COVID-19: A Call for Change

Unfamiliar Orders and Strange Routines

The unexpected COVID-19 outbreak called for our nation to change. This change came in all forms: change in hygienic measures, change in store policies, and change in our daily habits. With the pandemic came distress, fear, and panic as we struggled to identify the virus and find ways to slow its spread. Preventative measures needed to be taken. The CDC called for mask-wearing, social distancing, and limited gatherings (CDC, 2020). These changes seemed dramatic at first, as we have dealt with many outbreaks and never taken these types of measures before. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic taught us how to adapt to the changes and innovate with the new circumstances of our lives. Plus, the encouraged use of these preventative measures in our daily lives has reprioritized avoiding disease and awareness of germs. These behaviors can have lasting benefit for us, even after the pandemic ends.

Hand Sanitizer for the Wiser

We all know to wash our hands frequently, clean and disinfect our household surfaces often, and stay away from people when we are sick. However, although intuitive, it seemed like these practices had diminished in importance until being reimplemented and popularized by the current pandemic. Even though these hygienic measures have always been commonplace, reminders and nudges from the media, stores, and government officials made it impossible to avoid these messages. New measures, which may turn into the norm, are being implemented. From wearing a mask to visit the doctor’s office to exercising extra caution when travelling, some policies have informed behavioral trends which are likely to be here to stay. Although it seemed unusual at first, these simple practices have become part of our daily routines (Clavin, 2020). Even though we had to make a conscious effort at first to adjust, actively participating in these new rituals allowed us to become quickly accustomed to grabbing a mask before heading out the door or leaving a little extra room between other customers in the grocery store line. 

How do Habits Form?

Think about something that took you a really long time to learn, such as how to play your favorite song on the piano. At first, it was difficult, and much of your time and energy was devoted to mastering it. But after you became more comfortable with the instrument’s features and understood how to produce certain sounds, it became much easier —habitual.

Playing an instrument, exercising, washing your face, and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns. Every habit starts with a psychological pattern, a “habit loop,” which is defined by Duhigg (2012) in a three-part process: 

  • First, there is a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into “autopilot” to let a behavior unfold. This can be a certain time in the day for picking up the instrument or seeing a poster of your favorite artist as you walk home after work. Basically, it is the first push into teaching your brain a new trick.
  • Next is the routine, which is the behavior itself. Here, we learn this behavior either through practice or just repetition and eventually incorporate it into our daily routines.
  • The third step is the reward, which is something that your brain enjoys. The reward helps the brain remember the “habit loop” so that the behavior can be carried out in the future (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012).

The Science Behind Habits

Neuroscientists have traced our primary habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition (Duhigg, 2012). The decision-making part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, becomes less active as a behavior becomes habitual. Eventually, the prefrontal cortex activity diminishes as the behavior is mastered. This explains why multitasking is easy while performing a habitual behavior, such as talking to a passenger while on your daily drive to work. Navigating the roads to end up at your destination may seem difficult at first, but after performing it many times, you don’t even need to think twice about what turn to make or what street to park on–you just know. The basal ganglia allow us to carry out these originally complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it by turning them into our automatic routines (Duhigg, 2012).

Habit formation exists in our relationship to products as well. The associations between a customer’s habit and the reward that comes with it may encourage buying behavior. This is how Febreeze or other cleaning supplies are marketed: convince customers that their product can deliver that reward that follows a habit (Duhigg, 2012). Cleaning companies highlight the rewards, such as eliminating odors, to entice customers to adopt the product into their habit loop. During the pandemic, the ritual of wiping items down to stay clean was reinforced constantly by messaging on TV, by the news, and even through the behaviors of others. As individual behaviors changed, companies and marketers took note and aligned their messaging to better connect with their customers. By adjusting to the newly formed habits, the products and companies who adapted stayed relevant to the ever-changing customer.

The New Normal

The pandemic has shifted the ordinary—in some ways for the better. It is evident that the world has been transformed since the onset of COVID-19. Here are a few examples of impactful behavior changes emphasized by the pandemic:  

No More Handshakes

Isn’t it weird to reminisce on our old practices, pre-COVID-19? Specifically, our standard greeting: the handshake. Our hands carry so many germs that it is difficult to ever entertain the thought of shaking a friend’s hand ever again. Luckily, this behavior is one of the many impacted by the pandemic and has changed for the better. The classic handshake may no longer be considered the standard way to greet clients, coworkers, or friends, and can instead be replaced by a nod, wave, or warm smile. 

Handshakes are just one form of touch that has been dismantled by the pandemic, along with high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs. As we begin to emerge from our homes and move closer together to rebuild our social lives, experts are betting that some degree of social touch will disappear permanently, even after the pandemic ends (Oaklander, 2020). Although we do not know for sure what social interactions will feel awkward or outdated as we move past COVID-19, it is safe to say the way we view human connection via touch has changed.

The Work from Home Life

Prior to the pandemic, allowing students and employees to work from the comfort of their homes seemed like an uncommon luxury, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Since the pandemic started, millions of professionals have figured out how to be productive from their homes. Technological advances made this luxury a reality, causing both educational and office life to have permanent changes. These advances enabled students or workers to log on wherever they are, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that work can indeed be completed at home. Coming out of the pandemic, companies are more likely to allow for flexible work environments, and therefore, individuals may take advantage of remote opportunities.

