One evening in March 2020, as I sat on a London Tube train in an unusually anxious cluster of passengers, I caught my hand drifting towards my face. I’ve always bitten my nails.
At the age of nine, my mum insisted on painting a bitter-tasting polish on each one. I chewed on regardless, and nail biting has filled absent-minded moments ever since. But this time, as my fingers approached my mouth, I froze.
My eyes scanned the carriage. Phrases such as “sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice” and “survives on hard surfaces” jumped out at me from scattered newspapers. A man sitting opposite raised a small bottle of anti-bacterial gel and, somewhat pointedly, squeezed some into his palms. I looked down at mine. There was a time for nail biting, I realised, and this most certainly was not it.
Though this habit was now clearly a serious health risk, breaking it was unimaginably hard. The stress of coronavirus urged me to bite on; my knowledge of it compelled me not to. It surprised me that the threat of illness was not enough for me to snub temptation. For the first time, I realised how ingrained this pursuit had become.
A solution came courtesy of the government: it’s hard to bite your nails through a legally mandated face covering. I could now travel on public transport and wander down supermarket aisles without risk of gnawing. Remembering to leave the house with a mask, however, became a challenge of its own. It took some time for the accessory to join the pre-departure checklist of wallet, phone, keys, windows, cat, hob, cat. Forming a new habit, I realised, could be as tough as breaking an old one.
For many of us, the pandemic has been experienced primarily through a series of dos and don’ts and the habits we’ve been forced to make or forget. At first, it was hard not to greet people with a hug, kiss or handshake. Now I flinch if someone gets too close. My fine-tuned morning routine was demolished because I no longer needed to leave the house; I wouldn’t remember to brush my teeth until midday. If the pandemic disrupted some habits, it also drove us deeper into Covid-compliant ones; I now had lie-ins seven days a week.
When we say the coronavirus has shaken up our lives, this is what we really mean: these hard-wired behaviours have gone haywire. Habits have changed, strengthened and seemingly vanished — and when one habit goes, anything can pop up to replace it. One friend admitted (somewhat shamefully) that her morning routine became so dishevelled that she started using Deliveroo for breakfast. What on earth was happening to us?
In psychology, habits are defined as learnt actions that are triggered automatically by particular contexts. These can be acquired by determination, such as running every morning until we can’t live without it; by law, such as wearing a seatbelt; or by cultural norms, such as kissing hello once, twice or three times, depending on where you are from.
We acquire these associations through repetition and the “habit loop”, which consists of a cue, a behaviour and a reward. For example, after using the toilet, we wash our hands, which then feel clean and hygienic — great. We turn on the TV, and reach for a bar of chocolate — obviously delicious.
Daily routines shape the habits we form — and much of your routine is likely to be habitual — but habits are the bits we perform on autopilot, not the things we might simply choose to do often, such as feeding the cat expensive treats or buying an age-inappropriate outfit. Habits exist in our subconscious. The cognitive process is in motion before we realise what is happening — and lo, another bar of chocolate is gone.
Human brains act in this way for our benefit. As William James, the father of American psychology, wrote in 1890: “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”
Contemporary researchers agree. In Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick, Wendy Wood, a professor of social psychology, says that effortlessness is a “defining property” of a habit. When the executive system no longer has to manage life routines, “it frees our conscious mind”, she writes.
Our lives are thus a jumble of habits that help get us through the day as efficiently as possible. James, who was clearly committed to his theory, believed that 99 per cent of our actions were habitual. Wood, who conducted a study that asked subjects to keep a note of their actions and, crucially, what they were thinking about as they performed them, puts the figure at 43 per cent. Still, that’s almost half the day spent doing one thing — automatically — while thinking about something else. We really are running on autopilot much of the time.
One reason the pandemic has been so unsettling, Wood explains to me over Zoom, is that it has upended our habits and put us all back in “decision mode”. “I think that’s part of the reason why people reported feeling so overwhelmed and tired when all of this started,” she says. “All of a sudden we had to focus in ways that we don’t normally. It put us back to square one.”
This was a blessing as well as a curse, giving us the chance to rethink old habits and invent new ones. With the near-death of commuting, our work habits are now oriented around home offices. A YouGov survey from September 2020 found that almost 60 per cent of British workers wanted to continue with homeworking after the pandemic.
But other habit changes proved tougher to adjust to. In my local park, the council spent much of the year failing to deter the most committed fitness fanatics from making use of the outdoor gym equipment.
