The world we’re living in is changing by the day. From working from home to covering our faces whenever we’re outside, COVID-19 has had—and will continue to have—an enormous impact on human behavior. Social distancing measures have helped flatten the curve, but why are so many people having trouble adjusting to the new norm? Simply put, behavior change is hard—and making those changes last is even harder. If we can begin to understand the basics of how behavior change works, making those lasting changes will prove to be easier and more effective. 

Understanding Our Behavior

In order to change our behavior, we first need to understand why we behave the way we do. Let’s begin by looking at our behavior in separate parts: our habits and triggers, which can be observed more closely in a behavior chain. It can feel like patterns of behavior—or our habits—are hardwired automatic responses. But in reality, habits are learned behaviors that have become so ingrained in our day-to-day lives, we don’t even realize they are happening. 

Most of our habits work for us: we developed them so our brains can complete certain tasks on autopilot, freeing up space for more important, focus-driven tasks involving decision-making, creativity, and quick action. Because these habitual behaviors often help us optimize our productivity, our brains encourage us to repeat them automatically, making it harder to stop. 

A great way to think about this is your new work from home morning routine: you wake up at a certain time in order to shower and prep for your first video call of the day. However, this also applies to some not-so-great behaviors: you opt to skip breakfast in order to have more time in the shower. While we all have both helpful and unhelpful habits, it’s important to remember that if we can learn a habit, we can also unlearn one, and that starts with identifying the behavior chain.

The Behavior Chain

The behavior chain is a series of events that take place before and after a habit. The chain is broken down into the following links:

  • Trigger
  • Thought process
  • Behavior/habit
  • Consequence 

Triggers are the internal and external stimuli that set the behavior chain in motion. It’s important to understand our triggers in order to help us become aware of what habits result from them so we can actively reshape our behavior. In our morning routine example, one trigger might be sleeping through your alarm.

These triggers provoke reactions or responses that lead us into action. These responses can be helpful in the short term, but unhelpful in the long term. It may be that initial moment of panic when you realize you’ve accidentally slept in. You might have the thought “I can’t believe I slept in again”, “I don’t want to be late but there’s no time to get ready!” This leads to a behavior that follows this trigger—perhaps skipping your shower and breakfast so as to join your meeting on time—is followed by the consequence.

Consequences aren’t inherently all negative, but they do have the power to either reinforce or undermine our habits. If skipping your shower and breakfast because you woke up late leads to feeling sluggish and crabby throughout the day—or just as likely, leads to you snacking incessantly later on—being aware of consequences and their relation to triggers makes you more likely to avoid waking up late again, effectively removing the chances of repeating the same behavior. 

Breaking Habits to Enact Behavior Change 

Once you’ve identified your habits and the behavior chains around them, it’s much simpler to unlearn habits that aren’t serving you—and make lasting changes in your life. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t aim to make too many changes at once; instead, start small with one habit at a time. Setting your expectations too high early on can lead to premature failure and disappointment, which is counterproductive all on its own. 

With that in mind, the behavior change process can be further broken down into different phases: 

  • Identifying the behavior you want to change
  • Understanding your motivation for wanting to change it
  • Pairing it with a positive behavior you already have
  • Setting a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) goal around implementing the new behavior
  • Maintaining the new behavior long-term

A recent example of this is increasing the time we take to wash our hands. If you have a habit of doing a “splash and dash” when washing your hands, suddenly washing for 20 seconds feels like an eternity. When word spread about the need to increase the time spent washing our hands, people began sharing tips about singing along to your favorite song for 20 seconds to help make the change easier. This turned the action of washing your hands for an extended period of time into something positive by coupling it with a task you’d normally enjoy i.e.: singing along to your favorite song. 

Once you solidify a goal, keep a time frame in mind for how long you can stick to the new routine—change doesn’t happen overnight. In time, your brain will start to register the routine as a new habit and you’ll see a change in your behavior. Once you’ve mastered these steps, you’ll be able to make other positive changes in your life. Maybe that looks like cutting back on stress-induced overeating by taking a moment to get fresh air when you’re feeling overwhelmed or forming a new indoor exercise routine to take the place of your gym hour. 

It may seem simple, but perhaps the most important step is allowing yourself some leeway to mess up. Humans are not perfect—hiccups and setbacks happen! As we continue down the road of social distancing and other COVID-19-related changes, there are going to be plenty of ups and downs. But if we remember the fundamentals of how habits are formed, we can take on the challenge of making meaningful behavior change, one step at a time.