The cries of “Wagons Ho!” echoed through the morning air. It was just another day in her family’s long journey west along the Oregon Trail in 1850. Her oxen trudged along the 2,000-mile trail, following the predictable ruts left by other wagon wheels – in some places up to 5 feet deep.
Traveling life in a “rut” can be efficient and convenient. But 2020 dropped an enormous boulder on your path. Some ruts you’ll want to return to. Maybe you’d like to blaze some new trails. Either way, you should know how the pandemic has impacted your habits – now, and in the future.
Here is the surprising reality: There are times when it is easier to make and break habits. We’re in one of those openings right now, but it is quickly coming to an end. Take advantage of this opportunity and make the changes for a better you.
You are likely thinking more about your ideal post-vaccine lifestyle. There are a few things you should know about how the pandemic has impacted your habit-making. This month’s newsletter is dedicated to helping you in three specific ways:
- How to KEEP the 2020 habits you want to continue doing (e.g., evening family walks, baking bread)
- How to BREAK the ones you don’t want to stick around (e.g., stress eating, contention with relatives)
- How to MAKE new habits as we re-enter our old environments. (e.g., prioritize social learning, connect with neighbors regularly)
Why It’s Been Easy to Form New Habits
To understand why it’s been easy to create new habits you’ll need to understand what prompts the brain to change course. Let’s focus in on two main reasons why the brain is quick to change its habits: 1) need for survival, and 2) abrupt changes in your environment (Carden & Wood, 2018).
- Survival – the brain is quick to adapt and change if it increases your chance of survival (Mattson, Moehl, Ghena, Schmaedick, & Cheng, 2018). With a global pandemic, you’ve likely made new habits to keep you and your loved ones safe. Other habits were necessary to ‘survive’ your local regulations. Perhaps you started a new exercise habit to reverse an ‘underlying condition’, thus to minimize your risk with the pandemic. You likely learned a new tech-habit to help you survive virtual teaching. And you probably found new ways to connect with loved ones. A wise decision, since strong social connections are important for survival (Holt-Lunstad, & Smith, 2010).
Other habits were immediately broken for the same reason – survival. You were no longer able to greet students at the door with a high-five. Friday night dates at a restaurant and movie theater ceased. And you stopped worshipping together inside churches with singing. Why? Large groups decreased your chance of survival.
- Changes in your Environment – Have you ever noticed how easy it is to start/stop a habit when you move classrooms, move homes, or change jobs? Your environment is a major trigger for your habits (Gardner, 2012). For nearly all of us, our environments changed drastically in the Spring of 2020. Your classroom shifted to your living room. Some of you have gone back to a building, albeit a very different-looking environment. Many of you continue to be at home. Your gym closed. Many of the stores you frequent have been closed or have made drastic changes in their environment. Another change would be the loss of a family member to a disease, accident, or chronic condition.
Because of these two factors (survival and changes in your environment), you have likely created new habits. You might want to hang onto some of them in a post-vaccine world. Your evening walks while talking to a friend on the phone. The Sunday afternoon Zoom call with relatives. The relationship building/emotional check-in at the beginning of every single class session.
Why Keeping Your Favorite Habits Can Be Elusive
Your post-vaccine environment will look very similar to your pre-pandemic environment. What does that mean for your brain? It will be VERY easy to slip back into the “ruts” of familiar (pre-pandemic) patterns. Why? Because of all the familiar cues that will be restored to your environment.
You may be tossed back into your old familiar environment with little warning. (Some of you already have been.) The traffic will return. Students chit-chatting during your lesson may return. State and national testing will likely return. You’ll want to be prepared for this re-entry if you have any hope of creating a “new” normal with new habits.
It is often an environmental cue that triggers the brain to initiate a habit. For instance, the school bell rings and your brain is triggered to start your pre-pandemic morning sequence of work. But wait… 2020 taught you that you wanted to do an emotional check-in at the beginning of every class. What happened?
Your Brain’s Wagon Ruts – Habits
Your brain reverted to an old, well-established habit, brought on by an environmental trigger (or cue)… the bell. Here is how it plays out in your brain.
First, a familiar signal is received – the school bell rings. Certain neurons in your stratium (a small region in the basal ganglia) get overly excited. Why? They sense a familiar sequence is ready to start.