Square one, for me, was a confusing, discordant place. I found that as habits dropped away, routine activities stagnated thanks to my new uncertainty. Before, when I popped out for groceries, I seamlessly grabbed a coat, tote and left the house. Now I’d stand scratching my head in the hallway wondering whether I could visit a shop at all — and if it was even safe to do so. I began to avoid the decision altogether.
I started running — lots. Yoga too. Drinking. I reignited my relationship with cigarettes. I indulged all my favourite stress-busting habits at once. I felt like I was scrabbling for control as the life I knew crumbled around me. I explain this to Wood — our conversation is becoming less interview and more confessional. “This is exactly what we’d predict,” she says, laughing. “You’re the perfect research subject.” I pushed the image of a rat in yoga gear running through a maze looking for cigarettes out of my mind.
When we are under stress, we resort to habitual behaviour more quickly. But, says Wood, “good habits increase as well as bad ones — we just notice the bad ones more”. In a 2013 study, she tracked students during an exam period. Just as junk-food fans ate even more doughnuts when the pressure was on, the students who loved healthy food became more committed to their oatmeal breakfasts.
It shows how powerful habits are, awaiting any excuse to grab the wheel; it’s also a stern reminder that having our habits in order can help when other parts of life go awry. Where did that leave weak-willed citizens such as me?
I call psychologist Dr Benjamin Gardner, from King’s College London, who indulges me while taking his morning stroll (habit experts have good habits, it seems). To break a bad habit, he says, “we need to overwrite the whole [cognitive] process”. That way, we no longer depend on our intentions to sustain them because, as recent events have proved, it doesn’t take much for willpower to fall by the wayside.
As Gardner explains, this means repeatedly doing a different action when you encounter the habit-inducing cue until you develop a new association strong enough to overpower it. To stop eating chocolate when you watch TV, you might replace the chocolate with a healthy alternative — but it needs to be just as rewarding, says Gardner, otherwise “it’s a non-starter”.
I actually recognised this process. To disrupt mindless doomscrolling during lockdown, I’d deleted social media from my phone and replaced them with an online chess app. Blank moments became filled with checkered duels, and after almost a year of practice, I stopped losing to eight-year-olds from India hammering out three-move checkmates. Habit: overridden.
But it doesn’t stop there. “You have to do everything you can to stop yourself doing the old behaviour and facilitate the new one,” says Gardner — reducing friction for a good habit, such as leaving your trainers by your bed ready for a morning run, and creating friction for a bad one. Friction? Sounds like those face masks might be the saviour of my nails after all.
One year on, the dysphoria of a forced lifestyle change had faded. I’d grown attached to some of my new habits. Not the social distancing and the flinching at strangers, but working from home, getting to know the ducks at my local park, living locally. I had a new, fine-tuned, morning routine with double the coffee for a fraction of the price. My stress diminished (as long as I went easy on the coffee). I could consciously avoid nail biting. I stopped smoking (again). But how much of this will survive in the post-pandemic world, when our parameters and possibilities change once again?
Coming out of the pandemic and back into our former settings will be a battle between old and new behaviours, says Gardner, but keeping the new ones will depend on whether they have really become habit, as opposed to simply things we decide to do. Context is significant: without the cues of the coronavirus threat, social distancing and face masks will probably fall away. Some surveys suggest that frequent handwashing is already on the decline. “I think for those new habits to continue,” he says, “we must have at least some basic motivation to keep doing them.”
Our old pre-pandemic habits may flood back with similar fervour — even the ones we dislike. Gardner points to that unspeakable phenomenon of going back to our parents’ house as adults and “starting behaving like a teenager again”. We may think we’ve left old habits behind, but in fact they are lying dormant and, unless we’ve rewritten them completely, the associations are still there. By definition, habits are in it for the long haul.
The anxiety I felt about the return to everyday life began to make sense: my conscious mind wanted it, of course, but my recently remoulded habitual self cried out for things to remain just so. It was distressing to have old habits dismantled, but now I understood how the formation of new ones had helped me cope; it certainly explained the mundane comfort of the “new normal”.
Just as the arrival of the pandemic shattered our habits, its departure will do the same. But this time we can see it coming. In her book, Wood discusses the notion of “creative destruction”: sometimes, out of periods of turmoil, seeds for a better way of doing things can be sown — there’s an opportunity there, if we choose to act on it. I thought about the new and improved lifestyle I hoped I might construct for the future. Healthy, focused, efficient . . . the best of old and new. Then I thought about the power of habits. I caught my hand drifting towards my face.
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