The green brain

G Magazine

The hardest part about living sustainably isn’t always learning new information, but breaking old habits. Here’s how to get started on rewiring your ways.

The Green Brain

From what we know about the psychology of habit formation, the first few attempts at a new behaviour will require conscious effort, but things should get easier with repetition.

Credit: iStockphoto

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Forget the phrase “you are what you eat”: more importantly, you are what you do. Your habits are everything.

“Your very personality is a network of long-standing habits,” says psychologist Dr Bob Rich. “Everything that can be said about you is something you do.”

In fact, almost 50 per cent of behaviour is habitual, and those habits can take many months to form. One recent study found that the average time for an action to become fully automatic was 66 days. Even simple behaviours, like eating a piece of fruit with lunch or running for 15 minutes before dinner, can take more than two months of daily repetition to become ingrained.

Breaking your old, wasteful habits and forming new, sustainable ones isn’t easy, but this article will give you the psychological know-how to achieve that goal. So take your typical route to the lounge room, settle into your favourite armchair, adopt your usual reading posture, and let’s get started.

What are habits?

“There are two things that make up a habit,” says Tim Cotter, a psychologist who trains sustainability advocates in behaviour change techniques through his consultancy, Awake. “The first is that it’s unconscious. Once something has become habitual, we don’t think about it every day and make a conscious decision.
We just basically do the same thing we did yesterday.”

“The second is that recurring conditions tend to create habits. So if the rubbish bin is always close and the compost bin is far away, then we get in the habit of throwing stuff in the bin because conditions have been set up to support that habit.”

The two components of a habit, Cotter explains, represent two opportunities for change. “One is to get people to make a more conscious decision. And the other is to try to change the conditions that support a habit.”

Making conscious decisions

“There are basically three levels of decisions we can make, from less deliberate to more deliberate. The less deliberate ones are ‘automatic’ decisions, where we don’t think,” explains Cotter. For example, when you go shopping you might automatically reach for the same brand of canned tomatoes you bought last week.

“The second level of decision is a ‘belief-based’ one where we do think about what we’re going to buy, but we usually base it on one or two fixed beliefs, like ‘cheapest is best’ or ‘fastest is best’ or ‘most convenient is best’.” So when shopping for canned tomatoes, you might buy the least expensive brand every week.

“The third level is a ‘rational’ decision where we think about the pros and cons.” In this case, you might look at the labels on the cans of tomatoes and consider several different factors, such as food miles, taste, number of preservatives and price.

“Part of the process of changing habits is to get people off ‘automatic’ and onto a more deliberate level of decision making,” says Cotter. For example, it’s hard to communicate the benefits of local, organic tomatoes if people are reaching straight for their favourite brand each week without even looking at the others. “You have to take people off auto-pilot.”

The first step in this process is ‘unfreezing’ automatic and belief-based decisions. The second step is engaging in sustainable actions at a rational, conscious level. And the third step is, of course, to make the sustainable action a habit. Instead of automatically reaching for the brand of canned tomatoes you bought last week or the one with the cheapest price, you get in the habit of reaching for the local or organic version – or maybe even stewing your own.

In this way, habits can help you live more sustainably, says Chris Riedy, research director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. “If you can work with people to unfreeze their negative habits and build new positive habits and freeze them into place, then habit can actually help to reduce environmental impact.”

Changing conditions

Another way to shake up old habits is to alter the environment or context in which they take place. “Fixed conditions hold habits in place, so if you change those conditions, you can help change the habit,” says Cotter.

In one 1994 study, participants were asked to write about attempts to change their lives. One successful strategy was to move to a new location “where previous cues and associations had less influence on behaviour”.

Changing conditions doesn’t have to be as drastic as changing postcodes, though. You can also alter your immediate environment. Some government organisations, for example, have removed landfill bins from under employees’ desks and placed a large bin in a central location. Employees are then given smaller recycling bins to keep under desks. “So it’s basically harder to chuck stuff in landfill and easier to recycle. And that always reduces waste to landfill by 30 to 40 percent,” says Cotter.

You could apply this principle at home by making your compost bin easier to access than your landfill bin, or by storing your bike in a more convenient location than your car.

You could also remove cues that promote wasteful behaviour (such as keeping the air-conditioner remote on the coffee table, prompting you to fiddle with the temperature) and replace them with cues that encourage sustainable behaviour. “That might be having stickers on your tap outside to conserve water or hanging your green shopping bags on your door handle,” says Susie Burke, a senior psychologist in public interest, environment and disaster response at the Australian Psychological Society.

That guilty feeling

You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you do something hypocritical, like drive home from a climate change protest? Turns out there’s a name for it. In psychology, it’s called “cognitive dissonance”.

“Cognitive dissonance occurs when there’s a mismatch between the beliefs that we’ve got about something and our actual behaviour,” says Burke. “So if we believe that climate change is real and urgent, but we still hop in our car to go to the shops or take the kids to school or go a distance where we could easily cycle, then that could create dissonance.”

This inner conflict can be a catalyst for self-improvement. “One of the principles for change is that people have to feel some tension, some gap between what they’ve got and what they want,” explains Cotter from Awake. Cognitive dissonance can generate a sense of discomfort that can open up new opportunities to break old habits.

To practice cognitive dissonance at home, ask yourself what your values are, what you are doing that contradicts those values, and why. You then have four options: ignore the contradiction, rationalise the contradiction, change your belief, or change your behaviour.

If you decide to change your behaviour, you’re most likely to succeed if you make a public, specific commitment to the new action. For an example of how cognitive dissonance can reduce shower time, see the case study at right.

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