Nobody has a crystal ball when it comes to the coronavirus, but one fact is inarguable: Frequent and thorough hand washing is one of the best things we can do to halt the spread of the disease.

By now you’ve likely heard this recommendation. And since hand washing costs practically nothing, requires no special skills or equipment, and dramatically curtails the spread of other germs, too, there’s no reason we shouldn’t comply.

Except, of course, the intention-behavior gap. What’s that, you ask?

The intention-behavior gap is the difference between what we hope to do and what we actually do. In past research, only half of people with positive intentions of enacting a healthy behavior actually followed through with it.

For example, I know I’m supposed to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while washing my hands, scrubbing under the nails and between my fingers. But I have a habit of rushing things along rather than taking my time. Your kids, I’m guessing, aren’t yet in the 20-second-hand-washing-club, either.

Here are two suggestions, based on behavioral science, for closing the intention-behavior gap.

Try thinking of the people in your life who will benefit if you don’t get sick. The motive to protect other people can be even more powerful than the motive to protect yourself. For me, it’s been helpful to think about keeping my 85-year-old mother safe, not only from the coronavirus but whatever other illnesses are circulating at this time of year.

Try pinpointing the primary obstacle that gets in the way of taking action, then making a plan to avoid or overcome that obstacle. If, like me, you rush through your hand washing, you might make the following plan: When I’m washing my hands, I’ll think of three good things in my life and why I’m grateful for them! Gratitude is good for the body and the soul. And positive emotions can be contagious, too.

Angela Duckworth
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Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth is cofounder and CEO of Character Lab and a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. You can sign up to receive her Tip of the Week — actionable advice about the science of character — at characterlab.org.