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Habits underpin our lives.

Without them, every day would be a bewildering mess of decision-making for activities we thankfully don’t have to think about. It’s because so many parts of our daily routine—from reading the newspaper to commuting to work—are on autopilot that we can afford to focus on finishing that new work project or deciding if a new car is worth it.

We are not conscious of how habits are formed, nor can we get rid of them easily. But Covid-19 has turned that on its head.

Unprecedented restrictions on people’s movement over the past few months, coupled with pay cuts and job losses, have challenged the notion that habits are hard to dislodge. Everything, from working out at the gym every day or going to the mall on the weekend, is now merely a memory that we reminisce about.

For habits, the pandemic has set in motion a mass extinction of sorts. And that is terrible news for those that depend on them for their very existence.

“When you work from home, it impacts not just office space providers but also the office canteen, the chaiwala outside your office, and the restaurant you go to celebrate a colleague’s birthday,” says Abhishek Malhotra, partner at McKinsey & Company, a management consultancy.

A habit is formed through a three-step process. Popularised by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, the habit loop has a cue, a routine, and a reward. Let’s take the example of those who send “Good morning” messages on WhatsApp. The cue could be the time they wake up. The routine is sending the message to their entire contact list. And the reward is getting a response from some of their contacts wishing them the same and how that makes them feel. The reward is why the brain remembers the loop for the next time.

The cue for a lot of our habits has to do with our being at work—the endless cups of coffee because our desk is close to the coffee machine, or the post-workday drink. Those triggers are missing now.

But the death of habits is also a reason to cheer for some companies. That’s to do with the very nature of habits. They exist on a continuum and do not allow for a vacuum to emerge. Before you even realise you have given one up, you have already taken to a new routine or reinforced an existing habit. For instance, if you are into dance fitness and your classes have been put on hold indefinitely, you are likely to switch to online sessions and even pay for them.

Or, take commuting, which is so integral to our lives that it’s almost second nature to us. An Indian urban dweller spends at least two hours every day on travel, according to a recent study of six large Indian cities by MoveInSync Technology Solutions, a provider of transport services to companies.

AUTHOR

Seetharaman G

Starting out as a business journalist in 2008, Seetharaman has written about energy, climate change, retail, banking, and technology. He has worked with Business Today, a fortnightly, and the Sunday edition of The Economic Times.

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