The Guardian view on habits: a pandemic of lost routines

The pandemic has broken many things, and among them are habits of a lifetime. Some people forged new norms, and discovered in lockdown new routines (working from home, gardening, baking, exercise, petcare), a tendency only underlined by the repetitiveness of the days themselves. The evident popularity of some new habits, such as cycling, will persist. Repeat something once a day for weeks and it begins to feel automatic – a habit, in other words. But the scale of the loss is unprecedented.

Some habits were good to lose. It is interesting, for instance, that breaking the habit of going to badly paid, exploitative jobs has meant that far fewer people are willing to go back to them, while others have found respite from drinking or overspending. But many would be missed, especially the habit of spending time with others (including family and friends); the habit of enjoying art – going to the cinema, galleries and, for believers, the habit of worship. Pre-Covid about 15 million people a month went to the cinema, while London theatres attracted the same number every year. Then all of these places went dark. Now they are open again, the challenge is to see whether those routines can be rebuilt.

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At the most basic level, we need habits in order to cope. “The skeleton of habit alone,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her X-ray of 1920s English high society, Mrs Dalloway, “upholds the human frame.” Almost two centuries before, the philosopher David Hume argued that “custom … is the great guide of human life. It … makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.” The repetition of cause and effect builds our trust in the world, in other words, and, further, builds a world as it does so; breaking habits breaks that world.

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This insight has been buttressed by recent empirical research. Neuroscientists suggest humans are on autopilot up to 43% of the time. Wendy Wood, a professor of social psychology and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick argues that one reason lockdown was so unsettling was because it threw everyone back into full decision mode. Aspects of the world were broken, and we had to rewire them.There are of course many types of habit, from those acquired through deliberate practice (playing a musical instrument) to those succumbed to (gambling); those acquired through social responsibility (mask-wearing), or those partly social but also driven by an intangible need for something deeper and richer (theatre-going). Some newly acquired obsessions might be better for the human spirit than previously acknowledged: last year, researchers at the University of Oxford reported the surge in playing video games in lockdown could be good for mental health.

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The good news is that, for the most part, we can actively choose to remake habits we want or need. More than 10 million people went to the cinema in August. A festival of musical theatre in London attracted thousands. Putting to one side, for a short hopeful moment, the current resurgence in Covid cases, this is surely proof that we can rebuild our worlds, one habit at a time.