Are your usual habits, such as working out and eating healthy, hard to sustain during the COVID-19 pandemic? Many of us have had to adapt to this “new normal” by establishing new routines while trying to adjust to being with our family members 24/7. The question is, did you develop productive habits or ones that have led to negative consequences?
A habit is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary. The scope of this post will primarily be on physical habits or repetitive, observable physical movements. As you read on, consider the habits that you have developed in the wake of COVID-19.
When we couple uncertain times with multiple social and economic stressors, it leads us to do many time-consuming and unproductive behaviors–tech scrolling, over-thinking, worrying, stress eating, or binging on activities we like.
It is easy to fall into unproductive habits. So we need a mechanism to recognize that we are engaging in them and to subsequently stop them before the habits become sustained. In short, we need to learn how to develop productive habits instead.
Breaking a habit or developing one is hard work, but it is not impossible. Once you know the main components of habit change, you can design a plan to change them. Applying science and theory from a variety of social sciences and my own clinical work, I have developed these step-wise considerations to teach you how to develop productive habits that you’ll stick to.
Develop Insight to Avoid “Action Paralysis”
For those who are intimidated by sequential actions, and are more of a “do-er” than a “planner”, you may have the urge to change your habits without reflection. On the other hand, “planners” may have the urge to fixate on the planning part of their routines to the point where they never execute their plans. This is known as “action paralysis“.
In order to develop productive habits, you need to determine if you are a “doe-er” or a “planner”. Neither is inherently problematic, but you need to be aware of the strengths and the limitations of each type.
Having a coach, therapist, or a support group can help you reflect and understand your behaviors. These third-parties can hold you accountable and nudge you to successfully change a habit. Furthermore, joining a community working toward similar habits is helpful in sustaining a new or reformed habit.
Identify Habits with Negative Consequences
We may find it difficult to identify our own habits that lead to negative consequences. If so, I encourage you to ask your partner, friends, and family. Their candid observations will provide useful and actionable insight.
I always advise against labeling habits as “good” or “bad.” Instead, you should reflect on whether your habit results in negative consequences, or prevents you from being more productive or satisfied with your daily life. For example, a negative consequence of not rinsing your dishes could be your partner nagging you to rinse them.
You can compare the cost-benefit analysis of maintaining the habit of not rinsing versus rinsing your dishes. If you find that rinsing the dishes may prevent dissatisfaction from your partner while not requiring large effort, then changing the habit may be more rewarding for your daily life.
Changing habits is hard. Often, people do not know how to start to develop productive habits. Other times, people may lack motivation.
This is the case when an unproductive habit may have a reward associated with it that is not obvious. For example, if your partner ends up rinsing the dishes for you, then the reward of having her doing it is higher than the negative consequence of her nagging.
Some people have an underlying denial of their own unproductive habits, or they fear that they will fail, thus preventing them from attempting to change at all. It is important to recognize whether this describes you, since it may require more reflecting through coaching, counseling, or therapy.
How To Break The Habit Loop
Isolate the cue
The cue for a habit can be anything that triggers that habit. It is important to isolate the cue by noticing the surrounding stimuli right before or during your unwanted habit. Think about the location, time of day, people around you, your emotional state, or your immediately preceding action.
Here’s a simple case study that illustrates this point:
John, a professional working from home, finds himself going down a rabbit hole, reading one Wikipedia page after another around 2 pm every day. Upon reflection, he realizes that the 2 pm time slot, prior to the quarantine, was usually when he walked ten minutes to his next meeting. At 2 pm, his brain was taking a break during his walk. It takes brainpower to resist the cue, and the brain is passively being rewarded for following the cue.
The routine is the most obvious element of the behavior that manifests itself, such as Wikipedia-browsing. Unfortunately, Wikipedia-browsing quickly became an unproductive habit for John because he is unable to stop and get back to work. He ends up getting frustrated and consistently finishes his workday early, causing negative consequences of work-delays that catch the attention of his boss.
John has to consider the reward that Wikipedia-browsing gives him. In order to break that habit, he needs to identify a more productive activity that has an equivalent reward. The reward provides positive reinforcement for his behavior, making it more likely that he will repeat it.
Rewards can be anything, from the tangible (e.g. cookies) to the intangible (e.g. thinking about playing with your kids). Despite not realizing it, John’s brain goes into automatic processing mode by replacing his 2 pm walk with Wikipedia-browsing as its form of a break.
As you consider this scenario, think about the rewards that might be appealing to you. Would this be a difficult habit for your to break? Why or why not?
Have a Change Routine Plan and Stick To It
John needs to replace Wikipedia-browsing with another behavior that can provide the same reward. An option for John is to consider taking that ten-minute walk around his neighborhood. That would not be possible, however, because it would result in his six-year-old being home alone.
Instead, John tried listening to music for two weeks and watching YouTube videos for another two: he found himself unable to stop once he started.
Eventually, John found mindfulness exercises to be the most helpful. These exercises provided the calming break his brain needed, while not allowing him to get easily distracted by other activities online.
Seek a professional to help train your habit and brain.
There are many reasons that make a habit change hard. A few common mistakes are when people try to change many habits at the same time, or when the concrete consequences or rewards to truly motivate habit change are not identified in the beginning. If you want to develop productive habits, you need to fully understand the benefits of doing so.
Behavioral therapists, counselors, or coaches may be able to help you through various strategies depending on their training and credentials. Consider them as personal trainers for mental fitness. Having a trained professional to help you troubleshoot your habit change plans and to hold you accountable is key to making progress.
Join the Adapting Habits for Productivity Seminar Series
Every Sunday at 7:30 pm, I host an “Adapting Habits for Productivity” seminar series that provides a structured presentation and facilitated group discussion on the current science and theory of changing behavior. I will give real-life examples of how to interrupt unhealthy habits and adopt new productive habits.
These seminars are for anybody wanting to set a variety of habits, such as taking more breaks during a workday, setting time to hang out with your children, or working out. It is also useful for parents trying to find a balance between teaching your kids and working from home.
To help you in your productivity journey, I like to incorporate practical strategies from various industries, such as adapting SMART goals from project management and evaluating habits through an impact effort matrix adapted from the quality improvement framework.
These brief Sundays sessions allow you to reset and plan out your week of healthy habits. Each week, we will add upon previous weeks with a deep dive into components of habit setting, so sign up for each session to have the most comprehensive strategies.
As a participant, you can share as much as you want, or just simply listen and observe without any pressure to share anything about yourself. These seminars also provide a community in which group members keep each other motivated and supported in their journey to develop productive habits and to becoming the best versions of themselves.
- Do You Have Analysis Paralysis?
- Impact Effort Matrix
- What Will Our New Normal Feel Like? Hints Are Beginning to Emerge
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