The Pandemic, One Year On: 3. The science of habit formation

There are a handful of books that seem to make all reading lists of the movers and shakers who talk about such things on social media.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes up a lot. It offered a theory that saw man as a heroic being, with the sole purpose of creating his own happiness through a commitment to reason, logic and productive achievement.

Dune by Frank Herbert also comes up a lot. It’s set in a possible far future where humanity is already an interplanetary species, discovering new compounds which make the impossible possible, but the old confusing, polarising things like politics and power, religion and the environment, and how emotional people deal with one another, remain.

Those two books might be works of fiction more than half a century old (from 1957 and 1965), but they either represent, or helped to establish, a sense among the more forward-thinking people in western capitalist societies, that striving forward relentlessly through productive achievement removes all limits, from the micro of personal limiting beliefs to the macro of interplanetary space travel.

To achieve the biggest of goals, we need the smallest of habits.

So it makes sense for the movers and shakers amongst us to spend at least some of the time not spent productively achieving in breaking down and building up habits that help them productively achieve.

And so, another book that keeps coming up in those discussions is Atomic Habits, by a writer called James Clear.

Its publishers Penguin Random House announced last year that it has now sold more than two million copies globally in 20 languages.

Habit change is now a massive industry.

The science is straightforward enough, as science goes. Habits — both positive and negative — are formed, usually without conscious effort, through a process of four steps:

  • Cue
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward

Some behavioral scientists combine the craving/response, reducing the “steps” to three.

But simply put, our brain receives cues, we respond to those cues, and we receive a reward (or other feedback) based on that response.

When we go through the loop enough times, the habit sets in. The positive habits books, such as Atomic Habits, encourage us to consciously intervene in the cues, and to build awareness of our responses and the rewards we receive.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the shifting environment all of us have found ourselves in over the past 12 months.

Humans have a tendency towards anxiety about the future at any rate: even something as mundane as planning could be described as a positive anxiety.

Uncertainty about the future has a hold on most of us, most of the time.

But the past 12 months have sent many of us into a tailspin about the future, ripping all our expectations and plans up by the root. Events have told us: nothing is set in stone. Anything can change at any moment.

You’ve probably also heard of other habits claims, the ones that suggest habits take 21 days to form, or 66 days, or up to 254 days.

We’re now more than 365 days into a global pandemic, which has brought our own health and mortality into sharp relief and kept most of us — from pensioners to teachers to children to committed bodybuilders — to our homes for most of the time.

What habits have been formed for hundreds of millions of people globally? How many of them have been positive?

Personally, I’ve found that I now habitually open Amazon whenever I need something and Twitter whenever I think of something, and avoid the mainstream news because of the negative “rewards” it brought me.

I’ve been around for long enough now to know I can, with the combination of intent and action and time, change the habits that don’t serve me, and I know too that if I don’t manage to change them then I’ll pay the price in some way.

But I think of all those, especially schoolchildren, who have now spent a significant percentage of their lives, locked down and locked in, with tech devices for company. What habits have been formed for them? What long-term outcomes will those habits create?

In the context of a new virus, there are obvious upsides to locking down and locking down hard.

But there are downsides too that may not be so obvious, and which we may not know for some time yet.

Because of the few things we know for sure, one of them is that once habits are formed, they can be devilishly hard to break.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.