Next, those neurons essentially go quiet as the pre-established habit sequence plays out on auto-pilot. (This is you and your oxen trudging along, just following the existing ‘ruts’ of morning routines.)
Neurons in the stratium fire rapidly again after the habit sequence. This marks the completion of the habit (Martiros, Burgess, & Graybiel, 2018) and the end of the wagon ruts. Finally, your brain’s reward chemical, dopamine, is released. In essence, the dopamine motivates the brain to repeat the cycle, reinforcing the habit.
You will soon return to a more familiar lifestyle. Your brain’s natural systems will be pressuring you to return to the old familiar ‘ruts.’ You’ll need the skills below to respond differently to the cues in your environment.
With focus and effort, you can grab hold of the reins and continue to travel the ‘ruts’ you’ve always enjoyed. And, you can create new paths based on any new priorities 2020 has gifted you.
Before we share how to create the 2021 of your dreams, take a moment to reflect:
- What are 3 ‘Pandemic’ habits I want to keep
- What are 3 ‘Pandemic’ habits I want to eliminate
- What is one new habit I want to form post-vaccine
Amidst tremendous loss and unsustainable workload stress, there’s been an ‘awakening’ in 2020. People are waking up to what matters most – personally, professionally, and socially. You can make 2021 better than 2020, and every year before that. Here are 3 tools to help you keep, break, and make the habits you want.
- Focus on your Identity (not the behavior)
You might be thinking, “I want to keep doing the weekly Zoom thing with my relatives.” Embrace the identity of “I am one who values family. I believe in connecting with family regularly.” Identity-based habits are more motivating than process-driven goals (Oyserman & Destin, 2010).
As you dream of your post-vaccine world, design your habits to fit the identity you hope to create. Sit down and draft a series of identity statements for your ideal personal, social, and professional life.
To KEEP a habit of spending quality time with your partner: I am an attentive listener to my partner.
To BREAK a habit of isolating from friends: I am a friend who shows up for celebrations, sorrows, and hard days.
To MAKE a habit of prioritizing relationships: I am a teacher who values the relational aspects of learning.
Post these statements where you can see them regularly to remind you of WHO you want to be. Or, make it be the background screen on your mobile device.
- Remind yourself WHY your habit matters
You are more likely to stay motivated to make, keep, and break habits when you remember WHY it is important to you. The brain gives greater attention to things it finds relevant and meaningful (Stemmann & Freiwald, 2019).
Your pre-pandemic environment will try to nudge you back into familiar neurological ruts. Be ready with some powerful WHY statements to keep you on your new path. Ask yourself: What’s the value of this habit for me? What will I/my family/my students gain from this habit? Visual cues or verbal daily mantras can be useful tools to remind you of WHY you want:
To KEEP a habit of Friday game night: A family that plays together stays together.
To BREAK a habit of staying on the couch: I am one workout away from a good mood.
To MAKE a habit of connecting with students daily: Relationships build a strong foundation for learning.
- Prepare your environment
Returning to all your old environment cues will pressure your brain to revert to old habits. Here are a few ways you can ‘hack’ your brain and provide cues for the new and improved you:
To KEEP a habit: Create visual cues to remind yourself of the things you want to continue doing. What might remind you of what you’ve learned during 2020? (A picture of family? A screenshot of a Zoom chat where students shared how much they love having time to connect personally?)
To MAKE a habit: Create auto-reminder systems. (Commit with friends to get together once a month; then put it as a recurring calendar reminder. Set up your bank account to auto-donate a few dollars to a cause you’ve become more appreciative of in 2020.)
To BREAK an old habit: Make a few drastic changes to your environment to avoid sliding back into old patterns. (Rotate/flip your classroom setup or redesign your learning space to prioritize social learning. Change your morning routine (at home or school) or find a new route to get to school. Make a permanent wardrobe change (start wearing a tie each day if you didn’t before. Mentally connect the tie to a new habit you are working to create.)
Slipping right back into the ruts of old habits will be the reality for most. But, not YOU. 2020 has brought a new perspective to our personal and professional lives. Take advantage of that gift and use the tools above to make your 2021 life (and beyond) better. Wagons Ho!