Good new habits? Here is why you will lose them after lockdown.

Which of your habits have been broken by lockdown? Going to the office? Out of the question for most of us. Visiting family? Not allowed for many. Going to the gym? It’s closed. Lockdowns are not just desperate measures to stop a pandemic. They are also accidental experiments with our brains.

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Lockdown is an accidental experiment with our brain.

Our brain is arguably the most sophisticated learning machine on this planet. But it is lazy and keeps nudging us towards more of the same: repeated behaviours. Habits. “Almost all our behaviour is governed by our habits,” says Prof. Geoff Bird, University of Oxford. Changing habits is one of the hardest jobs for humans and their brains (and, in all modesty, their coaches). My own practice as a coach tells me: coaching boils down to changing mindsets and behaviours.

Many of our preferences are hard-wired, including things which we really shouldn’t prefer. Or as Geoff puts it: “The brain is the perfect learning machine. Unfortunately, it can learn the wrong things.” Changing cognitions, changing behaviours, changing habits, means changing the brain and the neural connections in it. Which means in turn — not only for coaches, but for everyone — that we need to understand how the brain works, to help change behaviours and mindsets. “You need to understand the brain to understand the mind.

Let’s take an example that often comes up in coaching practice: managing and reducing stress. The bad effects of stress are not only felt by the sufferers; some of the fallout from stress can be measured. Clinical data of chronically stressed individuals show damage to the immune system, higher incidence of strokes and heart attacks. And — often in combination with sleep deprivation — periods of high stress often precede manifestations of psychiatric illness in genetically susceptible individuals. And we all are susceptible to some psychiatric conditions.

The bad and (perversely the good) news is: stress is not only extremely costly to the sufferer, but also to their employers. “I was shocked when I saw the effects of stress on performance“, says Geoff. This gives strong incentives to employers to reduce stress levels in their workforce.

Obvious remedies come to mind: sleep more, delegate more, more sports, fewer cups of coffee, use that meditation or yoga app. All good stuff, not all proven to be effective. Much of it is the equivalent of a band-aid — trying to heal the damage rather than prevent it. Most of us are aware of these hacks, anyways.

The important question is: how do we help (others and ourselves) to do the right things which reduce stress? And how do we change habits and behaviours that create stress in the first place? What does neuroscience suggest? “We know that learning and un-learning of habits relies on three core variables: contiguity, contingency and context”, says Geoff. Let’s take them one by one.

Contiguity is all about the speed with which feedback follows a behaviour. Most corporate bonus schemes are likely to be a waste of money and management attention, since the reward comes once a year — typically far too long after the behaviour which it is designed to reinforce. Rewards should be immediate to be maximally effective.

Contingency is about predictability of rewards or punishments. If the right behaviour triggers a reward sometimes, but not consistently, our brain will not form a new habit around the desired behaviour.

Context is arguably the most powerful variable. Our brain learns in context: change the context, and we are more likely to take up new behaviours and habits. Bring us back to the old context, chances are we move back to the old, associated behaviours.

This also suggests that many habits formed during lockdown will break down, once we are allowed to go back to the office, the gym, and to the shops. Take the analogy of rehab: one of the reasons patients frequently relapse right after leaving rehab is that they learn to live without alcohol in a new context. The clinic is without access to alcohol, but offers great support and lots of activities. Once the patient leaves, he is back in the old context, with all the known triggers and temptations.

“Changing habits is mechanistically similar to curing drug addiction,” explains Geoff. In simple words: rewiring the brain, overwriting strong connections with new, stronger connections. The good news: because context matters tremendously, coaches — and managers — who change assumptions on an organizational level, who change the context, can have huge impact. If you have the privilege of working as a coach with the CEO and can change her attitude toward stress, you may create more impact, than by coaching 100 of her employees. “If bosses did nothing but reducing debilitating stress in the workforce, they would already be value for money,” says Geoff.

So what about the good new habits you formed in lockdown? Talking more with family members? Stretching exercises first thing in the morning? Great work efficiency by using video calls rather than doing lots of short-haul trips? Whatever it is for you: find a way to keep these habits, once context changes back after lockdown.

Here is what can help you: create systems which make it easier for you to repeat the new desired behaviours. This can be a calendar note that enshrines that morning body stretch in your day, even when you would like to storm out of the flat, with just an espresso in your system, catching the early morning train to the office, as always. Or find a partner who joins in. Also, get timely, frequent and consistent feedback on behaviours: again, enlist innocent people in your private life to reward or sanction behaviour consistently, or try a nudging app. Because you will need all the help you can get, to keep your new healthy habits alive, once context changes back, after lockdown ends. One thing is certain: our brains will relentlessly nudge us back to more deeply engraved habits, good or bad.

Andreas Kleinschmidt

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