Don’t know about you, but during lockdown I’ve acquired a mountain of bad habits, mostly related to food. I now struggle to make a cheese sandwich without first eating half the pack of cheese, in the afternoons I’m magnetically drawn to the snack cupboard, and in the evening what was a very occasional cereal “supper” has become a regular ritual.
I’ve got friends in similar predicaments. Whether they can’t stop scrolling social media, going to bed and getting up late, or can’t bring themselves to wear anything but jogging bottoms for work.
It’s not all bad of course. Many of us have also adopted good lockdown habits. For me, it’s been more regular meditation, playing the piano, going to bed and getting up the same time each day, and running regularly in the mornings (if you think that sounds too virtuous – look again at my bad food habits!). But if we’re not careful the good habits we’ve formed risk going out the window when life gets back to “normal”.
As the UK begins to ease out of lockdown, it feels a good time to sort our habits out and get back on the wagon. In this article, I’ll explain the psychology of habit, and provide some strategies to help you get rid of those bad lockdown habits and make sure the good ones stick. Skip straight to how to manage your lockdown habits.
What is a habit?
A habit is a behaviour we do without thinking, prompted by a “cue” in the environment around us. That cue might be another behaviour, a time of day, a feeling inside us or a social event such as watching television with your family.
For example, you might be in a positive habit of going for a walk straight after lunch (finishing lunch = cue to walk). Or perhaps, like me, you’re in a not-so-good habit of eating cheese every time you make your sandwich at lunchtime (making the cheese sandwich = cue to nibble cheese).
Habits usually lead to some kind of satisfaction (e.g. feeling good after going for a walk, or enjoying the taste of the cheese), which further helps keep them going.
Getting into positive habits can be helpful for staying active, eating healthily and looking after yourself.
Firstly, habits are very difficult to change – so once a behaviour becomes automatic it’s pretty much staying with you until the “cue” disappears or you break that mental link. Secondly, because habits are automatic, they take up very little thinking space. Which makes the behaviour easier to do and prevents you feeling overloaded by trying to do lots of different things at once. For example, if your daily walk is habitual, you can think about other things whilst you get ready for the walk. There is no need to focus your mind on the process of deliberating whether to go, of getting ready, or deciding what to wear.
Of course this “auto-pilot” is great news for habits that are good for you. It can however make bad habits difficult to change.
How are habits formed?
Habits are formed by repeating a behaviour within the same context over time. Essentially if you do the same thing regularly, in the same place or time, it will soon become a habit. A 2010 study from Phillippa Lally and colleagues showed it can take anywhere between 18 and 254 days (with an average of 66 days) for a new behaviour to become automatic. Given that New Year’s Resolutions rarely last beyond the end of January, this perhaps explains why. We simply don’t persevere for long enough.
When a behaviour is performed repeatedly within the same context, our brain creates a mental image that links the cue with the behaviour. This means whenever that cue happens the behaviour automatically follows.
We have many examples of such sequences in our daily lives, without even realising it. For instance, washing your face, brushing your teeth, doing your hair. It would be unlikely you’d ever forget to do these things because they’re all cued by mental images that prompt your brain what to do next (without you having to do any conscious thinking).
Applying this to health behaviours, let’s imagine you want to make meditating a daily habit. You could start by meditating for 5 minutes (behaviour) immediately after dressing every morning (cue). This will be challenging to do at first, and you’ll need to put a lot of conscious effort in to make sure you remember to meditate. But if you repeatedly meditate after dressing in the morning, you’ll find this quickly becomes easier (in a matter of days to weeks). If you keep persevering the meditation will become an engrained habit within your morning schedule (this is the bit that takes longer, so remember you might need to give it several months before it feels automatic). Meditating then feels easy because you no longer need to think about it.
The importance of context
A remarkable thing about habits is how dependent they are on context. The context might include the physical environment, time of day, people you’re with or even the weather. If the context changes, the cue is removed and the habit doesn’t happen.
In the example above, a habit of meditating after dressing in the morning at home will not likely continue when someone goes away on holiday. This is because the mental link is between “dressing at home” and “meditation” and there is no such link formed for “dressing on holiday” and “meditation”. But if the habit is strongly engrained, the meditation may start again when the individual returns home.