Telehealth…for Better Health

Working from home is not the only thing to go virtual during these interesting times. Minimizing exposure to large crowds has encouraged the use of grocery delivery services and online shopping. This pandemic has made us reflect on what “essential” means. Even some doctor’s offices have moved to a telehealth arrangement to promote social distancing. Before the pandemic, meeting with our doctor online seemed foreign. COVID-19 has proved to us that although it is nice to connect face-to-face, many meetings or appointments can be conducted successfully virtually (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Care at a distance has brought along with it a large array of benefits for both the doctor and the patient:

1) Reducing the Spread of Infections: Remote medical consultations serve to eliminate the threat of disease transmission and infection among healthcare providers and vulnerable patients (Schmid, 2016). This is key, as it is easy to spread infectious diseases, such as the flu or common cold, in a medical setting where many sick patients may gather in one room.

2) Reducing Stress: Travelling to a doctor’s appointment, along with sitting in a waiting room amongst other sick patients, may be intimidating for some. A remote consultation via a video call can ease the anxiety associated with a trip to the doctor’s office as well as remove the burden of travelling (Schmid, 2016).

3) Increasing Accessibility:  Virtual appointments provide more accessibility to the elderly, disabled, or those who live far from their healthcare practitioners and no longer feel comfortable travelling. Whether the reason be due to an injury which makes it difficult to walk or a condition resulting in the inability to drive, virtual consultations allow for more people to have better access to their healthcare providers. Although this type of access is extremely valuable during a pandemic, it has lasting effects with a positive impact. 

So, whether you scheduled a virtual appointment or worked from home, COVID-19 has made an impact on your life. As our behaviors continue to adapt with the changing environment, we have a choice to modify or continue certain habits. The habits developed during the pandemic are not all life-altering; some small changes make big differences. Our unhealthy habits and practices can be swapped out for healthier, safer, and less tactile ones, but it’s ultimately up to us to decide what habits stay and what go.

Benefits of Connecting Through the Screen

Video communication services, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Teladoc, now offer different types of video sessions; for example, the first two offer breakout rooms or blurred backgrounds to make it easier to work from home (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Having special features to enhance virtual meetings has enticed a lot of people to take advantage of this offer. As the number of people switching to these video communication services increases, companies and schools are also switching to these services to meet consumer needs and expectations. Fitness studios, schools, and healthcare offices have become hybrid– they still allow the in-person experience with modifications, while still having the option of going remote for anyone who wishes to accept.

Diving into the world of professional virtual sessions was a foreign practice for many industries, but it’s one that might be here to stay (Tigar, 2020). While in-person appointments will start up again, and gyms will reopen, the virtual option will always be available to assist those who are reluctant or incapable of joining in-person. Some individuals simply enjoy the leisure of virtual sessions, and companies or practitioners may benefit from this change too. For example, individuals may feel more comfortable being vulnerable during a therapy session or a focus group in a safe, familiar space like their home (Tigar, 2020). Having a virtual component as an option is a great alternative for many everyday situations we used to believe had to be in-person. Tools like video communication have a positive impact and integrate well to the new circumstances of 2020 and beyond.

Sustaining These Changes

Deviation from our normal routines due to COVID-19 has caused us to pick up new habits, whether they be beneficial (using your commute time to go on a walk), unfavorable (sleeping in until noon), or just different (wearing casual clothes to work meetings). Regardless, the habits we formed during the pandemic may outlast the virus. This includes the habits we have picked up for the safety of ourselves and others, such as mask-wearing and hand-washing, or personal goals, such as waking up early to exercise.

Our ability to adapt and form new habits will come in handy even after the pandemic has ended. We have seen signs in practically every public place that read to “stay six feet apart,” hand sanitizer dispensers on every corner, and even personal protective equipment for sale in just about every store. The pandemic has created a newfound appreciation for our health. We should all strive to continue to listen to the CDC for guidance as the situation continues to change. Behaviors which were once challenging to disrupt, like face-touching, practicing social-distancing, and cleaning surfaces frequently, have now become habitual for many and helped greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The gravity of COVID-19 is immense, and there is no way to know for certain what habits will be sustained, although it’s almost certain none of the habits will last forever (Lichfield, 2020). However, we can understand that forming new habits during the COVID-19 era was much needed and transformed us, as both companies and consumers, for the better. Companies found the value in telecommuting and employees discovered the joys of working from home. Our habitual response to the pandemic brought about significant improvements in many aspects of our lifestyles. While adapting to this changing reality was necessary, we learned that perseverance in the face of change is what allows us to thrive. Most importantly, it helped to remind us that change isn’t always a bad thing…

References

How to protect yourself & others. (n.d.). Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html

Clavin, W. (2020, April 27). Forming New Habits in the Era of the Coronavirus. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://www.caltech.edu/about/news/forming-new-habits-era-coronavirus

Duhigg, C. (2012, March 05). Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2012/03/05/147192599/habits-how-they-form-and-how-to-break-them

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012, December). Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/

Kumar, V., & Modalavalasa, R. P. (2020, August 16). 5 lasting changes from the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/lasting-covid-19-pandemic/story?id=72393992

Lichfield, G. (2020, April 10). We’re not going back to normal. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/03/17/905264/coronavirus-pandemic-social-distancing-18-months/

Oaklander, M. (2020, May 27). COVID-19 Killed the Handshake. What Will Replace It? Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://time.com/5842469/coronavirus-handshake-social-touch/

Schmid, M. (2016, July 08). How video consultations can benefit patients and the NHS. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.gponline.com/video-consultations-benefit-patients-nhs/article/1401346

Tigar, L. (2020, May 22). 6 Things We Predict Will Never Go Back to “Normal” After Coronavirus. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.hermoney.com/earn/work-life-balance/6-things-we-predict-will-never-go-back-to-normal-after-coronavirus/