As someone who believes wholeheartedly in the importance of wearing masks, I have been dismayed repeatedly by finding myself in public spaces without a mask. How could this keep happening? The more I isolate myself, the more out of practice I get with how to prepare to go out.
What can we do to change our automatic behaviors? Plenty! I recently read Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. I highly recommend it, and they have plenty of free materials available on their website for anyone wanting to make lasting change in their life! One of my favorites is a concise summary titled “4 Research-Backed Tips for Sticking to Your New Year’s Resolutions.”
So whether you are wanting to create new positive habits around handwashing and masks, or are using this irregular time for a mid-year revisit to resolutions, here are our tips for creative positive habits (inspired by Dan and Chip Heath):
1. Look for the bright spots
There have been plenty of times in your life when you were able to make a positive change. Take a minute to reflect — what are some examples? What did you do to make it go well? What could you learn or copy from those moments? This can start you on the right track while also providing positive reinforcement. You’ve done it before, so you can do it again!
For habits, we tend to think of only our negative habits like smoking, biting our fingernails, going on our phones before bedtime… but in reality we have so many GOOD habits too! Brushing our teeth, saying “I love you” when hanging up the phone, washing hands after going to the bathroom, and so many more! These did not magically happen. We learned these habits.
2. Start small and clear
Let’s face it, the resolutions that fail are typically the big ones like exercising more or being a better communicator. Our brains can get exhausted by self control and decision making. So, start with one change at a time. In fact, you may need to take that one change and break it into smaller chunks. For example, “exercise more” may seem like a single change, but it involves many smaller actions and decisions along the way. How often? For how long? What kind of exercise? Making a clearer goal like “walk once a week outside with a friend” is something you won’t have to think as much about — and it’s a great way to socialize with 6 feet of distance and low risk of COVID-19!
3. Shape the path
This is one of the Heath brothers’ core concepts — if you think of your journey to successfully creating this habit, what would the path look like? Is it smooth and easy to follow? Is it winding with obstacles in the way? Will you need to stop and decide which way to go periodically? As mentioned before, our brains get tired and are more likely to give up on a change if we don’t make it easy. This is not because we are lazy, we just have limited mental energy.
Shaping the path can look like many things. Want to practice yoga more? Consider leaving the yoga mat rolled out on the floor for the first week or so. It works as a visual reminder, but also eliminates the steps of having to find your mat and roll it out.
For remembering to have my mask with me, I have simply made sure I have a mask in several places, so that I will have it with me, but with zero extra brain effort! I keep a mask in my car, my purse, my hiking bag, and by my keys. In fact, this is why Mighty Well decided to sell multipacks of our Mighty Well Masks! That way, you have extras to keep in different places or to swap out for washing. (And remember, we will donate a mask to someone in need for every 5-pack sold!) If your change does require some thinking each time, consider writing a checklist for yourself. This will take some of the work off of your brain.
4. Make an instant habit with action triggers
Habits that we keep most faithfully tend to be the ones that have action triggers — a routine that automatically flows from one action to another. For example, I never forget to brush my teeth because it’s ingrained that I get up, pee, wash my hands, and then brush my teeth. Routines don’t require extra brain work because they are automatic. The act of deciding on an action trigger (“after I put the laundry in the washer, I will immediately go exercise for 45 minutes”) can increase your likelihood of following through (as opposed to “I will exercise sometime today”). Setting a reminder on your phone or leaving a visual reminder like a sticky note for yourself can help even more! Inserting this step into a pre-existing routine can also help. For example, before I head out I go through a mental checklist: phone 🗹, wallet 🗹, keys 🗹. If I simply add “mask 🗹” to the end of that list, I will be more likely to remember it than if I attempt separately to remember a mask. Keeping a mask with my wallet and keys adds another visual reminder, making it nearly impossible to forget.