With life as we know it suspended and everyone finding new ways of being in the world, adding more change to daily life might seem counterintuitive.
But Monash behavioural scientists say times of great upheaval can be the best times to embed new habits.
“The best times to break old habits and create new ones are at key moments of change – moving house, changing jobs, getting married – these are all moments of big change,” says BehaviourWorks researcher Kim Borg. “Everything is changing anyway, so these are actually great times to start new habits.”
"These are opportunities to start new better behaviours – it’s a little bit of a silver lining.”
Borg, part of the team of behavioural researchers at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s BehaviourWorks Australia, found herself directly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. She was forced to self-isolate not only from the outside world, but from her husband inside their home, after the pair cut short an overseas holiday when the risks became clear.
“So, we had to learn new behaviours pretty quickly. When we finally received our negative tests, I was so attuned to social distancing after two weeks of this new behaviour that when he walked towards me I automatically backed away!” she says.
“It shows how quickly you can adapt and develop new habits. With the transition to working from home, walking away from my computer to start cooking dinner has become my new signal that work is over for the day, which also stops me from buying so much takeaway food, improving my diet and reducing the amount of waste we generate at home. These are opportunities to start new better behaviours – it’s a little bit of a silver lining.”
Seeing the silver lining hasn’t always been Borg’s default position. Even as a 16-year-old she was filled with worry for the state of the planet – fearing Earth would one day become uninhabitable after an environmental collapse. She turned this fear into the premise for a science-fiction novel, where humanity’s only hope for survival is to abandon the planet they destroyed to find a new home among the stars.
After being tucked into a digital drawer for almost a decade, Kim rediscovered the manuscript in her late 20s. She recognised her environmental values had never changed, and decided it was time to apply her social and behavioural research skills to helping people take better care of the planet.
Through her work examining the impacts of waste, with a focus on plastic waste and disposable items, Borg has seen some pretty scary predictions about what the world is facing. As she told host Susan Carland in the Monash podcast What Happens Next, if we don’t change our behaviour, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
As her knowledge and understanding of global environmental issues grew, she applied what she learned not only to her day job, but to redrafting her manuscript as well. More than five years later, her book, Edge of Extinction, was published on 14 April.
Borg remains optimistic about the potential future "after corona", despite the current world imitating her own dystopian art a little too closely.
“All these things that used to be ‘too difficult’ – it’s too hard to have people working from home, to make roles more flexible, to hold digital meetings – then suddenly, when push comes to shove, we can activate all these amazing things,” she says.
“We are suddenly all doing behaviours we never had to do before. One of the most effective ways of getting someone to do a behaviour is for them to have done it before. Things that were once unfamiliar or too hard can suddenly become common and normal, making it easier to continue doing the behaviours.”
On the flip side, she says, COVID-19-driven changes have led to increasing the use of single-use items for hygiene purposes, such as the rejection by many cafes of reusable cups. This could make it hard to return adoption levels of these behaviours to pre-pandemic rates.
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She hopes perhaps the images of how nature is positively responding to human isolation might help convince more people of how much collective impact we can have when we adopt better behaviours together, and maintain some of these changes into the future.
“If people can get more comfortable with working from home, and employers feel confident about productivity, we can reduce road traffic and public transport use by increasing our time working outside the office,” she says.
Businesses are already planning to maintain some changes the pandemic has forced. Borg’s husband works in construction, where previously, online meetings were very rare. The increase in productivity they’ve seen compared to travelling between clients for in-person meetings has caused the business to reconsider how they do things longer term.
Moving to more digital meetings will have added environmental benefits, too – reducing time spent driving to meetings, road congestion, and emissions.
“It’s a great example of how businesses as well as individuals can adopt better practices after all this,” Borg says.
“I think there is some hope that in the future there will be change for the better. There are some potential silver linings at the end of all this.”
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