Old habits die hard. We naturally, unthinkingly gravitate to whatever’s easiest and most convenient, even when we know it’s not good for our health or the planet. We use cognitive tricks to keep bad habits alive — we tell ourselves that our small daily choices don’t matter, or that environmental problems live in a hazy, faraway future (you know, our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s future). But we can turn the tricks that reinforce bad habits into tricks for forging good habits. Whether it’s turning off the lights every time you leave a room, or packing lunch every day, the experts we talked to agree: A combination of awareness and repetition is the key to lasting change.
Make the decision.
Begin by deciding that environmental sustainability is important to you. That may seem almost ridiculously obvious and simple, but our actions flow from our thoughts. Once you’ve declared something to yourself, you have an anchor point from which to swing toward your next step. “The best way to remember anything is to care about it. We remember what we care and are passionate about,” says Heather Hans, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist.
If you care about preserving the environment, the next step is to arm yourself with knowledge and act on that knowledge. After you learn something — that food-contaminated containers can’t be recycled, for instance — you have to retain it for it to be of any use. To help remember something you’ve learned, Hans suggests drawing a mental picture. “Think of words or images that will help you associate one with the other,” she says. Imagining a slime of leftover food coating MRF equipment might make the concept of recycling contamination stick.
Make it routine.
Acting on what you know is where awareness and repetition really come into play in making a habit. So you care about preserving the environment, and you know that food residue contaminates recyclables — how do you make a habit out of properly dealing with contaminated recyclables? “Add it to your daily routines,” says Michael Ellner, a New York City-based hypnotist who helps clients form desired habits. Example: Put a dirty recyclable container in the sink with the rest of the dirty dishes and wash all of it together — afterward putting the container in the recycling rather than the cabinet, of course.
Bring in reinforcements.
Involving the whole family helps everyone to learn good habits together, and reinforce each other. It’s happy coincidence that many green habits also create opportunities to teach kids responsibility and resourcefulness. Learning to turn off the lights in an empty room saves energy, and instills the lesson that energy isn’t free — it costs financial and environmental resources.
When it comes to instilling good habits in kids, Jude Bijou, author and family therapist, advocates for the carrot rather than the stick. “Reward desirable behavior rather than punishing undesirable behavior,” she says. Talking it out and listening help, too. “Just listen and encourage them to talk. Children feel empowered that others listen to what they have to say, and it helps them internalize what they have learned. ” Bijou adds, “Most importantly, set a good example. You can’t say ‘save water’ and then take long showers every day.” Remember — the whole family is forming good habits together.
Don’t know which green habit to start with? Try incorporating these simple habits into your daily routine as you get back into the school-year groove.
- Look for eco certifications while shopping, and buy eco-friendly school supplies.
- Turn off lights when you’re not using them.
- Unplug electronics that you aren’t using.
- Pack lunch every day.
- Don’t idle in the school parking lot. Turn off the engine, or encourage kids to take the bus, or bike or walk.