said Badali.
WHEN FEAR INFORMS HABIT
Some people may be more anxious than others about losing the mask and getting up close with strangers on the bus or subway. For those who look upon those days with a sense of dread, Badali recommends using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to help with the fear and anxiety.
“It is possible that mask-wearing, hand sanitizer use and other behaviours, could transition from beneficial behaviours that are worth doing to unhelpful behaviours that don’t really offer much benefit in terms of actual safety and, in fact, start to become problems because they fuel our anxiety,” she said. “The solution becomes the problem. In cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for anxiety, we often look for “safety behaviours” that are used in an attempt to prevent harm and to feel more comfortable in anxiety-provoking situations.”
For Badali, it’s important to keep up to date with the science and pandemic guidelines.
“My advice would be, live a life of choice. Follow the science rather than letting emotions boss you around. Don’t get stuck. Take small steps if you need to do so.”