By Dr Marco Grix
To live well, each of us needs the right combination of habits – the good ones that benefit, without the bad ones holding us back. But getting there is easier said than done. By its very nature, routine behaviour involves little conscious thought. That’s why frequently we’re neither aware of the habits we have, nor those we lack. But there’s an antidote: discontinuity.
New Zealand’s Level 4 lockdown is just the kind of routine-thwarting discontinuity necessary to help us shake up our habits. Three weeks ago, the regularities of daily life of most kiwis came to a grinding halt. As we’re not allowed to leave the house, we don’t go to work in the morning, don’t drive to the mall for retail therapy on weekends, and don’t head to the pub at night.
Many of the things we automatically did each day and week are no longer an option. That’s why, right now, we have an opportunity to rethink why and how we’re doing all these things – and if there are better routines actually missing from our lives. Here are a few to consider:
- Is it a good idea to automatically drive the car to work each day? Are there other options that are not just better for the environment but also for us? Could I use public transportation? Could I even use the bicycle and get fit at the same time? Could I occasionally work from home to offset lengthy weekday commuting?
- Is it a good idea to keep buying lunch in the city? Would it be healthier if I routinely made my own lunch box at home? Would it be quite a bit cheaper too?
- Should I get into the habit of power walking three times a week? Would it allow me to stop paying for the gym I never go to? Would it also improve my sleep quality?
- Instead of automatically switching on the telly, should I sit down for half an hour each day after work and learn that second language I’ve been meaning to get better at? Or pick up the guitar or ukulele I’ve been telling myself I want to practise?
- Should my family routinely put away all screens at 8:30pm? Would it encourage us to talk about how our days went? Would it help us get better rest at night?
These are just some examples, and you will easily find plenty more in your own life. New Zealand’s lockdown already has had many devastating effects on us: loss of jobs and income among them. The only thing worse than that would be our failure to make the most of the disruption it represents. Now’s the ideal time to weed out bad habits that hold us back, and to get started on developing good ones that will benefit us in the months and years ahead.
Hooked on habit
Most of what we do day after day is highly automatic, unthinking behaviour. For example, although you may still be groggy when you make tea in the morning, you can competently do what you’ve done a hundred times in your kitchen before: grab your cup and tea tin from the shelf, snatch a spoon from the drawer, fill the kettle with water, and so on. The reason you can do all that while still half asleep is habit: in the absence of disruption, so everything being in its regular place, your well-trained body needs very little conscious help from that cognitive machinery between your ears.
And that’s a good thing too. If we had to think through the same kind of action each time it’s carried out and pay full attention to everything we do, we wouldn’t get half the things done. Saving us massive time and mental energy, routines make us highly efficient. Despite that, many habits we’ve acquired over time are actually bad for us. Incessantly grabbing the phone to check social media, snacking on sweets for comfort, and switching on the telly when we get home – you know what I’m talking about. And then there are routines that would benefit us, but that we never make our own.
Two months to transformation
Given they make unthinking routine impossible, discontinuities produce windows of opportunity to shake up our personal portfolio of habits. Research has shown that the time required for frequent activity – say, healthy eating, drinking, and exercise behaviours – to become automatic is about two months on average.
Until your new habit pattern has solidified, you have to consciously make an effort to avoid bad routines and perform beneficial activities instead. That too is a reason to get started right away. Not only may we remain at Level 4 restrictions a while longer, but we will most certainly stay in Levels 3 and 2 for quite some time. So, let’s make the best of this breakdown of daily life and set ourselves up for flourishing as much as we can right now.
Dr Marco Grix lecturers in philosophy in the School of Humanities at Massey University’s Auckland campus. His research interests are ethical and political issues related to consumption.