A woman sat on the floor with her arms out
Mental Health

How to build new habits and routines as lockdown eases

Worried about slipping back into bad habits and unhealthy routines as restrictions ease and the world heads ‘back to normal’? Read this.

When the UK went into lockdown at the end of March last year, you probably found yourself having to adapt quite a few of your habits and routines.

From the switch to working from home to going from IRL drinks to video calls in bed, the coronavirus pandemic forced us all to make changes to the ways we live our lives.

And while some of these changes may have been less than ideal (we’re looking at you, endless Zoom meetings), you may also have found that the last year has given you an opportunity to reimagine what you want to prioritise going forward, whether that’s in terms of your relationships, career, personal finances or health.

However, as lockdown restrictions ease and the excitement of ‘going back to normal’ begins to take over, it’s all too easy to let these priorities take a back seat.

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So, if you want to maintain these priorities and make changes to your life post-lockdown, how can you ensure you ensure this doesn’t happen and be more conscious of what’s going on?

We asked Sharnade George, a therapist and founder of the online therapy directory Cultureminds Therapy, and Gemma Leigh Roberts, a chartered psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge, to share their top tips for building and maintaining new habits as restrictions ease. Here’s what they had to say. 

1. Recognise that this is a period of transition, and take one step at a time 

A woman taking a step
How to build new habits and routines: taking small steps towards your goal will make the experience less stressful.

Although the transition out of lockdown may not feel as significant as the transition into lockdown, it’s still just as big a change to get used to, so it’s important to treat it as such.

“There are lots of things that we need to get used to again, like setting boundaries, not overextending ourselves and making sure we’re still booking in time for healthy activities, such as exercise,” Roberts explains.

“I think from a psychology perspective that’s actually potentially more of a challenge than going into the first lockdown, as whereas before we were in survival mode, now it’s more about identifying what we want our ‘new normal’ to be,” she continues.

“There’s going to be things that go really well and are as exciting as we’ve been dreaming of, but equally, there are going to be challenges along the way as well.” 

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As well as taking the time to recognise that this transition won’t all be plain sailing, it’s also important to understand that forging new habits doesn’t happen overnight, so you’ll want to take things one step at a time.

“It’s important to take your time and be patient with yourself throughout the transition of change,” George suggests. “There will be times when you slip back into old habits but that’s ok because with time things will change. Change is gradual and taking baby steps is less stressful and overwhelming for your mind.” 

2. Create a schedule for yourself – and write it down

With restrictions easing and lots of different areas of society reopening, it can be easy to get carried away and say “yes” to every invitation you receive, whether that’s at work or in your social life. 

So, if you want to stay on top of your time – and ensure you’re giving yourself enough time to rest and recharge alongside all your other responsibilities – Roberts recommends writing down a rough weekly schedule and trying to stick to those times.

“Think about what you have control over,” Roberts suggests. “In an ideal world, how would you structure your day?

“It’s so easy to put things in the calendar and all of a sudden you go back to a diary where it’s completely full all the time, you’re running between people and you feel pressured that you need to fit it all in. It’s hard when these are things that you want to do, but blocking out time will help you to stick to your priorities and find some structure.” 

3. Reward yourself for getting things right 

A fancy coffee
How to build new habits and routines: rewarding yourself with something nice like a fancy coffee when you make progress towards your goal reinforces the behaviour.

Building habits doesn’t have to mean punishing yourself for slipping back into old habits or making mistakes.

Instead, focus on rewarding yourself when you do something that aligns with your priorities, such as, for example, saying no to unnecessary overtime at work or setting boundaries with a friend who has been toxic for you in the past.

“Rewards reinforce behaviours both positive and negative,” George explains. “When you reinforce behaviours this is how you build new habits – but ensure the rewards are balanced and not too frequent otherwise it could affect how you feel if it’s overdone. 

“When you reward yourself for not slipping back into old habits and continuing with a new habit, this activates a neurotransmitter called dopamine in your brain which gives you a sense of pleasure and will motivate you to repeat the behaviour.” 

4. Assess what’s working as you go along 

One of the most valuable things you can do in order to build new, healthy habits is to reflect on what’s working on a regular basis. It may feel strange at first, but being able to look back on each week and identify what did and didn’t go well is incredibly valuable.

The first way you can do this is by identifying your ‘behaviour chains’ – the system of thoughts and feelings which lead up to you making a decision – that lead you to slip back into old behaviours, George recommends.

“Habits are fixed due to the repetition of your mental experience, and by identifying your behaviour chain, you will gain insight as to why you’re struggling to make a change and slipping back into old behaviours,” she explains.  

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To identify your behaviour chains, you can use the following framework:

Trigger: what triggers you into slipping back?

Cognitions (thoughts): what thoughts occur in your mind when this is happening?

Action: how do you behave? What are you doing as a result of this?

Consequence: what happens as a result? Consider your emotions (how do you feel), behaviours (is your behaviour problematic or self-destructive) and physical sensations (how do you feel within my body). 

Another way to reflect on what is and isn’t working is to have a period of reflection at the end of each week, so you can identify where things did and didn’t work, Roberts suggests.

“Keep assessing what’s working,” she explains. “If you keep finding that you’re getting really exhausted, for example, or you feel like you’re getting stretched in lots of directions, make some adjustments. I think lots of people will be in the same boat.” 

While forging and maintaining new routines, boundaries and habits certainly isn’t easy, if you want to make changes in your life post-lockdown – whether that’s in terms of your career, relationships, health or finances – then George and Roberts’ tips are certainly a good place to start.  

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