The new sustainable habit you want to incorporate might be as simple as carrying your cloth produce bags with you everywhere or as challenging as turning off the screens to save energy—and your mind. The following 11 strategies will increase the stickiness of your habit.
1. To paraphrase Voltaire, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Aim for progress, not perfection. A benchmark of perfection can lead to paralysis or failure, followed by anxiety and guilt (or all of the above). If you eat meat every day and vow to eat less of it, don’t beat yourself up for not going cold tofurky. As you adjust to your new sustainable habit, accept that you will have setbacks. Tomorrow offers another chance to stick with the program.
2. Weave your sustainable habit into your routine
When I first went plastic-free in 2011, almost immediately, I started shopping at the farmers’ market where fresh produce sits in large bins, unpackaged and loose. For 10 years, I have shopped there religiously almost every Sunday morning, the only day the market runs. This ritual has become part of my weekly routine, a routine I can rely upon when everything else hits the fan, from work-related stress to Covid to the smoke-filled skies of fire season.
3. Choose a habit that reaps big rewards for little effort
Most sustainable habits offer the beneficial side-effect of personal rewards. And some have zero downside, such as reducing food waste. When you reduce food waste, you buy less food and schlep to the store less. You free up space in your refrigerator and pantry. You become a more creative cook. You save money. Once you realize benefits like these, you won’t want to go back! (Go here for 23 ways to reduce food waste.)
4. Choose a sustainable habit that makes you happy
If you want to eat more local fruit and vegetables and you love gardening, then consider growing your own produce. If you detest gardening or or you kill all the plants (not on purpose though…), buy local produce at your farmers’ market or sign up for a CSA.
5. Find a buddy
Adopting a new sustainable habit is more fun when someone adopts it along with you. Perhaps you and a friend will tackle Plastic Free July this year together. You can share wins, struggles and strategies. Plus you’ll hold each other accountable when you check in, kind of like confession, but without penance. If, on the other hand, your friends mock you for cutting all of that plastic, find buddies online you can call on for support (and reexamine those other relationships…).
6. Set yourself up for success
For example, if you want to drive less and bike more, you’ll have trouble doing that without a bike. Get the proper gear for your new habit. But at the same time, don’t go crazy and buy all kinds of stuff you won’t use or don’t need. If you usually buy new, you can adopt another habit—renting or finding second-hand through Nextdoor, Craigslist, your Buy Nothing Group and so on.
7. Organize any stuff you’ll need
In order to get into the habit of carrying your water bottle everywhere—or mason jar because you probably already have one, which will save you about $25, at least—put whichever vessel you choose near your keys. You’ll grab both on your way out the door and soon won’t leave home with your bottle or jar, just like you don’t leave home without your keys. Want to remember to take a zero-waste kit with you when you venture out into the real world? Keep it packed and ready to go by the door.
8. Reward yourself
If you make it to goal X—let’s say you pledged to go a month without buying clothes—treat yourself to reward Y, like buying a new-to-you, second-hand outfit. Or perhaps you cooked your very first completely plastic-free meal. I remember that big milestone well! You could reward yourself with an ice-cream cone for dessert—no spoon or cup to toss.
9. Pledge to stick with the sustainable habit for one month
Ten years ago, when Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and a small team launched Plastic Free July, how many people would have signed on had they called it Plastic Free 2011? A month sounds doable. A year sounds daunting. Similarly, let’s say you drink lots of cola and you’ve vowed to cut it for a month only. That sounds doable. That is doable. But tell yourself you must not drink a Coke for a year and you might not attempt it.
10. Remove the problem
This will not work for every situation. However, several readers have told me the following same story: When they suggested to their families that they stop using paper towels, everyone protested and said they would never survive such drastic measures. But when said readers simply stopped buying paper towels, no one in the family could be bothered making a trip to the store to pick them up. Everyone simply adapted.
11. Remember your motivation
Why did you decide to adopt your new sustainable habit? After reading about plastic pollution devastating wildlife and our oceans, I swore off of the stuff. Awareness of the environmental impacts of plastic ensured I’d stick with the lifestyle. Immediately, those plastic-wrapped biscotti at my local café no longer tempted me, for example, once I realized that the packaging of my fleeting snack would long outlast me and persist in the environment potentially forever. And besides, I can make my own, more delicious biscotti.