We’ve had to adapt to a rapidly changing world over the last year but some of our newly acquired habits are worth retaining when the pandemic ends.
Some of our behaviors have benefited the environment, like buying locally, reducing our commutes and flying less. Other habits have reduced our odds of catching other illnesses. But retaining those habits is easier said than done.
The likelihood of internalizing a habit largely depends on how unique it is compared to other habits we have, said Art Markman, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
It can be relatively easy to form a new habit if nothing competes with it, he said, such as learning how to drive to work in a new town. It becomes harder if other habits compete with it, he said, like eating healthy when your spouse enjoys baking a lot.
“You already have lots of memories about what you do in your kitchen and dining room, so all of those other memories are competing with the new habit you’re trying to create,” Markman said.
The key to transferring habits to a post-pandemic world is to anticipate potential obstacles, he added.
Markman noted that some people have used the time that would have otherwise been spent on their daily commute to exercise. If they go back to work in person and that time is taken away, they could find a gym near their work to continue the healthy habit, he said.
Many people traveled less by plane or car, which positively affected the environment, said Sabina Shaikh, director of the University of Chicago’s Program on Global Environment.
When people drive less, “there is more space and safety for biking and walking,” she said.
As old and new habits collide with the slow re-opening of the world, here are some habits to keep long after the pandemic ends.
Purchase your produce locally
When the world went into lockdown, many people turned to outdoor farmers markets and other small businesses to buy much-needed produce, according to the US Small Business Administration.
Buying food grown locally helps to minimize your carbon footprint, according to a report from the government of Alberta, Canada.
Part of the greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation the food takes to get to its destination, which the report called “food miles.” In the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, ”locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” means a food product that travels less than 400 miles from the point of origin to where it is marketed, or it is sold in the state that produced it.
Decrease your commute to work
When the pandemic shuttered many in-person offices, people quickly hopped online to continue working virtually.
Americans traveled almost 37 billion fewer miles in June of 2020 compared the same month in 2019, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a typical passenger vehicle emits around 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Markman said he’s seen more people walk to nearby stores in his area in addition to commuting less due to the pandemic, which he says is another benefit to the environment.
Working from home a couple days per week could reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Reduce airplane travel
Airlines were one of the industries hit the hardest during the pandemic, with canceled flights due to Covid-19 scares and travel restrictions. In the United States alone, airlines carried 70% fewer passengers in August 2020 compared to the same month in 2019, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t jump on a plane one day soon to visit Grandma, but some business trips could be replaced by video conference calls.
Air quality improved around the world under pandemic restrictions, Shaikh said, which was “due in large part to the reduction in travel.” However, air quality is slowly beginning to worsen as places have opened back up, she added.
Flying currently accounts for 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions – and the number is on the rise.
Spend time with loved ones at dinner
When the pandemic first began, it became significantly harder, or in some cases impossible, to see loved ones in person. Families who lived in the same household spent time together and often participated in activities like bread-baking and puzzle-building.
Working from home also gave families the opportunity to enjoy dinners together.
In addition to increased bonding time, eating dinners together as a family also have shown a positive association with eating fruits and vegetables, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Spend time in nature
Many of us ran for the hills – in some cases, literally – when Covid-19 infiltrated our cities and towns.
In addition to a welcome escape, exploring nature also comes with physical and mental health benefits, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Of the individuals who reported spending at least two hours a week in nature, only one in seven reported poor health.
Children also reap the benefits of regularly spending time in nature, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology found. Researchers discovered that children who reported feeling connected to nature were more altruistic and scored high on a happiness scale.
Wear a mask when sick
Pre-pandemic, people rarely wore a mask in the United States when sick with illnesses like the flu. In the months after the pandemic, they scrambled to purchase face masks after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that wearing a face mask could decrease your chances of passing Covid-19 to others.
Wearing a mask can also significantly reduce the spread of the flu virus, according to a 2013 study published in PLOS Pathogens.
In 2020, the CDC reported a steep decrease in influenza activity in the United States. They attributed the decrease to people following Covid-19 safety measures in addition to people receiving the flu vaccine.