Global habit change. Now.

I am writing this in the midst of the early ‘lockdown’ response to Covid-19. I do not underestimate the gravity of the situation – my view on that has been both bearish and I hope empathic from the start. The impact of this virus is going to affect us all in very serious ways. But in this moment here I do want to spend time thinking about not the pandemic itself, but an interesting consequence unravelling in parallel.

Most of what I know about habits, I learned from Professors Karen Pine & Ben Fletcher.

I will butcher and simplify their academic research as professors and practitioners in pyschology to say that Karen and Ben identified that our habits are not isolated but each members of a web of many interconnected behaviors. And when wiggled and flexed through a sustained and deliberate effort as a web of habits, we as individuals discover an ability to make greater changes to some of the specific habits we wish to change in our lives.

In short, doing lots of things a bit differently to quite a few of our normal routines and reflexes created a space in which we could then change our smoking habit, our fear of leaving the house, our first response in an argument. Karen explains it clearly and eloquently with stories here at Meaning Conference.

Habits, though, are powerful.

As a I remember it from Karen and Ben as well as the work in books like Thinking, Fast & Slow, we outsource much more of our daily decisions to our body or lower ‘thinking’ functions than we realize, and conserve precious brain power as much as we can. Habits run most of our world.

Take a second to think about yours. How you respond to notifications on your phone. How you travel to work in the morning, y’know, when you did. How you get washed and dressed at home. How you respond to criticism, or worse, to praise. How you parent. How you collaborate. The traps you trip yourself into in meetings or family moments.

So with all that in mind, it strikes me that the response to Covid-19 is a globally synchronized habit change program for billions of humans. If habits run a good chunk of each of our everyday personal worlds, if we scale up to the societal and global level, is it too much to suggest that the same is true at national and international levels?

I propose that this is the largest simultaneous habit change event in the history of humankind.

Suddenly our habits and usual patterns of life and work have been utterly disrupted. The walk to work. The time apart from or together with children or partners. Who we can see and when. For those working from home, our whole working environment. Exercise routines. Diets. Every relationship. It isn’t uniform, by country, by profession, by age. But it is affecting very many of us right now.

At a global scale.

That wiggle room in the web of interconnected habits we all have has been – well – wiggled.

In history, as a non-expert I imagine that the changing of habits and of behaviors usually diffused through populations over extended periods of time. Often first unlocked by technology or (more powerfully, sometimes) through ideas.

I imagine that as the advent of the printing press catalyzed change in religion, in power, in communications, the spread of that took time – decades and centuries to exert its full influence. Habits then, maybe they changed quickly – I’d love to learn more. But I do guess that in general the spread was slowed by distance and the lack of connectivity.

What is happening today is spreading very fast. Both the virus itself and the chain of reactions in response.

Individually, as well as staying safe and healthy and sane, and as well as providing to family and to employers and to our community (it’s a lot, I know), we have the opportunity to consciously think about new habit creation and old habit disposal.

What new habit pathways do I want to lay down now during this time?

What old habits do I want to work on and leave behind?

And which habits do I see more or less of emerging around me? Handwashing. Videocalls. Distance-learning/telemedicine/worship/everything. The list of emergent behaviors here is fascinating.

We have this opportunity as individuals. In all of this change and chaos and uncertainty it is one of the few things we can control.

And we have this opportunity as leaders of teams and organizations, as policy makers, teachers, doctors, as providers of products and services, aid workers and entrepreneurs. To notice what is changing, and be conscious about what can and will change next.

Then zoom out from your life. See your street, your city, your nation and the world. And ask, what habits are going to change at scale in the world that emerges from this pandemic.

I see a changed landscape. I see people reevaluating their work, their lives. I see big phase change from this marker in history. Global habits are changing from this moment forward.

Maybe you’ve already noticed this happening. I’d love to hear if you have.


Taxi driver just undercut a police car at speed while switching lanes.
Racing along a suspended highway and slowly realising the grey modern megaliths of the city skyline have encircled us and suddenly we’re entrapped, caught right where they want us, in their metropolitan maw.

I’ve just come back from a wonderful, maybe even life-changing, 3 and a bit days in Shanghai. My first trip to China. I wrote those notes from the taxi, groggy, having just left the airport, nailing it down the Chinese highway.

And now looking back these are the themes I want to remember from the experience.


I had approached with the naive arrogant assumptions of a Westerner used to being at the centre of the world. I expected big web properties, but just with different names. I expected a sweet, developing marketing and digital community, behind but finding its way. I expected to feel knowing and confident, superior even.

What I found was a digital and business landscape moving so rapidly that even though 15 or so local veterans we met and spoke to are struggling to keep up with, even with their resources, their knowledge, their inside relationships and on the ground. I felt inspired, dizzied, shaken and admiring.

It feels like there are major iterations to the digital topology every 6-12 months. ‘Weibo is dead!’ we were told over and again. ‘I go there now and again just to check what’s happening’ one of the guys we met told us. Right now the momentum is particularly with WeChat, a closed, timeline-driven social network owned by TenCent, Sina Weibo’s major competitor. Brands are struggling to figure out what to do and we found the Shanghai agencies and social data players equally perplexed.

