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Habit Formation, Working Practices and Covid-19

Sep 23 2020 • 3 min read

When London Underground drivers went on strike in 2014 it forced millions of commuters to travel to work by different modes of transport.

After the strike, around 5% of these commuters never returned to their original routes. They had been forced to discover new and – as it turned out – better ways to work than their original tube ride. The time saved by those that switched routes was so great that, overall, Londoners actually saved time as a result of the strike.

Why, then, did it take a strike for these commuters to optimise their journeys when they could have done so at any time?

The answer is habit formation.

Habits are behaviours that are triggered by some kind of ‘cue’ (think of a cup of coffee that you purchase every day on the way to work), which unlocks some form of reward (a lovely cup of coffee replete with caffeine).

What cements a habit is the repetition of this behaviour in a consistent context over time. You get a coffee at broadly the same time, from the same place, on your way to the same location, every work day.

After repeating it again and again, we don’t have to give our effortful, active attention to any aspect of the decision-making process.

Until, that is, our routine gets disrupted. Then we have to give our active attention to work out what to do instead.

These disruptive events happen occasionally to all manner of habitual behaviours. But very rarely is every aspect of our daily routine – from our morning movements to our evening events – disrupted simultaneously. And that, of course, has been one of the side-effects of Covid-19.

When disruption occurs on this scale, there’s potential for resetting swathes of our habitual behaviours. A recent paper by Oliver Wyman, supported by CogCo, showed how this is happening to a wide range of business practices. And researchers at Manchester and Cardiff Universities show similar patterns to people’s everyday lives.

But as everyone involved in behavioural research knows, there is a gulf between an intention and a behaviour. Which brings us back to how habits are created and sustained.

A return to normal will itself be accompanied by a measure of disruption as we recommence our journeys to work; have the ability to regularly meet people face-to-face again; and have the option to kickstart all the other behaviours that we previously performed without thinking.

This means that when life does return to normal, the positive new behaviours will not magically be sustained without some active attention on our part. So how can we make sure that we can keep them up?

To maintain these new routines we will need to go back to the research on creating and maintaining habits. In practice, it means we will need to identify the recently-adopted behaviours that we want to sustain. And then actively plan to repeat them in a consistent context as we enter the post-Covid world. Otherwise, we’ll end up back on the same old tracks.

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