How to keep the good habits going as we come out of lockdown

What habits have you adopted in these past months of lockdown? And which have you ditched?

While lots of us have descended into poor health amid the stress of the pandemic, others have found these months restricted to the home surprisingly positive for their wellbeing – and have quit bad habits and picked up some good ones in the process.

More than a million Brits have quit smoking since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, says a report from Action on Smoking and Health. Many people say they’ve saved money and become thriftier as a result of staying home. Some have developed a new enjoyment of spending time outdoors, going for walks, or doing at-home workouts.

That’s all brilliant – but what happens when lockdown ends? Will we go right back to the way things were?

The idea of old temptations and roadblocks returning, along with a return to our old way of working and living, makes this a scary prospect.

Those of us who have ditched negative habits and developed positive ones have done so in unusual circumstances, with everything from working from home to being unable to go to the pub coming together to make habit forming and breaking possible.

It’s easy to worry that once those circumstances change, the habits we’ve curated will disappear.

Psychologist Dirk Flower explains that one of the main challenges we’ll face as we come out of lockdown is ‘the tendency to go back to old habits when the past stimuli/cues come into action with greater frequency’.

For smokers, for example, that might be the return of seeing other people smoking, going to pubs again, or the increased stress that may come with returning to the office.

For people who curbed excessive spending in lockdown, temptation will come in the form of being out and about with potential purchases in view, along with the reopening of shops, restaurants, and bars.

Those who created and stuck to a new workout routine in lockdown might struggle to keep it up as their spare time once again gets swallowed up by the commute into work and back and increased socialising to make up for lost time.

The key in avoiding the dissolution of good habits and the return of unhealthy ones is recognising that these challenges will arise and being prepared for them.

Dr Helen Rodwell thinks it’s important we don’t think of lockdown easing as a return to the old normal, instead recognising that we and the world have changed and creating a new lifestyle that works for us.

‘I think we’re all having to adjust to the idea that there is no “normal” anymore,’ she tells us. ‘Maybe its time to ditch that word and instead claim it as “getting on with different”.’

She also notes that rather than just trying to erase an unhealthy habit, it helps to replace it with a healthy one – and that’s something we can do regardless of whether we’re in lockdown.

So in the case of smokers who have been able to quit in lockdown, but are wary that they might return to the old habit of going for a cigarette break when they’re back in the office, preparation for that trigger could be getting into the habit of going for a walk or instead having a tea break whenever the temptation arises.

Going into lockdown was a time for radical change and adjustment, allowing us the space to rethink what was working for us and try new things, some of which may have then turned into positive habits we’d now like to maintain.

The problem is that as lockdown ends, we’re in second stage of change. Everything’s back up in the air and we sort of have to start from scratch.

But rather than sinking right back into the way things were pre-pandemic, we could use this as a second fresh start, where we can take the positives of our lockdown experience and work out how to make them work outside of those specific circumstances.

Now is a good time to have a serious ponder over what we’ve done in the last few months, how it was different from the old way of doing things, and work out which habits we want to nurture and grow.

The change in our day-to-day lives does mean that those habits have to be re-formed and, like we say, started from scratch. It’s not as simple as just continuing to do what we’ve done in lockdown, because many things just won’t be possible – when we’re back at the office and constantly busy, our morning runs and weekly sourdough baking might not be feasible.

But try to view this as a positive thing; a chance to reevaluate and start fresh.

There are lots of methods for creating and sticking to a habit – you can easily go down an internet hole reading about the 40-day trick and similar techniques.

The truth about habits is that there’s not really any magic trick, apart from persistence.

You can help yourself along the way by making your desired habits as easy as possible and removing as many challenges as you can – but be aware that there are some obstacles that won’t budge and that you simply need to jump over, and others that will need some sneaking around.

‘[You need to] identify the obstacles that can sabotage good habits,’ Helen says. ‘For example, I’ve taken up morning yoga but I couldn’t do this online because that meant turning on my PC, which led to me then getting distracted by emails.

‘By instead using an audio recording of Yoga on a different device I did not have to use a pc, and hence did not see any emails.’

Eventually, after days, weeks, and months of making yourself do something, it’ll become a fully fledged habit that’s part of your routine. You just need to push through the ‘making yourself do something’ bit, and commit to saying ‘yep, I’m going to do it’ even when you really, really want to say ‘nope’.

‘I’ve heard of the 40-day rule and I think it works for some but not everyone,’ says Helen. ‘The key thing is to replace a bad habit with a better habit.

‘Then incorporate that better habit so that it becomes part of your daily routine – ideally something that doesn’t need any planning or thought. For example, leave your trainers ready for your morning run.’

It’s vital, too, not to view one misstep as an epic failure and give up, or to give yourself targets that simply aren’t reasonable as part of your post-pandemic lifestyle.

Take some time now to write down the habits you want to carry through past the end of lockdown, assess the challenges you’ll face, and plan the tools and tricks you’ll use to get around those setbacks.

That preparation should allow you to go forth and do what feels good – but, as we say, the real work is the persistence and determination of doing it over and over until it’s routine.

If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. Accept that you’re not perfect, doing what’s best for you can be tough, and jump back in tomorrow with a positive outlook.

‘When dealing with challenges, I’d say be kind to yourself,’ says Helen. ‘Try to not to criticise yourself.

‘Remember that you are always with you, so try try be your own best friend.’

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