This market has been moving much faster than the Western market has. And we were speaking with smart digital veterans – people from companies like Ogilvy, JWT, We Are Social, Porter Novelli, OMD, as well as local outfits like NIM Digital and CIC.

In fact, just as we’d got our head around WeChat being the platform where the action is happening, we were told that mobile app vertical communities feel like the next big thing.

Chatting about the local talent market we heard a phrase that resonated: ‘talent isn’t loyal – life is moving too fast here’. Kinda sums up the speed and spirit of Shanghai.












Other differences that stood out:

  • Not being able to access any of my most visited websites: Google, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Map, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (after a while I found I could through my phone but it was sketchy), Wikipedia – at one point I asked a colleague to cut and paste the Wikipedia entry for Shanghai into an email. Using Word again felt so quaint!
  • Smoking – everywhere smelt of cigarette smoke, people smoke profusely in the hotel bar, the restaurants, cars, whatever, wherever.
  • Volume – an animated conversation sounded to me like a shouting match. I quite like that.
  • Bamboo scaffolding – love it.
  • No tipping – that felt odd, coming from the USA. It’s not banned or anything, but it’s just not the custom.











Whilst Shanghai bustles with the noisy car-horns and weaving scooters and speeding taxis, it also feels very distinct from the outright chaos of say Delhi or Bangkok.

A high percentage of the cars on the road are recognisable global brands – like 80%. And many were Audi, VW, Porsche, Mini, BMW. Quite a jolt, actually. Yes, that’s Shanghai – a wealthy bubble. But even so.

We walked to our first appointment on the second day, 35 minutes through a particularly smoggy morning. And what struck us as we did was how European it felt – like Barclona with wide boulevards lined with short Palm trees, neatly manicured gardens and small public parks with bamboo-shrouded paths and trimmed bushes. And the gawky sci-fi elevated walkway network high above the traffic had sweet, simple hanging plant boxes tracked along its edges.

The streets were cleaner than NYC, although there were patches of sewage-y smelling areas.

Perhaps its the European and international history of the place. Perhaps its the modern pace of innovation and concentration of wealth. But Shanghai doesn’t feel alien or altogether different. It feels like a place of fusion.

A real global city.











The Chinese people we met were open, smart, knowledgeable, interested, savvy. I expected smart but I didn’t expect the transparency, the humour and the generosity we experienced. Preconceptions. Stereotypes.

And in particular the generosity. Our colleague Xinglong was met at the airport but his best friend’s best friend – someone he’d never met before. This friend Edward then drove us around from appointment to appointment for the next two days in his fancy BMW. Utterly humble (he is a successful entrepreneur with a digital business in North America). We were told, ‘it’s the Chinese way’.

The people we met were great. Very impressive.

Shanghai. What a place.


List of Meaning Organisations

Pre-reading! More about Meaning Organisations here.

An evolving and very incomplete list of for-profit businesses whose meaning obviously transcends just making profit:

Mountain Equipment Co-op

– Noma

– The Tata Nano
Unilever Shakti



Please comment or email me with suggestions to add to the list.

What if it’s all our fault?

I had this really strange realization over the weekend, which is that it’s probably all our fault that the world is in the state it is (however you judge that state to be).

Our fault!

It’s quite a mad thought to me, that it’s our fault. Global warming, child poverty, human trafficking, nefarious politicianing, bribery and corruption – whatever it is you decide is wrong in the world: OUR FAULT.

Bit unfair, maybe?

But it was triggered by me realising how much plastic tat our two children have. Crap they don’t need, don’t play with, accumulated low-cost cheap-labour-created utter rubbish. And then I started thinking about the food we waste at home (I know I don’t look like I waste food, but trust me – I/we do :-). And how angry I get about the recent Guantanamo news, or Ian Tomlinson’s inquiry, or whatever, but know that I actually DON’T DO ANYTHING. I carry on.

And I thought about these words from Tom Bailey:

Work less. Consume less. Live more. Amen…. just as soon as the obscenely large job is out of the way.

Brilliant words that sum up my behaviour entirely!

How I’d love to do that, in theory, I mused on reading those words. But really? Really? Really I don’t seem to want to. I want to work MORE, have MORE, I don’t even know what I’d do if I had more time – either try and start a business or ride my bike more (I’m quite happy with the amount of time I spend with my beloved family!!). I just don’t do idling very well. So I carry on.

And if I’m carrying on, and not doing everything I can to change the world, then I have to take some responsibility – I realised.

The reason I write this is because that’s not the vibe I get from the world around me.

We don’t seem to collectively believe that it’s our fault. It’s big business, or politicians or whoever. But it might as well be Martians. Because by damning them, we’re absolving ourselves of responsibility. We are thus made powerless victims, unless I’ve misunderstood.

There are people I know that do rail against and do expend every piece of their capacity and available resources at making a difference, and I have nothing but respect for them. But I can think of one person – only 1 – that really does this. But we’ve seen around the world people exerting their power and making changes – massive, previously unthinkable changes.

So I’m starting to wonder if it does all come back to us. If it is, actually, our fault. My fault. My responsibility. Maybe by not changing it, I might as well have created it. I own it. It’s mine, the way the world is.

It’s interesting for me to think like that. Maybe one day I’ll do something about it. Maybe we all will.