#Breaking or making the habit?

Breaking Blue

Is COVID-19 going to totally disrupt the way we behave? Are we going to become a nation of home-workers? Or is our ‘new normal’ going to look very much like our ‘old normal’ in a matter of months? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answers to that (although we wish we did!). But we did want to think about what the pandemic means for our behaviour. Specifically, our automatic behaviours – habits.

Habits are automatic behaviours that occur on a regular basis. Biting your nails, eating an apple with your lunch each day, going for a run after work.  They may start off as conscious behaviours, but overtime become non-conscious. There’s good reason for this is that they’re efficient ways of doing a behaviour, so by being automatic we have mental capacity for other tasks. If you had to think about everything you did to leave for work – putting on shirt, doing each button, tying shoes, the tricky business of toasting AND buttering bread, you’d never leave the house!

Habit formation takes time and reinforcement – it doesn’t happen overnight. You may have heard of the ’21 day’ rule, which is now largely thought of as myth (see this interesting article for more). This illuminating study by Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts & Wardle (2010) report the average time for people to report performing a new action automatically was 66 days, although ranges between participants ranged from 18 to a predicted 254 days. The type of the action we want to habit also impacts this rate – complex behaviours may take longer than simpler ones, for example (see this article for a useful digest).

In any case, formation doesn’t happen overnight but over weeks and months. We don’t yet know how long the lockdown will last in the UK, but we do know at time for writing that it’ll persist for another 3 weeks, taking us into May (as of 16th April 2020). Our typical behaviours have been up-ended, for the most part, by the pandemic. New routines are being formed right now, our hands’ forced by the situation we find ourselves in. Our decision making is influenced by a multitude of factors, some of which we control and some of which we can’t. Our mood, the weather outside, what day of the week it is, whether we’re tired and stressed, for example, can all influence our behaviour.

Context can act as a cue for behaviour, like time of day or location. How many of us habitually used to buy a coffee from a particular coffee shop at 8:50am each day before work on the way into the office? Even if you personally didn’t, it’s not a scenario that is hard to imagine. This might be a habit that’s formed over time – you’ve been going to that coffee shop every morning for the past 3 years. Your office hasn’t moved, and nor has that café. You’re tired in the morning and the coffee makes you perk up a bit.

Over time, a loop is formed. You walk past the coffee shop, you feel tired, you buy a nice coffee that helps you wake up a bit, and happiness is restored. Each time the loop happens, the habit is strengthened and reinforced. Then one day your doctor says you’re drinking way too much coffee, you need to cut it right out. Do you swap your usual for decaff? Do you walk a different way to work from now on (changing the cue)? This isn’t life advice by any means, but an illustration how habits can be made and broken.

What does that mean for us in our current ‘new normal’? Consider home working, for example.Not all of us will have had the pleasure before COVID-19 of setting up desk at home, but in living rooms, bedrooms and spare dining rooms around the UK and beyond, this is now the new norm.  If you are struggling with this behaviour change, then this excellent article by Dr Wendy Wood discusses how to ease the move from office to home working. The key lies in context – “the more your home context is like your office, the more your surroundings will activate your regular work activities.”  When the context changes, these habits can be disrupted.

For example, for students who went to a new University (Wood, Tam & Guerrero Witt, 2005) their pre-existing habits survived this change of circumstance if their ‘performance context’ was unchanged (e.g. continue to read the newspaper with other people). The author’s advice for home working is to reinstate the context as much as possible.Keep to your old office hours, have your breaks the same time, even possibly dress for work. Although your home is always going to be your home, you can bring the same office behaviours into it, and over time  they should become more habitual.

It might be also worth thinking about what we consider habit vs ritual. We’ve described that we are triggered by a cue, do the action, then receive some form of reinforcement; similar to the rats in Skinner’s box, to form a habit. Rituals are so much more than mindless habits, and there’s been plenty written on the subject illustrating the difference. But they do occupy a similar space, and one of the key differences is that rituals have an intent and meaning, whereas habits do not. This great article by Dimitris Xygalatas explores ritualistic behaviour and why it is important during the pandemic from an anthropologist’s perspective. Habits are the behaviour, but rituals can help give these actions meaning with a wider purpose.

Whilst we’re in a period of flux from COVID-19, it might be about a good time to think what habits we want to make, and those we might like to break. A forced change of environment, of context, can help with this. The extra time many of us will find ourselves with may allow us to form ‘good’ habits, such as jumping on the exercise bike before work. Or it could instil arguably ‘bad’ habits, such as jumping on the computer early in the morning, because it’s there and we’re awake well before 9am. How those habits will look in the future (or 66 days’ time, possibly), only time will tell.


By Chris Rawcliffe and Adele James



Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology

Wood, W., Tam, L. and Guerrero Witt, M. (2005) Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology