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How to Make Sustainable Behavior Stick

Christie Manning
Macalester College & ELISE AMEL, University of St. Thomas

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution, only to find yourself giving it up a mere two or three weeks later? Changing habits is hard, in part because our human brains are naturally programmed to gravitate towards ease and repetition. Living more sustainably means changing many habits. From what we eat to how we get around, nearly all of our daily routines could be greened in some way. Although this may seem overwhelming, despair not! One key to successful change is to understand that it is a process, and that people need different things at each stage.

1: Contemplation. The process begins with the realization that current lifestyles have unacceptable impacts. People who are contemplating sustainability need access to information: what does a sustainable life look like, and how does one go about achieving it? Seeing others’ success and being able to ask questions provides just the sort of information which contemplators need to move toward preparation.

2: Preparation. After making an emotional commitment, some changes require a bit of preparation. For example, the intention to eat more local, fresh foods might begin with first eating the packaged foods already in the cupboards. To support preparers, celebrate their intention and offer help with their preparations.

3: Action. The third stage demands the most effort and determination. Particularly in the beginning, new behaviors still feel unnatural and require extra concentration. There are several types of support that new action-takers need:

a. Building confidence and competence. People benefit from opportunities to practice new behaviors in a non-threatening environment. Formal and informal events like hands-on workshops and community education classes are invaluable resources.

b. Restructuring environments. The hardest changes to make are those that involve acting while on autopilot. For these actions, the most successful route to change often involves making the sustainable choice the default. Devices like programmable thermostats, low-flow faucets, or reusable bags packed into a purse or briefcase are all things that help cut down the mental effort needed for behavior change.

c. Feedback. Building feedback into our daily lives is important because seeing concrete, positive results helps people stay motivated. Monitors that show current home energy use and cost, mileage meters that display real-time miles-per-gallon, or devices that digitally display water use through a faucet or showerhead are examples of useful feedback. Social feedback is also effective: a quick smile and comment to a neighbor “Hey, I like the new rain barrel!” or “I think it’s great that you carpool to work.”

4: Progression. At some point, what began as a new way to do things eventually becomes a habit. When it no longer takes significant mental effort to, for example, take the bus or make a local-foods meal, many people are ready to do even more. A sense of community and feeling of support are important for progression of habits.

Read Up

Low Carbon Diet: a 30-Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds by David Gershon. Empowerment Institute 2006.

Green Living Handbook: a 6-Step Program to Create an Environmentally Sustainable Lifestyle by David Gershon. Empowerment Institute 2008.

Journey for the Planet: A Kid’s Five Week Adventure to Create an Earth-Friendly Life by David Gershon. Empowerment Institute 2007.

Act Locally

To maximize Action, find or provide practice opportunities at events such as the Living Green Expo and Eco Experience: livinggreen.org and the Green Gifts Fair: doitgreen.org

When making Progress, create or join a Yahoo or Google group with friends, neighbors and like-minded people so you can support and learn from each other: groups.yahoo.com and groups.google.com

Sustainable Behavior

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