The outbreak of COVID-19 has upended normal life. With countries worldwide imposing lockdowns and physical distancing measures, our daily routines have had to change and, as a result, many of us are forming new habits as well as breaking old ones.
Humans are normally creatures of habit – much of our behaviour is deeply ingrained and automatic. However, life events such as a birthday, a new year or moving house, can be highly effective in disrupting habits and motivating us to change our behaviour. For instance, consider the 48 hour London Tube strike in Feb 2014. Faced with dozens of closed underground stations, around 250,000 Londoners permanently changed their commute after being forced to consider alternatives, including cycling and walking.
In behavioural science, this phenomenon is known as the ‘Fresh Start’ effect. Widespread lockdown, it turns out, has presented many of us with an unexpected opportunity to make positive changes to our lives. For example, more of us are calling friends and family, exercising at home, and volunteering in our local community. Of course not all change is good, with nearly 50% of Britons saying they have put on weight since lockdown due to changes in routine.
But what happens once restrictions start lifting? It would seem that the majority of us don’t want to snap back to our old routines. A recent YouGov survey found that 85% of Britons want to see at least some of the personal or social changes we have experienced to continue post-lockdown. However, even with the best intentions, we can’t rely on these habits sticking organically. Our behaviours are hugely influenced by our environment, and so many people will need an additional nudge to stick with new behaviours as their routines and lives return to some normality.
Here’s some ideas for how behavioural science can help us maintain new habits as restrictions ease, and also drive broader positive changes post-lockdown.
1. Learning at home and in school
While lockdown has disrupted formal schooling, it has also (in many cases) increased parental engagement through homeschooling, and accelerated schools’ adoption of digital learning. Many parents will welcome a safe reopening of schools, however keeping parents engaged at home is important as it is associated with better academic performance, and will be particularly important for disadvantaged families to help reduce the attainment gap. Schools could help sustain this increased engagement through identifying a few key homeschooling habits to keep after lockdown (e.g., drawing on EEF tips to support reading at home or helping parents keep a regular routine for home learning).
2. Safe and sustainable travel
With most of us spending more time at home, Planet Earth is having a breather, with reduced air pollution driven by the reduction in road and air travel. While we can expect travel to pick back up again as we return to work and are able to visit loved ones again, there are likely to be trips we used to do that could be cut down or substituted with walking, cycling or public transport. Cities could encourage these shifts by working with apps like Citymapper and Google Maps to recommend quieter or more pleasurable routes, or encourage people to skip their last interchange or walk the last mile of their journey. Schools or employers could also use this chance to prompt parents, pupils and employees to consider walking or cycling, potentially by marking footpaths with footprints leading to schools or introducing reduced speed limits or car restrictions around schools or city centres to reinforce this change, as Milan have indicated they will do.
3. Healthier and more sustainable diets
More of us say we’re now cooking more from scratch and, promisingly, throwing away less food since lockdown, benefiting both our health and the environment. This may be due to people limiting their trips to the shops or ordering groceries online, which can make us plan our shopping more carefully and create an increased awareness of the value of food. Online supermarkets could use this change in habit to alter the choice architecture of their sites to encourage healthier and more environmentally sustainable food choices.
It is rare for us to have a collective moment to reflect and an opportunity to reset a range of individual and collective behaviours for the better. Countries are at different points in this journey, and the UK and others should seek to learn from our friends in New Zealand, which has now lifted all COVID restrictions, about which behaviours stick and which need more of a nudge in the right direction. Collectively, we can and should use this unprecedented period of disruption to help bring about positive changes in people’s habits and behaviours to create a new and better normal.