Moving from Routine to Habit


How Can We Make Healthy Behaviors & Better Hygiene Stick?

COVID-19 has obviously had an enormous negative impact on our society and our personal lives.  However, this crisis has also forced us into several positive behaviors. One notable example is hygiene: Levels of hand washing and cleaning are presumably well above pre-crisis levels. If this can be maintained, the health benefits will be significant, as proper hygiene is known to reduce transmission of many diseases.  However, we also know that people find it quite hard to maintain proper hygiene consistently. This raises an important question and challenge:

How can we encourage both individuals and organisations to extend positive behaviors beyond the immediate crisis? 

Behavioral science suggests three strategies to help establish healthy actions as the new normal:



Today, our actions (tied to hand washing, cleaning and social distancing) are understandably driven by the COVID-19 crisis. While this was necessary to drive immediate behavior change, it’s also quite limiting: It suggests that once the immediate crisis is over, we can revert.  Thus, healthy actions need to be gradually re-framed in the broader context of health, sustainability and necessity. For example, hand washing could be promoted in terms of taking care of yourself, your family and your community from disease (rather than simply in terms of avoiding COVID-19).

Hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions will almost certainly need to enhance their levels of hygiene, in order to reassure and draw back guests.  Already, we’ve seen numerous mailings, such as this one from Marriott, announcing its “Commitment to Cleanliness” programme.  Ideally, policies of this nature should be framed as a new norm (and linked to extended commitments, backed by external certification and monitoring systems).



When it comes to hygiene and public health, the vast majority of individuals (and companies) sincerely want to do the right thing, both to protect themselves and be respectful to others. Therefore, we don’t need to be lectured or convinced. Instead, people need to be reminded, ideally at the exact moment of decision. To do so, we need highly visible cues in physical environments (entrances, doors, washrooms, etc.) that trigger and re-enforce these desired behaviors. In addition, these nudges need to be regularly updated, so that they remain salient. 

BVA Nudge Consulting recently developed a series of signage and visual cues on behalf of a major utility, designed to reassure employees and to promote safe behaviors (such as hand washing and social distancing) as offices re-open.  These efforts will be reviewed on a monthly basis, to detect signs of wear-out and trigger changes in design and messaging.



With hygiene behaviors (such as hand washing and cleaning), we all face a common (and challenging) cost/benefit equation:

  • The action requires an immediate sacrifice of sorts (via the time/effort invested)
  • The potential benefit is less instantaneous and more uncertain (not getting sick)

Today, this trade-off is acceptable to most people, because the fear of catching the virus is quite strong (and the required actions are modest). Similarly, many organizations now view enhanced cleaning standards and procedures as a necessity (to reassure employees and re-attract customers).

However, once the direct threat recedes, this equation will change – and compliance is likely to decline. To mitigate this, we need to provide people with immediate positive reinforcement, tied to the desired behavior. While this reward may be quite modest, the goal is to create a positive association (perhaps just a smile) which helps reinforce the action, both now and well beyond the current crisis. 

While many organisations provide long-term rewards for their customers (frequent guest programmes, etc.), more immediate feedback strategies are needed to promote specific positive behaviors (such as hygiene or sustainability), among both guests and employees.  Here, we’ve seen that gamification strategies (leveraging our ubiquitous phones, rewarding points, making it fun, etc.) can be effective.


Turning Routines into Habits


Ultimately, our goal (with both individuals and organisations) is to turn positive routines into long-term habits. While these terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important distinction:

  • Routines require thought and effort
  • Habits are largely automatic                     

Today, hand washing is arguably a habit for most people after using the washroom, akin to brushing our teeth before bedtime. And extensive washing, every time we eat, buy groceries or re-enter our homes is more likely a conscious routine, which is becoming a subconscious habit through repetition over the past several months.

Cleaning is more naturally a routine, which means that it will always require some thought (on a personal level) and dedicated processes and monitoring (on a business level).  Yet it can also become a habit for households and employees, through a combination of re-framing, reinforcing and rewarding (and perhaps social norms).  For example, at the Audi plant in Brussels, break times have been extended, as a time dedicated for all workers to wash their hands.

Amidst all of its damage and disruption, the coronavirus has created a unique opportunity for society to “raise its game” on hygiene.  But if we are to drive sustained improvements, we’ll need to think beyond this crisis and to apply behavioral science to help embed positive habits, among both individuals and organisations.

For more information on how to turn positive routines into long-term habits, please reach out to Scott Young at