Sophisticated Tips for Keeping Up Good Habits

How to maintain good habits you've formed during COVID-19.

Posted Dec 23, 2020

Nathana Rebouças/Unsplash
Source: Nathana Rebouças/Unsplash

Many people have developed positive habits during 2020 that they'd like to keep when life starts to return to normal. 

Let me tell you the bad news, followed by the good news. 

The bad news:

Habits are triggered by a context. This context can be a time, place, another behavior, or a combination. For example, when I wake up, then I walk into my bathroom, then I brush my teeth. Another (fictional) example: When my spouse starts talking about my spending, I explode with anger.

A routine usually consists of time + place + behavior.

Any habit requires a cue. All your old cues (e.g., taking the subway to work) have other habits associated with them. When you resume your old routines, your habits will probably return to how they were before. That is, unless you do something to influence that.

Let's break down an example. Say, before COVID-19 you would run into the grocery store a few times a week on the way home from work. During COVID-19, you shop with a list. You make one well-planned out trip per week during a time of the day the store is quiet. You buy more basic ingredients and cook more.

When you resume your old routine of going into your office or school, your shopping habits will probably revert to those associated with your old routine. This could include what you buy and whether you wipe down the cart, use hand sanitizer, etc. 

When people talk about life returning to normal, this includes you resuming your old routines. Therefore, your habits will naturally revert to whatever was associated with those routines. 

The good news (and a detailed example):

When you understand how habits work, you can orchestrate yours. Here's an example:

Personally, I've enjoyed getting fewer colds this year. To this end, I'd like to keep up using hand sanitizer when I leave the grocery store and at the playground. (I'd also like to continue mask-wearing in certain situations during cold and flu season e.g., when taking the subway.)

Let's unpack the hand sanitizer example, so you can see the level of detail at which you need to understand your habits.

I know what has worked for me this year for good hand hygiene is buying a four-pack of large hand sanitizer bottles from Costco and keeping a bottle in the cupholder between the seats in my car. Whenever a bottle is getting low (not empty), a new full bottle goes in. There are two cupholders, so both can go in the car. Whenever I return to the car from a store, I have a very specific, automatic routine. I put my child in her car seat, do her hands and mine, then put any bags into the car, then return the cart, then do my hands again. 

It's easiest to keep up this routine if I do it whenever I return to the car from any store or outing (like the playground). That makes the habit more automatic compared to if I were to only bother with it for certain types of stores or outings. 

This level of specific routine, automaticity, and some redundancy (always having extra bottles) helps keep the habit strong.

If you want to keep a habit, you need to have a detailed, automatic routine for it. So, think through your behavior, the cues, and safeguards like I have in the example above.

The more complex a behavior, the more of a challenge this can be, but it's doable. For example, if you need to make a grocery shopping list for the week, that's a more complex, involved habit.

Or, say you've been going for a lunchtime walk while you've been working from home and want to continue this once you return to the office. You'll need to figure out a routine for this with lots of automaticity, strong cues, and safeguards against that routine being disrupted (by other people, your workload, spending 20 mins in line at a food truck and running out of time for the walk, forgetting to take your sneakers to work, etc.). 

Good habits related to safety are vulnerable.

If you skip a safety habit, like hand sanitizing or wearing your seatbelt and nothing bad happens, your brain reasons "hey, nothing went wrong, I guess I don't need that habit." 

So those types of habits especially need to be set up so they're very strongly automatic. 

Your good 2020 habits won't automatically sustain themselves.

Your good habits won't automatically stick when you return to your old routines, or if you start a new routine (like hybrid WFH/going into work.) You'll need to figure out what routines and safeguards you need to keep up your good habits. This is doable when you understand how habits work. 

How to keep your habits strong.

Consider anything that could disrupt your habits and don't let it. This could include very simple, seemingly innocuous things, like if wherever you buy hand sanitizer stops selling or has it less prominently displayed, so you forget to buy it. Or, let's say I dropped my Costco membership and needed to form a new routine of where I purchased it in bulk quantities. 

It might seem like overkill to think all this through, but it's part of mastering your habits, and it's not too onerous once you get the hang of it. If it's easier to do, the more stable your life is. The more chaotic your life is, the more chance there is of your habits being disrupted without you seeing it coming. Stable routines will support your habits e.g., if I consistently go to Costco then I'm more likely to buy hand sanitizer in bulk consistently. I don't mean there is anything special about Costco, but you can hopefully see how stability in your general routines of living can help you maintain good habits.

Plan around simple but likely obstacles. Even a factor as simple as which family member goes shopping can matter, for example, if your spouse goes to Costco instead of you, isn't used to buying hand sanitizer, and forgets it. In this scenario, put in a safeguard, like always having enough on hand that forgetting it on one trip won't matter. Or, having one person always be the Costco shopper.

It can take a bit of effort and skill to strengthen your habits and make them resilient, but for important habits, that's likely to be well worth it.