Even time of day can make a difference. For example, my desire to eat cheese (habit) is triggered when I make my cheese sandwich at lunchtime (cue) and it feels pleasurable to eat (satisfaction). But when I make my cheese sandwich in the morning (when I’m full from breakfast), it doesn’t even cross my mind to eat extra cheese. This is because my habit was formed through repeatedly eating cheese when making my sandwich at lunchtime (when I’m hungry), which formed a mental link between “lunchtime cheese sandwich” and “snacking on cheese”. But there is no such mental link between “morning cheese sandwich” and “snacking on cheese”.
How to manage your lockdown habits
Coming off auto-pilot
Whether it’s bad habits you want to get rid of, or good habits you want to keep, you will need to start by coming off “auto-pilot”. This means paying conscious attention to what your habits are, what context they take place in and what specific cues prompt your habits to happen.
- Start by writing down the bad habit you want to change and/or good habit you want to keep up.
- Write down when the behaviour occurs, what happens just before it (i.e. what your cue is), and whether there are any other contextual factors that “prompt” the behaviour (e.g. who is with you, is it linked to being in a particular room etc.). What mental connection has your brain made to keep the habit going? For example, for my cheese habit the connection is between making the sandwich in my kitchen at lunchtime and the pleasurable feeling of eating cheese.
- If your bad habit involves an urge or craving (e.g. for food or social media), pay attention to how it feels to have that craving. This short video from Dr Jed Brewer explains how being curious about our cravings can help us break those bad habits.
- Finally, think about what will happen to the habit if your working circumstances change, if you go away on holiday, or when the school holidays start. Will this cause the habit to stop, and do you want that to happen?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions immediately, try and log this over several days.
Once you’ve become aware of what your habits are and what cues are causing them, you can then move onto the next steps (or you may even find the process of curiosity has already started to change things for the better).
Getting rid of bad lockdown habits
If it’s a bad habit you’re trying to get rid of, follow these 4 steps to help you. You’ll first need to know what context and cues are prompting your habit, so if you haven’t yet reflected on this, go back and read the coming off auto-pilot section first.
1. Think about your motivation
Write down why it’s important to you to break this habit (if it’s something you feel you “should” change rather than want to, it might be helpful to read my blog about motivation). What is bad about having the habit? How will you feel if you succeed in getting rid of it? What value will it add to your life?
2. Are the context or cues something you can change?
The easiest way to tackle a bad habit is to change the context, or to get rid of the cue that’s prompting your bad habit. Coming out of lockdown itself provides a natural change of context, so if your habit (e.g. snacking at home) is linked to a temporary context that is likely to change in a couple of months (e.g. working from home), this could be your “get out” clause (as the context and cues for snacking at home will no longer be there when you return to the office). Or there could be habits where the cue could be removed. For example, I could start making my sandwiches in the morning, which would remove the lunchtime cue that prompts my extra cheese consumption.
3. Make an action plan
There will be some habits where it’s not easy to change the context or cue (e.g. if you’re in the habit of scrolling social media just after your evening meal, stopping eating your evening meal might not be the best course of action). Instead it might be easier to make an action plan for coming off auto-pilot and interrupting the habit before it happens.
On your plan write down specifically what you are going to do to prevent yourself following through with the habit whenever the cue happens.
One option could be to notice the cue when it happens, but instead of succumbing to the habit just notice how it feels. What effect is that habitual desire having on you? (if you haven’t yet, watching Dr Jed Brewer’s video might help with this). Remind yourself why breaking the habit is important to you, and how great you’ll feel if you succeed.
Another option could be to replace the habit with a positive behaviour instead. For example, if your habit is eating a chocolate biscuit after each meal, could you replace this with a piece of fruit instead? This has the added bonus that you form a new positive habit at the same time as getting rid of your bad habit.
4. Repeat your plan
This is the most crucial step. Every time your cue happens, bring it into your consciousness and follow your action plan.
It may be tough to stick to at first, but if you persevere it will quickly start to become easier. And if you slip up sometimes, remember this is only human. Don’t give up – just try again the next time.
