Make Handwashing a Habit – Top Tips, Tricks and Advice in the Battle Against Coronavirus

 March 16, 2020

By  Brian

Washing Your Hands is a Habit

You may not have realised that. But it is. You wash your hands more or less the same way, for the same amount of time, following the same events. And the importance of it being a habit is something I wrote about yesterday.

Most people will wash their hands every time they go to the toilet. But don't kid yourself, not everybody does. We've all been in public or communal toilets and seen people go to the toilet and leave without washing their hands, or after splashing a bit of water on them.

Some people will wash their hands before every meal.

Very few people will wash their hands before they eat anything. For example, you walk into the staff canteen and see a plate of donuts that have been delivered. Would you go back to the bathroom and wash your hands before tucking in?

Almost nobody I know washes their hands after they sneeze.

And all of the above is what we are being told to do. 

Wqsh Hands Coronavirus Habit

Creating a new Hand Washing Habit

Here's how to look at changing your hand washing habit, or creating a new one following the model of behaviour design set out by BJ Fogg in his book "Tiny Habits".

First, we have to think about a swarm of behaviours that relate to, or might relate to, the 'aspiration' (new habit) we want to create. You can think of this a bit like 'Brain Storming' or 'Mind Mapping' out some behaviours that might help you achieve your goal (desired habit, behaviour, the words are all quite interchangeable)

Fogg recommends that you do it like a mind map, with the desired outcome/aspiration in the middle, and then behaviours that lead to it around it and pointing towards that desired behaviour.

Here's the one I did for hand washing:

Hand Wash CoronaVirus

Try not to worry too much about how good or bad the ideas are at the start. We'll come to that in phase two below.

I based my behaviours on the four pricples set out James Clear's Book "Atomic Habits". To create a good habit, make it (1) Obvious (2) Attractive (3) Easy and (4) Satisfying. We'll come back to those in a minute

My List of Hand Washing Habit Behaviours Explained

First, it's important to know where I'm starting from:

  1. I always wash my hands after I go to the toilet. But I don't always do it for 20 seconds, and I don't always use water that is hot enough (a habit from washing the kids hands)
  2. I don't always wash my hands before I have a big meal (lunch/dinner)
  3. I never wash my hands before I have a snack
  4. I never wash my hands after I sneeze

So my goal/aspiration/new habit is "To Wash My Hands For 20 Seconds Regularly". Yours might be slightly different, but the same steps apply. For what it's worth, my logic is that if I do it regularly (for example every hour) I will almost by default end up having washed my hands recently before every meal/snack. And if I then focus on habits and behaviours that make me wash my hands properly (i.e. with hot water for 20 seconds) then we're home and hosed.

Wash Hands Habits

Your Hand Wash Habits "Golden Behaviours"

After you have created your habit swarm of behaviours that might lead to your aspiration, you then have to try and figure out which 3 (roughly) of those you're going to focus on. Using the Fogg Model, you do this by placing each of the behaviuors you've identified along a graph that has two axis (1) Impact (2) Likelihood you will do it. So the graph is like this:

Hand Washing Tiny Habits

There's many ways you can do this. Fog recommends that you do it old skool by putting each behaviour on a cue card, and physically moving them around. I've done my using miro a mind mapping software, and you could easily use word, powerpoint or any other software of your choice.

Step one:

Move the cards up and down the X-Axis only. The only focus to start with is how much of an impact will the behaviour have.

Step two:

Move the cards left and right. How likely are you to be able to make yourself do the behaviour.

Step three:

Pick the 3 or 4 behaviuors that end up in the top right corner of your graph. These are the behaviours that the previous two steps have identified as having the greatest impact and which you can get yourself to do. These are your golden behaviours

Here's how I did this.

Insert Image

Hand Washing Habit Recipes

Now that I've identified three golden behaviours, I am going to come up with 'recipes' to put them into use or action. Both James Clear and BJ Fogg use similar strategies for this. I covered this in my post here about the basics of habit formation. 

So, I'm looking for recipes/sequences of behaviour that are tied to either place/time/existing behaviour. Using this formula

After I _____________ I will __________________ then I will _________________

My three golden behaviours were:

  1. Set an hourly reminder on my phone.
  2. Write on my water bottle.
  3. Sing a song I like.

I now need to play around with these a bit.

Habits for Hand Washing

Setting an hourly reminder on my phone is a one time action. I just need to set it up once, and off it goes. Even that though isn't as straight forward as it seems. I've used this technique before to help me get into the habit of hydrating, and what I discovered that was most countdown timers on most phones just countdown, the alarm goes off, and that's it. When I used it, I found that after I turned the alarm off, I kept forgetting to start the timer again. So I tried a few apps on both my fitbit and my phone which automatically start the timer again after it goes off.  So the behaviour becomes:

Recipe = After I turn off my timer alarm I will excuse myself, go to the nearest bathroom and wash my hands for 20 seconds, then I will celebrate by singing 'Champione, Champione Olé Olé Olé' in my head

I don't want to just write on my water bottle once and leave it at that. That won't work for me, and it will become common and part of the background if I do that. So I want to write a new message on my bottle every time I finish it. The bottle I used is 2.2 litres, and I refill it on average 3 times a day.

