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.