Sustainable Habit Making: A Simple How To Guide

By GLOBUS Correspondent, Ellen Barrett

The UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ list targets position individuals as the primary focus of change. For instance, goal 12 centers around responsible consumerism. Many theories surrounding consumerism centre on the assumption that all actors are rational decision-makers. In actuality, it’s not that simple. For consumers, we are all influenced by emotion, the attraction of simplifying information processing via cognitive shortcuts, and general rules of thumb. What’s easy is attractive. Hence, we can often experience friction in adopting more sustainable consumption practices. Implementing sustainable practices is also taxing. I’ll give you an example.

We recently had the 2022 Black Friday sales, and waiting in my inbox was a great deal for a coffee cup. The cup is from a sustainable company, the materials used are recycled, it’s functional and, honestly, the colours pulled me in. I had my mum’s voice in the back of my head, as most of us do, and I thought to check if it was dishwasher safe. It was not and I started spiralling about water consumption, the energy crisis and how I realistically have no power. But then I just thought to myself, do I even need a coffee cup – and I don’t, I already have two. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.

But also, though individual action is limited if actions are uninformed or misguided, if we get so caught up in every element of what it means to be sustainable, we burn out and turn to coping mechanisms like denial and detachment. This can sound a little like “it’s not that big of a deal” or “I can’t make a difference anyway”. Sound familiar? So how can we be sustainable with less effort? One method is sustainable habit making.

I’m sure many readers have heard of SMART targets (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound) but how about implementation intentions? Implementation intentions are used as a method of goal achievement that is facilitated by an if-then plan which details when, where, and how the person will instigate responses that promote goal realisation. Let’s run through how they work.

Let’s say you’ve found out that eating less meat and dairy is one of the most effective things an individual can do for the climate, and you’re eager to go vegan. Your objective is to go vegan for a month. The first few days you find it fairly easy, having meal-planned and prepared yourself. Towards the end of the first week, you’ve had some temptations but you’re fresh to the challenge and still motivated. The next day, you’re at a party and hungry, but there are no vegan options. You give in. The next day, you’ve run out of your vegan yogurt, you’re in a rush, and all you have is your old breakfast food. You give in. You knew you wouldn’t be able to do it anyway. Veganism is just too much work, as is going to the gym consistently, managing money, curbing additions, the list goes on. These commitments are hard, in no way do I deny that, but this means that approach is essential. The goal was SMART, but you still slipped. Here’s what you need to do instead:

  1. Start small – it can be tempting to go all in as soon as you find motivation, but that motivation will dim and drastic changes rarely last without great discipline. Let’s say you aim to have one vegan meal a day. Currently breakfast is toast, jam, and butter. If you swap out your butter for a vegan alternative, you’ll have the option of a vegan breakfast every day. This means that even on the busiest days you can stick to your commitment just by swapping out one product. Even if nothing else changes, you’ve made a difference and are less likely to be self-defeatist or “quit while you’re ahead”.
  2. When and where? – Your goal should be structured a little like this: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].” This might be, “I will bring in some homemade granola to Uni for the afternoon at the café where I would normally buy a waffle.”
  3. Contingency plan – you know yourself best. If you realistically won’t be able to make that granola, buy some vegan granola bars instead. If that waffle is too tempting, try a different study space (this reduces the salience of the temptation).
  4. Use your current habits to your advantage – there are a few things you do without fail and often without thinking. Perhaps this is brushing your teeth or filling up your water bottle. Whatever it may be, you can make use of it by pairing this existing habit with a new one you want to adopt. This way, you will be reminded of your intentions every time you go to perform something routine, and, in turn, you’ll also find it easier to implement.

Here are some more examples to help you out:

  • Place your bus card or shoes next to your car keys to make the choice more noticeable
  • Think about what vegan/veggie meals you could plan for the week while brushing your teeth
  • Split your screen into half while clothes shopping to check if depop, vinted, second-hand or sustainable shops also have what you’re looking for
  • Put a sad face sticker next to the dryer setting on your washing machine to help prime your behaviour 

There are many more out there but the best ones for you are the ones that pair best with your existing routine. The less you have to think about it, the less friction you will experience between your attitude and your behaviours – it will become habit.

No constructive change is possible without individual action, but self-motivation can be challenging and variable. Hopefully these tips have helped to inform you on how to turn sustainable intentions into sustainable habits and I wish you the best of luck!

Header image by Artem Beliaikin, via unsplash

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