Recipe = After I fill up my water bottle I will erase the current message to myself and write another one on my water bottle, then I will, celebrate by drawing a smiley face

The first two habits were designed to get me into a bathroom frequently to wash my hands. The last one is designed to make sure that I wash my hands for the right amount of time and give it proper attention. You may have seen the posters on social media, like this one:

Wash Your Lyrics

At first I thought these were people taking the piss. And actually, most of them are. But knowingly or not, these are actually really good. They use this technique in school with my kids. They are told to sing the Happy BIrthday Song while they wash their hands, which should take them about 20 seconds...though I sing it a lot faster apparently. 

If you pick a song that you really like, and that picks you up, that helps wire in the habit. In my own case, I already have a song that I used for 'pick me up' purposes. So I can use that here as well. I'm going to make this habit a 'habit stacking' (as James Clear calls it) habit/pattern. There's three steps to this.

After I arrive at a sink, I will put a good amount of soap on my hands, then I will celebrate by saying 'Excellent' ke Mr Burns from the Simpsons while rubbing my hands together like him

After I say 'Excellent' like Mr Burns from the Simpsons while rubbing my hands together like him, I will turn on the hot tap, then I will say "Exactly" like Mr Burns from the Simpsons while rubbing my hands together like him (That's this gag BTW)

After I say "Exactly" like Mr Burns from the Simpsons while rubbing my hands together like him I will sing a verse of "we are the champions" while washing the soap out of my hands

My Hand Habits

Important -  You don't need to take this step of rationalising and thinking in depth about the behaviours you've swarmed or mind mapped. I'm just doing this step here for illustration purposes

Set an hourly reminder on my phone. I used this to develop my habit of hydration, and it worked really well. It's very simple. I set a recurring alarm that goes off every hour, and when the alarm goes off, I go wash my hands

Write 'Wash Me' on my hands in pen - I will see this message every time I bring my hand up to my face

Put a sign on the back of the toilet door - I don't need to  be reminded to wash my hands, but I DO need to be reminded to wash them for 20 seconds and with hot enough water

Put bottle of hand sanitizer in front of keyboard. This will constantly be in my line of sight and a regular reminder to keep good hand hygiene. Also, because it's like gold dust, I will have be reminded not to use it and to get up and wash my hands

Make a 'Wash Hands' lock screen screensaver. Like most people, I'm slightly addicted to my phone. If every time I go to unlock my phone I see a message about washing my hands, that will serve as a helpful reminder

Put a stopwatch on the sink. This will remind me that I need to wash my hands for 20 seconds, which is probably about twice as long as I habitually wash my hands at the moment. Even if I don't start the stop watch, this will serve as a reminder that how long I wash my hands for is important

Put a sign on the fridge door. When I came up with my swarm of behaviours, this seemed logical. However, most things I snack on (biscuits, crisps, junk food) isn't kept in the fridge, so I've changed this to putting a sign on the cupboard where the snacks are kept. My biggest hand washing weakness is that I don't wash my hands before I have a snack (like a biscuit). So this is an area I really want to target in terms of good habits to try and prevent the spread of Coronavirus. It's even more important as a biscuit jar is a shared resource, and if any of us don't wash our hands before putting them in that jar, that's a possible transmission point for the rest of the family and for any visitors who might come to the house and be offered a biscuit with tea/coffee.

Write "Wash Hands" on Banana Skins. I actually quite like this one, because it's a bit quirky. It will certainly remind me to wash my hands before I eat a banana, but also any fruit in the fruit bowl. And because the fruit bowl is very visible in the kitchen, it will be a good reminder beyond fruit. Also, its striking because of its quirkyness and is more likely to strike a chord with me personally

Write some funny 'wash hands' messages on my water bottle. Because of my habit of hydration, my ridiculously oversized water bottle is rarely far from me, especially when I'm working. And because it's white and ridiculously oversided, it's a good place to put a reminder, like so:

My Ridiculous Bottle

Get Nice Soap or Hand Wash - This, frankly isn't as important for me. BUT it has been shown that using soap that smells nice and leaves your hands feeling and smelling nice has a very positive effect on how often and well you wash your hands. Having added this in a swarm of behaviour, I've amended it to putting my favourite shower gel into a soap dispenser at our bathroom sink. There's one particular shower gel (this  one) that I love the smell off, and that, personally will make me feel happier about my hands being washed.

Put a picture of someone you care about who is in a high risk group at your sink. The reality is that if I get CoronaVirus, it's unlikely to cause me any great difficulty. But if my Nana (100) gets it, it would be far more serious, and probably fatal. So a picture of my nana holding my 5 week old daughter will incentivise me to do this new habit.

Make up a Hand Washing Song - This is actually one I really thought of for my kids more than me, but I don't see why it wouldn't work similar. When we were getting them to brush their teeth we used to sing a little song that would make the experience more fun and enjoyable

Use Wet Santising Wipes and have them placed strategically in places I pass regularly. If I don't want to forget something I have to bring to work in the morning, I literally plonk it down in front of the front door of my house so that I have to step over it to leave, that way I never forget it. This is the same logic. 

Sing a verse of a  a song that makes me feel good either out loud or in my head when I'm washing my hands.

Comments and Help

If you have any comments, suggestions, or additions, please leave them in the comments below or reach out to me on social media. I'll put together a post with the best tips and tricks from everyone. Let's help each other out!

About Brian

I'm a 39 year-old dad of three, trying to make doing the good stuff easier and doing the bad stuff harder. I'm a hypnotherapist, NLP Life Coach and habit aficionado. I'm also a radio presenter, blogger, podcast host and lawyer. 


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