Habit (re)formation in a time of crisis

These moments are rare.

An opportunity to change ourselves forever.

You know why big retailers have loyalty cards, don’t you? Yep — so they can build a picture of your shopping habits and the shopping habits of three generations of humankind and use all this data to sell you more stuff. Cool.

The data these cards collect is a significant revenue stream for supermarkets.

Did you know, for example, that Tesco has its own international data analysis company, Dunhumby? They’re actually a pretty big deal, employing over three thousand people in more than thirty countries worldwide, analysing the habits of over 1.3 billion shoppers.

And their analysis can result in some terrifyingly precise marketing campaigns that exploit ‘downstream-plus-context-change’ interventions.

Your supermarket loyalty card scheme will know when you fall pregnant — sometimes before you’ve told anyone else — and will start bombarding you with advertising in an attempt to change your habits so that you’re more profitable for them.

Companies like Dunhumby know that if they can get you now, when your context is changing, when your life is in turmoil, then they stand a good chance of keeping you after the baby arrives and your shopping habits ossify once again. Cool, huh?

This is what we’re interested in.

There’s nothing sinister about downstream-plus-context-change interventions as such: they’re a powerful tool for breaking and reforming robust habits when changing your intention is no longer enough.

‘Downstream’ simply means that you’re in control of the intervention directly (rather than, say, obeying government policy imposed on you ‘upstream’) and ‘context-change’ represents those times in life when big stuff is happening: when you take a new job, move to a new city, start a family — or freak out during a global pandemic.

These are moments when you are vulnerable to substantial and enduring habit change. An opportunity to change ourselves forever. These moments are rare.

Side story: the same mechanism might be on offer during psychedelic trips. The snow globe of your mind is turned upside down and almost everything is up for grabs.

I’ll mention one hopeful grocery-based example here. Yesterday I ran out of fruit and vegetables, so I cycled along to the greengrocer. On my way there, I passed two-metre-spaced queues snaking out of a customer-restricted Tesco Express (housed, shudderingly, inside a deconsecrated church).

When I got to the greengrocer, the shelves were almost audibly complaining about the weight of colourful stacks of seasonal vegetables. Huge sacks of potatoes and other hearty roots were piled up on the cramped shop floor, as if in mocking defiance of the empty supermarket chains.

After filing up my panniers, I asked the woman at the till whether she was busier than normal. ‘A lot busier,’ she said. ‘Hopefully, after this is all over, they’ll keep coming back.’

Thanks to this context-change intervention of Covid-19, I think there’s a good chance this shopkeeper will be quietly pleased come Autumn.

Switching lanes: what other habits could we loop-the-loop with?

I’m a freelance writer, so — as I mentioned last week — my worklife hasn’t actually changed much. I still don’t go to the office, I still don’t chat to colleagues over a brew, I still don’t meet face-to-face with customers or clients.

I work mostly alone, in isolation, as normal.

What has changed, however, is my social connection. And not for the worse.

Over the past week, I have had twenty-six conversations with friends on the phone. As well as these conversations, I’ve also taken part in a virtual pub quiz with rooms full of friends, played online Codenames and Pictionary, had several massive Zoom video meetups — and, of course, cycled off on a remote Thighsolation group ride with a whole peloton of pals from around the world.

Because I need professional help, I have kept a spreadsheet of every single phone call or face-to-face meeting I’ve had with friends over the past three years. Happily, that means we can compare data.

  • Corona Isolation: 26 conversations
  • 20-26 February 2020: 8 conversations
  • 20-26 January 2020: 18 conversations
  • 20-26 March 2019: 18 conversations
  • 20-26 March 2018: 8 conversations

Three observations:

  1. Weird palindromic pattern in the non-corona numbers.
  2. Ordinarily, I’m pretty isolated, averaging less than two conversations with friends or family per day.
  3. This past week, in contrast, I have had more than three and a half conversations with friends every day.

Obviously, for most people who aren’t freelance WFH writers, this social trend will have been sharply negative. My point isn’t to brag, but to show that change is possible.

If you’re feeling disconnected, then let’s set up a fifteen minute call. What’s to lose? On Tuesday, I had a really nice connection with a friend who got in touch after seeing my Calendly message in last week’s email. Simply book a time slot any day between 6 and 9pm GMT and let’s chat.

There has never been a better time to get into better habits.

We all secretly know this, by the way. It makes me happy to look out of my window and see so many people jogging, cycling and walking past in the sunshine, all discovering what Søren Kierkegaard observed:

Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.

One of the corona-habits I’m pleased to have slammed back into my routine is cold showers. I would write something inspirational about the experience, but James Parker at The Atlantic has done the work for me:

The water hits, and biology asserts itself. You are not a tired balloon of cerebral activity; you are a body, and you are being challenged. You gulp air; your pulse thumps. Your brain, meanwhile, your lovely, furry old brain, goes glacier-blue with shock. Thought is abolished. Personality is abolished. You’re a nameless mammal under a ravening jet of cold water.

How else I would like to change in the crisis?

  • I’d like to smile at strangers more (not in a creepy way). I noticed last week that I was avoiding eye contact, as if eyesight was corona laser beams. It takes some courage to look someone in the eye and smile, but it’s always worthwhile, especially if you’re otherwise avoiding one another, quite literally, like the plague.
  • I’d like to spend three hours outside every day. As this isn’t really possible anymore, I’d like to make the most of the time I can spend outside: suck up the sunshine, the scents and smells.
  • Related: I’d like to do more foraging. Nature’s allotment is overflowing with three-cornered leek and wild garlic at the moment, and a friend taught me last week that the beautiful hawthorn flowers are edible, leaving a delightfully peppery, buttery aftertaste.

How are you changing?

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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