As we’ve adapted to lockdown and all the changes that came with it, many of us have developed habits we could do without. Whether it’s sleeping late before starting work or working late into the night, lots of people have fallen into routines and ways of working that aren’t really sustainable.
Getting up early, exercising before work, drinking less alcohol, meditating and other healthy and productive habits don’t come easy. And amid the stress of living through a global pandemic, many of us have quite rightly cut ourselves some slack.
Understandably, the pandemic has led to a surge in anxiety, with finding rates of mental distress in the general population increased from 18.8% to 27.3% between 2018 and 2020. We've also been spending more time at home alone, which can lead to loneliness and boredom. Unfortunately, our go-to coping mechanisms aren't always the best for our health.
A year of lockdowns has also seen many people fall into potentially harmful routines. Home-workers are working longer hours than before, we’re finding it harder to switch off and workers are increasingly reporting symptoms of chronic stress and burnout.
So as coronavirus restrictions begin to lift and we gradually return to normality, what can we do to break these unhealthy habits and build new ones?
“They say it takes three weeks for something to become a habit, so after months of lockdown it’s likely that the changes we’ve made to our routines and lifestyles, whether intentional or not, have firmly taken hold,” says Kelly Feehan, Services director at CABA, the .
“Some of the new habits we’ve developed will be beneficial. However, others might not be so good for us in the long run,” she says. “Healthy habits, such as good sleep, regular exercise and a healthy, balanced diet improve our wellbeing and levels of happiness. Bad habits, on the other hand, do the opposite, often leading to increased stress and anxiety.”
Identify habits you want to change
First, it’s important to identify the areas you want to change or the habits that won’t work as we head out of lockdown. For example, staying in bed until 8.50am before starting at 9am might work when you don’t have to commute, but not when you’re working in an office. You may want to get into the habit of exercising before work, rather than at lunchtime. However, it’s important not to overwhelm yourself and try to overhaul your whole life at once.
“Starting off slowly and incorporating one habit at a time will increase our chances of success,” Feehan says. “When we try to do too much in one go, we can easily lose focus and not give each habit the attention it needs to develop fully. As soon as your habit has become part of your routine, you’ll be able to consider another.”
Lean on your support network
Developing a healthy habit is hard, but a good support network will go a long way in supporting your changes. If you want to get up earlier or start bringing healthy packed lunches to work, ask your partner or housemates to join you.
“Encourage your family and loved ones to join in and make positive changes with you. Not only will it increase your chances of success, but it will also deepen your relationships as you learn new things together,” Feehan says.
Stick at it
Consistency is key when it comes to building new habits. The more you do something, the quicker it will feel like a natural part of your routine. “For example, the more you work out before breakfast, the quicker it will feel like a completely normal part of your day,” Feehan says.
“Setbacks are a natural part of anything in life and should be used as a learning curve instead of a road-block. If you drop the ball, don’t be hard on yourself, draw a line and start again. Every day is a new opportunity to succeed so take it one day at a time.”
Make environmental changes
“Making it as easy as possible to break a habit might seem obvious, but if your environment is enhancing these bad habits and making good habits harder, change it,” advises Feehan. “Get rid of the sugary snacks from the kitchen cupboards, delete the apps on your phone that distract you or take the batteries out of your TV remote.”
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If your aim is to set better boundaries around your work time, put your laptop away at a reasonable hour and turn off any work-related notifications on your phone.
“Finally, the most important thing to bear in mind is to not be so hard on yourself. The last few months have been difficult, scary, and incredibly emotional for many of us,” she adds. “So cut yourself some slack; it’s natural for your habits to have changed in this period, and when you’re ready to start working towards a new and more positive routine, take it step by step.”