How to Respond to COVID-19: Keeping New Habits

April 2, 2020


As campaigners, we spend a lot of time getting people to do things. Clicking, writing and even turning up to do things always involves at least some arm-twisting, even if it is for a good cause. And we’ve got good at it. We’re amazing at optimising messages to get people to act.

But COVID-19 has turned the world on its head. In a few short weeks, life as we knew it has stopped. Fearless frontline heroes are saving lives around the world. Some firms have had to close, and others are retooling to help with the emergency effort. And many, many people are staying at home. It’s a vital part each of us can play.

I’m writing this from my new office – the dining room table – and you’re probably reading it from yours. I’ve had 5 hours of video calls today. I’ve not been in a car for weeks, let alone an aeroplane. I’ve started to exercise – like properly exercise – every day. I call people. I cook actual food.

Each one of these lifestyle changes has been the focus of prolonged campaigning by organisations trying to get us to change our habits. To eat healthily, exercise more, fly less, stay in touch with old people. Research by UCL found that it takes 66 days to form a new habit. So while we might be with our nearest and dearest or getting frustrated from being cooped up on our own, something remarkable might be happening.

For campaigners, this poses an interesting new question. How do we move on from ‘kick the habit’ messages and approaches, to ‘keep the habit’ instead? How do we champion the actions people have taken and, erm, ‘lock in’ the shift? 


Here are four ways we, as campaigners, can help folks to keep up newly learned good habits:

1. Show the benefits.

None of us would choose another emergency like this one. Few except the most introverted among us would choose to be locked down. But look at the difference it made. Blue skies break out over India. Keep some of the habits, and we can keep some of the things we thought we’d never see, or are seeing for the first time.

Our Help Delhi Breathe campaign was about kicking habits. Version 2.0 would be Keep Delhi Breathing!


2. Disconnect the bad.

It’s going to be important to make sure we don’t end up associating all these new habits with a terrible time for the global family. We’ll need to disconnect these new habits from the crisis and reconnect them with new ways of thinking. 

The New American Road Trip has done something similar, forging new connections between the past and the future.


3. Feel the difference.

Intrinsic motivations last longer than extrinsic ones. That’s why we’re happy to be locked in for so long – because we see ourselves as part of a larger family, not for the social cache. So finding the new intrinsic reasons to keep up our new habits will be important. What do people care about enough to keep going for?

Mobilising the Catholic Church around the environment really connected with Christians at a deep level to the values people hold dear.


4. Go back to the future.

In lots of ways, we have seen a future. We have seen a vision of community engagement, a values-led private sector, and a common goal for each of us. We have been shown what we can do when we pull together. By working together we can shift the world on its axis. Campaigners don’t need to argue that it is possible to change the future – everyone knows it now.

For its ability to show the future, Project Period is a great example of this kind of thinking.


Many believe that things won’t be the same after this emergency. It’s too easy to think that. Many of us will want to go back to how things were. And we do too. But we also want to hang on to a few of the new things we started to do – to move to a future that’s a lot like the past, but better. That’s the task of campaigners around the world from now on, and one we at Purpose are embarking upon. 


Daniel Hale Campaign Director