Take notice of how it feels to succeed, and how getting rid of that behaviour is benefiting your mental and physical health.
Here’s an example, based on a habit my friend Niki is currently struggling with.
When Niki first wakes up she’s got into a bad habit of scrolling through social media in bed, which then means she doesn’t have time for her morning yoga. Her brain has made an automatic connection between the cue (waking up) and looking at her phone (habit) which contains interesting information (satisfaction that further fuels the habit). Niki really wants to change this as she values the benefits of yoga for her body and mind, and feels the scrolling is having a negative impact on her.
One option could be for Niki to get rid of the cue by putting her phone in the other room. If Niki feels this won’t work (e.g. if she needs the phone for an alarm clock), another option could be to remind herself why it is important for her to make this change and write down an action plan.
One plan could be that when Niki feels herself go to look at her phone, she is instead going to get out of bed and put her yoga kit on. She could make this easier by putting her yoga kit by the bed, so it is just as accessible as the phone.
Crucially, Niki then needs to repeat this process each day until she feels the bad habit has gone, and the new yoga habit has been formed. As Niki begins to notice how good the yoga (and not scrolling) makes her feel, this will give her an extra boost to keep persevering.
Making good lockdown habits stick
If it’s a good habit you’ve got into and you want to make sure this sticks, the following 3 steps might help you. As with the bad habits, you’ll first need to know what context and cues are prompting your habit, so if you haven’t yet reflected on this, go back and read the coming off auto-pilot section first.
1. Think about your motivation
Start by writing down why you want to keep your good habit up. What will be bad if you let the habit go? How is the behaviour helping your mental and physical health? What value does it add to your life?
2. Make an action plan to keep the behaviour up
On your plan write down specifically what you are going to do to continue the behaviour if your circumstances change. For example, if you’ve been walking after lunch each day when working from home. You could make a specific plan to walk every day after lunch at the office instead. But remember this won’t yet be an automatic association in your brain (as last time you were in work you weren’t walking after lunch), so you may need to put extra steps into your plan to help yourself (e.g. by saying where you are going to walk, and what you will do if the weather isn’t good).
3. Repeat your plan
The important thing once you’ve made your plan is to repeat it in that new context (e.g. office) every time the cue (e.g. finishing lunch) happens. This will help your brain make a new mental image (e.g. by connecting lunch in the workplace with a walk after lunch, and the feeling of satisfaction you get through doing this). This may take some perseverance so be patient, and keep reminding yourself why it is important you do this. Over time it will become a way of life.
Final tips – a little discipline now is worth the benefits later
In my Sociology A level class I learned about a concept called “deferred gratification”. This means resisting an immediate pleasure in the knowledge that doing so will benefit us in the long run.
Writing about habit has taken me back to this concept. In the early days of trying to break a habit, or take up a new one, it will require discipline and may not always be easy. But if you stick to it, those mental connections will soon break down (or form) and you’ll begin to feel the benefits of that healthier habit – be it less snacking, more walking or getting more sleep.
Try these final tips to make the change process easier:
- Keep reminding yourself how making the change will add value to your life (try writing this on a post-it on the fridge, the snack cupboard or by the bed!)
- Persevere – don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, keep going and you will get there (even though it might take several months to become fully automatic, you will find it starts becoming easier in the first few weeks)
- Try not to go “cold turkey” and overhaul your whole life at once (e.g. rather than going from snacking all day to no snacks, focus first on removing one or two of the snacks where you can easily identify the cues)
And if all else fails, try writing a blog about habit – it’s certainly helped me address my unnecessary cheese-munching. Now onto the snacking and the cereal…
As I’ve spent most of my career writing academic research papers, I’m pretty new to blogging and have been learning loads from Hubspot bloggers. I’d love to hear your feedback, so please comment below, ask further questions and join the conversation – what are your own lockdown habit experiences, and how do the tips in this blog work for you (or not)?
Dr Paula Watson is a HCPC-registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, Director of Made Up to Move Ltd and part-time lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.
Made Up to Move offers affordable psychology services to help people with the mental aspects of exercise and physical activity. If you’d like further support in understanding and changing your own relationship with exercise, please get in touch about 1-to-1 mentoring (currently free).