How do you behave?

As I write, we are about to have some more COVID-19 restrictions lifted. This means the opportunity to restart occupations and sources of income that have been suspended by the lockdowns, the ability to reconnect with friends and family in ways that have been impossible for such a long time and a chance to return to the office and work alongside colleagues once more. As this step change approaches, I have been thinking about the impact of the virus and various lockdowns on behaviour, both individually and at a societal level, and about the importance of behaviour in our lives.

The dictionary definition of behave is: ‘to act or function in a specified or usual way’. Immediately we can see that, as there has been nothing usual about the past year or more, we have been forced to behave differently. It also makes me realise that how we act or function is determined by what is specified or usual. Generally, this is what makes it more of a challenge to change how we behave when changes in situations and circumstances are not imposed upon us. This leads on to the definition of behaviour: the way in which a person (or other entity) behaves in response to a particular situation or stimulus. So we all had to change our behaviour when the virus struck. The new behaviour became the usual. Now, as we start to leave lockdown, we have to change behaviours again.

There has historically been discussion on how long you have to repeatedly do something new before it becomes a habit. 21 days was often cited. More recent research has shown it to be somewhere between 18 and 254 days, with an average of 66[1], depending on the difficulty of the habitual behaviour. The longevity of the pandemic has ensured that lockdown habits are embedded. Modifying these new habits and behaviours to the new environment will potentially also take time.

Behaviour is a simple concept. It is something we observe in ourselves and in others on a day-to-day basis. On the flip side, it is determined by complex drivers, both physical and psychological. Repeated physical behaviours, such as driving or riding a bike, become embedded in muscle memory so that they can be performed without conscious thought. In other circumstances the drivers are psychological, a combination of personality, belief and emotions. I have often cited that behaviour is the strongest form of communication. This is because words are easy to say but actions require more effort and show visible evidence of intent. Hence, our behaviour can have both a positive and negative impact on others that observe it.

Likewise, I have previously mentioned how the interaction between our thoughts and feelings and our behaviour is a two-way process. Not only is our behaviour determined by how we think, but how we feel and think can be influenced by our behaviour. This is exemplified in the advice given by Admiral McRaven in 2014 to graduates of his old university. Based on his long career, he provides ten strategies to assist in difficult times. The first is to make your bed when you get up in the morning. The premise is to start with an easy accomplishment, instilling purpose and confidence in the rest of your day. Then, if you have a bad day and do not achieve anything else, when you get back to your bed you will feel some satisfaction to carry forward into tomorrow. Admiral McRaven’s strategies are published in a book, Make Your Bed. Alternatively, the address can be viewed on YouTube.

While we can amend our behaviour through concerted efforts to instil new beneficial habits and we can use behaviours to improve our well-being and resilience, there is another more insidious manipulator of our behaviour: the algorithm. Modern social media, by virtue of its monitoring of our online behaviour, can exploit and reinforce our behaviours through links, adverts and recommendations.

Our behaviour is integral to our success with the NDT profession, both in how we behave in the usual way and how we respond to particular situations. It is the key to keeping safe, diligently performing our roles, helping to achieve job satisfaction and developing our career, and to coping with the unexpected. It assists in the development of new knowledge and skills.

Behaviour, a simple everyday word with large and complex implications.

1. P Lally et al, ‘How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world’, European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol 40, No 6, pp 998-1009, 2010.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

Comments by members

This forum post has no comments, be the first to leave a comment.

Submit your comment

You need to log in to submit a Comment. Please click here to log in or register.

<< Back