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A chance to change things

The crisis has up-ended people´s lives. What does it take to make a new habit stick?

Barely 8% of new-year´s resolutions survive until the end of January. Some people set goals that are too ambitious; others simply set too many goals. Yet perhaps the biggest reason why people fail so miserably is that changing a particular behaviour is difficult if the routines that are tightly woven around it remain the same. Resisting the lure of a calorie-laden caramel latte in the morning is easier if you switch to a route that doesn´t take you past the coffee shop.

In a survey of nearly 700,000 people in Britain, carried out in August 2020, about a quarter of people said their lives had changed completely or a lot since covid-19 came along, and a third said (with characteristic British understatement) they had made ”quite a few changes”. Many of these changes will stick, because the pandemic has up-ended people´s routines so dramatically. If does not matter whether you walk past the coffee shop or not if it has closed down – or if you rarely leave the house.

Many changes were for the worse. But not all. During the lockdwons unhealthy snacking increased, but so did cooking at home and eating family meals together – practices generally linked with healthier eating patterns. People could not see friends and family, but they got to know the people next door (about 20% of Britons said talking more to their neighbours was a change that would outlast the pandemic). With gyms and organised sports closed for months, some people cut down on regular exercise. Others, however, took up new sports. In England the proportion of people cycling at least once a week reached 16% in June 2020, twice the level of the early weeks of lockdown. Nextbike, which runs shared-bike schemes in several European countries, reported a 35% increase in rides in April and May, compared with a year earlier.

The greater popularity of cooking, neighbourly chats and cycling will persist. If you do something new once a day for two weekes, it starts to feel automatic – the defining feature of a habit, says Benjamin Gardner of King´s College London. Doing something for longer helps solidify the habit. One study of people who took up healthy eating or regular exercise found that the degree to which it felt automatic increased, but then plateaued, on average, after 66 days. That is roughly how long Europeans spent in lockdown.

Other things will help, too. Many people with office-based jobs will work from home in future, at least some of the time. That will help them stick with home-cooked meals and being chummier with their neighbours. Those returning to offices may feel nervous about travelling on crowded public transport, making cycling more attractive. Big cities are trying not to waste the crisis. They are pumping up cycling´s prospects by subsidising bike purchases and laying down more cycling lanes.

The pandemic has changed many things. But for some people at least, the changes are like new-year´s resolutions they wish they had made long ago.

Slavea Chankova, health-care corespondent, The Economist, The World in 2021.


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