Tired of following COVID-19 safety protocols? You have pandemic fatigue. Here's what to do.

Emily Balcetis and Dennis Aronov
Opinion contributors

Think back to a year ago. What were you doing to get through the day at the start of COVID-19? Learning to knit? Making sourdough? Odds are yes. In March of 2020 alone, online knitting communities saw a more than 50% increase in social media followers and more than 180,000 people were talking about sourdough on social media in just a single day that month.   

But for most of us, those creative powers have now stagnated. Google Trends analyses show online interest in sourdough has fallen to a quarter of what it was a year ago. We are done trying to entertain ourselves. We have what professionals are calling pandemic fatigue. We're tired of our “new normal” and — to a dangerous extent — exhausted from the constant anxiety.

And pandemic fatigue is contributing to the decline in the use of personal safety precautions. A study published last month in The Journal of the American Medical Association found in April 2020 80% of people stayed at home except for essential reasons, but by November only 40% did so. The researchers noted that such declines in mitigation efforts appeared in every single U.S. region tested.

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But it doesn’t have to be this way. Behavioral scientists have discovered a psychological principle of motivation that we can use to our advantage to help us overcome pandemic fatigue; they call it the "small area hypothesis."

The idea here is that motivation to achieve a goal is often based on perspective. At the beginning of an effort, most people find motivation by reflecting on what they've already accomplished. Towards the end, we tend to find motivation by reflecting on what is left to achieve. Motivation falters when we look the wrong way at the wrong time, and that might be what is happening during the pandemic right now.

A few years back, before COVID, researchers from the University of Chicago conducted an experiment that illustrates this principle well. They gave more than 900 guests at a sushi restaurant one of two kinds of rewards program cards. Ten meals would earn them a free lunch. Some received a card that would be stamped for each meal they purchased. By adding something to the card — a little sushi-shaped stamp — the attention was place on accumulated progress. Other restaurant guests had their card punched for each meal they purchased, which put the attention on what was left; in this case it was the number of meals remaining to purchase before they received a reward.

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The researchers first looked at the data from guests who purchased quite a few entrees on their first visit. These people had made some quick progress on the rewards program. Interestingly, they came back to the restaurant sooner for their next meal when their card was punched rather than stamped. The punches drew their attention to what remained rather than what they had already purchased.

On the other hand, guests who made only minimal progress toward their free lunch (those who purchased only one or two entrees on their first visit) came back sooner for their next meal when their card was stamped rather than punched. It was the other form of rewards tracking that motivated them.

In both cases, people showed greater motivation and persistence when they focused their attention on the aspect of their progress that was smaller. When they were just starting out, people were more motivated by looking back on what they accomplished. When they were nearer to the end, they were more motivated by looking forward to what they had left to do.

Obviously, with COVID-19, we aren’t talking about free lunches, but the similarities between the pandemic experience and this research are there. Our interest in social distancing, and other health precautions was stronger at the start of the pandemic than it is now.

And if the small-area-hypothesis is right, the early motivation people showed might have come because they were counting up. People counted up, looking back on the number of nights that they had clapped at 7:00 pm for first responders. They were not counting down the number of nights they would #clapbecausewecare before the pandemic was over. Reflecting back on what they had done in early stages of the pandemic was motivating.

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The problem now is that it has been almost a year since COVID-19 hit the world and for months now the finish line has shifted. When will this be over, we keep asking?

Think back to those sushi restaurant patrons from the research study. Those who held cards with punched holes for every meal purchased focused on how many meals they had to go, and if that number was big their motivation to support the restaurant waned. If we keep our focus on how much time we have left to endure, at this stage of the pandemic, we will likely find ourselves burning out, giving up, and choosing riskier behaviors than we have in the past.

So, what can we do to sustain our motivation to keep ourselves safe as the COVID crisis continues on?

  • First, stop looking back on the past because that is no longer going to motivate. Avoid counting up the number of days it has been since you’ve seen your friends or family. At this point, that number likely is very large and may not help you find the resolve to continue on.
  • Second, set smaller goals to stay energized. Set a goal for one month to engage in something that could increase health and happiness. After the first week and a half, look back on what you have accomplished. With one week to go, think about what you can still do with the time that remains for this month’s goal. Then with the start of a new month, start the process again with a new plan.
  • Finally, tempt yourself with short-term rewards. Immediate rewards are key to sustaining long-term goals. Consider New Year’s eve resolutions. Behavioral scientists have found that the resolutions people stuck to two months after the New Year were ones tied to immediate and instantly enjoyable rewards. For example, newly resolved runners kept up the habit when they actually liked running and felt happy once the run was over. But runners dropped the sport if they thought they were doing it to stave off later heart disease. Especially now, we might find the strength to carry on by choosing safe courses of action that simultaneously help us feel good in the moment.

We are tasked with an immense challenge. Continue to make healthy safe choices today so that we can bring a close to a long-standing pandemic with no end in sight. We can, however, take control of our own psychological framing of the situation we are up against. Think strategically about how we look back or look forward. Reset our goals to work for us. And find ways to reward ourselves as we continue on.

Emily Balcetis is an associate professor of psychology at New York University and the author of "Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World."

Dennis Aronov is a research associate in the Social Perception Action and Motivation Lab at New York University

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