The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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New Year, New Habit

Every year around this time, TV and radio shows about how to change one’s habits get popular. I’m hereby jumping on the bandwagon.

I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, especially not with respect to the climate. They are too often focused on self-improvement projects, an attempt to make ourselves feel better by escaping guilt or shame–quit smoking, lose ten pounds, whatever we feel bad about. Climate change is not about feeling bad. The sky doesn’t care whether we are good people. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted by our feelings. But doing something about climate change means making lifestyle changes and getting involved politically–in other words, changing habits. So, any advice that works for making New Year’s resolutions stick should help here as well.

I’m working off of two interviews from previous years with the author of Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them, Charles Duhigg, one on Talk of the Nation, the other on Fresh Air. My intention is not particularly to endorse this book, though it does sound good, but rather to endorse the approach that the author claims to have used; first research how humans establish habits and then use that information to develop ways to establish better habits. The more common method, as far as I can tell, is for a self-styled expert to develop a technique that makes intuitive sense based on his or her preconceived ideas. Some of these techniques work, at least for some people, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss.

Mr. Duhigg says that habits are essentially automatic behaviors–the brain saves energy by putting some tasks on autopilot. This is why it’s possible to drive to work and not remember anything about the trip and why it’s possible to watch oneself eat an entire package of cookies without actually wanting to eat any of them–habitual behaviors, like getting ready for work or pulling cookies out of a box while watching TV, are not directed by the part of the brain that makes conscious decisions. Habits automatically engage whenever triggered by a pre-arranged trigger, like the morning alarm-clock. The more times a habit is repeated, the stronger the neurological connections that make it grow, and the more fully automatic the behavior becomes.

Forming habits is not bad–our conscious decision power has better things to do than ponder every possible decision point in our day over and over again (when you brush your teeth, which tooth do you start with? Which shoe do you put on first? Do you put the cereal or the milk in the bowl first?). The objective isn’t to do away with habits but to make sure that the habitual behaviors are actually things you want to do.

Mr. Duhigg’s advice for forming new habits centers around avoiding the triggers for the old habits and creating triggers for new habits. I’ve done this–my trigger for exercising first thing in the morning is an alarm that goes off at six in the morning. If I sleep in, however, that triggers my old morning habit instead, one that doesn’t involve exercise. There is no magic time-frame for forming a new habit (any that you may hear, like 21 days, is made-up), but the longer you pair a behavior sequence with a trigger, the stronger the association will be in your brain.

In my experience, it is important to treat good habits as a thing one has to keep, not a thing that keeps itself. It’s like tending a small fire that might go out if not fed–the new habit has some momentum, so over time it begins to get easier to do, but you still have to work on it.  Think in terms of protecting the new-born habit by pairing the new activity with its trigger every single time. Do not try to break the old habit by an act of will–that won’t work, because habits are what we do when the will turns off. Instead, apply the will towards building the new habit.

Places where building new habits might be relevant to climate change:

  • Turning off unneeded lights
  • Planning car trips so as to minimize gas use
  • Planning meals so as to eat locally, seasonally, and largely vegetarian
  • Turning off the water heater and other household heating and cooling units before overnight trips
  • Doing laundry three days before you need the clothes so as to be able to line-dry
  • Reading about climate issues regularly
  • Writing letters to Congress-people regularly.

Of course, different people’s circumstances generate different lists–if you can’t afford a car, for example, then minimizing gas use might not be an issue….

But the point is that if you’re looking at changing your behavior, a good place to start is to learn about how human behavior works–how habits work and how decisions work. I’ve often noticed that many self-described environmentalists simply neglect seemingly obvious steps. For example, I was at an event this morning where the organizers provided refreshments complete with disposable Styrofoam cups. Why not recyclable paper cups? Why not encourage participants to bring their own? Maybe the foam cups are just an unexamined habit?

I started this discussion with a single book–but there are others. It’s that time of year, so you should have no trouble finding additional advice.

To whatever you might find, I add a piece from my own experience;

What you plan to change your behavior, plan what to do if you do the old behavior instead. For example, if you want to switch to re-usable shopping bags, establish a trigger for your new habit of grabbing the bags on your way out–but also plan what you are going to do if you do not grab your bags. What I do is awkwardly carry my groceries out in my hands, with no bags at all. Do that a few times and you will stop forgetting!

Some people agree to pay friends money if they slip up or otherwise establish some concrete motivator.

But do whatever works for you.