COVID-19 has changed our world almost overnight. The routine business of our lives has been disrupted. We long for the days of visiting friends for coffee, a nice dinner out with our significant other, and even mundane tasks like running errands or going to work. Everyone is counting the days until they can leave their home again—even the introverts are getting restless.
But this disruption can also be positive. The break in our normal routine has created an environment that is ripe for making behavioral changes, including healthy habits like exercise and better nutrition. The normal force of habit that keeps us stuck—now disrupted—can be the kick-start we need to make positive changes.
The Power of Habits
Before the pandemic, perhaps you’d wake up to your alarm clock, get ready for work, and stop at the drive-thru on your way to the office to grab a bite to eat. You perform this entire sequence of behavior without thinking about it. Most of the time you probably couldn’t recall any details about your drive into the office, even if asked immediately after arriving at your desk.
This is the power of our habits. Over the course of our lives we’ve created automatic sequences of behaviors through repetition. When the first event occurs (turning off the alarm clock), the entire chain becomes activated.
This makes it difficult to change the behaviors within the sequence. You want to improve how you eat, but despite your best intentions you still find yourself at the drive-thru. In order to make a change, you have to combat years of repetition and a determined autopilot.
A Fresh Start
In today’s reality of social distancing, work from home, and stay-home orders, we’re all experiencing a unique opportunity. Not only have a few of our routine behaviors become impossible to complete, the entire chain has been broken. We might still have to turn off the alarm clock, but we no longer have to get ready to be seen by other people. We don’t get in our car to leave the house. No make-up, no morning commute, no drive-thru. In the new world we’re living in, our autopilots can’t be activated quite the same way. It’s like our internal computing system picked up a computer bug that prevents the autopilot function from working.
This leaves us with the opportunity to write entirely new sequences of behavior, new habits that include the healthy behaviors we’ve wanted to adopt. We’ve been given a blank slate with which to create new habits, and the pandemic has eliminated a lot of the unhealthy choices. Preparing our own meals is easier now, because going out isn’t an option. Exercise is more appealing, because it gives us something to do and is one of the few respites from the four walls of our home.
We’ve been given a blank slate with which to create new habits, and the pandemic has eliminated a lot of the unhealthy choices.
Taking Back Control
Not only are these new habit sequences easier to write, but we can also input behaviors that help us reclaim a sense of control in our lives. There can be a growing sense of helplessness as we watch the number of COVID-19 cases continue to climb, read the horror stories on social media, or see the empty grocery store shelves. The world seems to be spinning out of control, and our sense of normalcy taken right along with it.
The resulting anxiety and depression are only exacerbated by the social isolation of being stuck in our homes. You can’t control the spread of the virus, or the government’s response. You can’t control whether your neighbor hoards all the toilet paper. You can, however, control whether you get exercise and the foods you use to nourish your body. You can choose fruit over Oreos, or roasted vegetables over pizza. You can choose to get outside for a walk and let Netflix wait for a bit. (I don’t know, Netflix, am I still watching?)
If you spend your days in front of the TV mindlessly snacking on heavily processed junk food, you’ll feel lethargic and depressed. If you feed your body some nutritious foods and get moving—even a little—then you’ll experience a boost in energy. You’ll feel better. The control you exert to take care of your body will help to combat the feelings of anxiety and depression.
Seize The Opportunity
While our new lives offer the chance to reinvent ourselves, we have to make the choice to do so. It’s just as easy to dig deeper into bad habits as a means to cope with stress. It’s easy to excuse the nap instead of a walk outside, the extra chocolate consumption, or starting the “quaran-tini” every day at 3pm.
The disruption of our normal routines has left us with a void to fill. We can use this opportunity to write a new autopilot program of healthy behaviors, or we can copy and paste the old routines that left us sluggish, out of shape, and in poorer health. How will you take advantage of this opportunity?
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