BREAKING GLAD

5 Psychological Tricks to Form Environmentally-Conscious Habits

Shrinking our individual carbon footprints means rethinking our lifestyle decisions. Here’s how to make climate-aware actions feel like second nature.
Posted on
April 16, 2021
5 Psychological Tricks to Form Environmentally-Conscious Habits

Want to reduce your carbon emissions? Start with your habits.

The seemingly small actions you make in your everyday life, without pausing to think about them, can be more carbon-intensive than you realize. Although breaking out of a comfortable routine can be challenging, it’s not all about self-sacrifice.

Instead of focusing on what you’d lose when you swap less eco-conscious habits for climate-friendly ones, consider the new things and experiences you’ll get to try—and how empowered you’ll feel when you take action for the greater good.

What are habits and why do they matter?

A habit is a behavior you do so regularly, it becomes second nature.

Take brushing your teeth before bed—it’s such a customary act, you rarely think about it. Much of our time is spent on this kind of autopilot: Research shows that habits make up 40 percent of what we do daily.

Small actions can add up

So while it’s true that some one-off behaviors can significantly expand our carbon footprint, small repetitive practices (aka everyday habits) can add up to an even greater impact.

Motoring around town all the time in a car? A typical passenger vehicle in the U.S. emits around 4.6 metric tons of carbon per year.

Gas exhaust from car emitting CO2

When we focus only on occasional decisions, we miss more frequent opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint. And just as plastic waste accumulates over time, these little actions can really add up.

Plus, once a repetitive action becomes a habit, it becomes easier and easier to stick with it. Research shows that deeply ingrained habits happen automatically rather than intentionally, and the alternatives are barely considered. So if you’re used to always packing up your kale pesto pasta dinner for tomorrow’s lunch, you won’t even think of throwing out the leftovers, thus reducing food waste.

How do you start forming greener habits?

Plant based burger as part of sustainable diet

Make a game plan

Research suggests that the failure to follow through on the best intentions happens more often than not. You might genuinely want to cut down on your meat consumption, but without a concrete game plan, that bacon double cheeseburger you spot on a menu may prove irresistible.

Once you figure out what habits you want to cut out and which to develop, create a plan to ensure you stay in line with your intentions.

You could embrace Meatless Mondays and decide to cook a specific plant-based dish on a particular day, like that delicious sweet potato black bean burger recipe you bookmarked ages ago. After a while, you won’t have to purposefully plan to have a veggie lunch: it will be a habit as instinctive as checking your email every morning.

Choose which habits to focus on

Developing new habits can be hard.

After all, you’ve spent your life doing that other thing. Before you start changing up your behaviors, it’s helpful to commit to a specific goal to be your map in this journey.

One possible starting point? Figure out which of your current lifestyle choices cause the most greenhouse gas emissions, so you can focus your energy there. 

For instance, the carbon footprint of transportation is huge—accounting for 29 percent of the US’s total GHGs. So if you drive to and from work every day, that’s probably one of your most carbon-intensive behaviors. Your new resolution could be to cut your transportation-related emissions by a certain amount; to achieve that, your new habit could be busing, walking, biking or carpooling to work. 

Public Trasnport as a greener way to travel

Start with an achievable goal

Pick an easy goal first, something you can do consistently and achieve without a lot of effort.

Once that goal becomes a habit, build onto it. It’s like the advice that habit guru James Clear gives on getting into a workout routine: Rather than setting a big goal of 60 minutes of exercise—something that might be a challenge—aim for just five minutes a day. It’s an achievable goal, and one you can even easily surpass on a good day.

By avoiding unrealistically ambitious expectations at first, you’ll be more likely to succeed. 

One step you can check off your list right now? Read the expert-approved tips below and start planning.

 5 psychological tricks to forming new environmentally-friendly habits

Follow these strategies for developing sustainable habits that work. 

1. 1. Analyze your patterns of behaviour

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, building a habit involves understanding four steps: cue, craving, response and reward. This pattern is the basis of every habit. Let's break it down:

Cue

First, the cue triggers your brain to do the behavior.

Craving

Then, your brain makes you crave the behavior—cravings are the motivation behind every habit.

Response

Next is the response to the cue and craving, which is the actual habit you perform.

Reward

And finally, the response delivers a reward, which can be as simple as a sense of satisfaction. This reward eventually becomes associated with the cue, creating a loop that allows for automatic habits.

Being able to identify these four steps within your existing habits will enable you to pick them apart and develop new habits. 

Let’s say you hop into your car every morning for your office commute, but you want to lower your carbon footprint from transportation. Analyzing the patterns that push you toward driving will allow you to recalibrate.

Maybe you find a new response (like walking) that comes along with the cue (knowing it’s time for work). Or perhaps you establish a new reward for that walk to work (say, admiring the views on a scenic route) to help encourage your brain to crave your new action.

Man walking to work as an alternative to driving


2. Develop new cues to trigger new behaviours

As Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, once you’ve formed a habit—good or bad—it’s actually encoded in the structures of your brain.

When you’re doing something routine, your brain isn’t fully involved in decision-making anymore and diverts your attention elsewhere.  

It’s entirely doable to alter a deeply ingrained habit, you have to actively fight your old pattern, he says. 

Research suggests old habits can be broken by controlling the cues that trigger behaviors.

Let’s say you always toss out usable veggie scraps (old habit), but you want to start saving those broccoli stalks and other bits in a freezer bag to make soup later and reduce food waste (new habit). Now, you can introduce a new cue—like keeping your freezer bag out on your kitchen counter while you whip up dinner—to rewire your brain to do this new behavior.

3. Think location, location, location

A study conducted at the Habit Lab at the University of Southern California found that locations are a critical cue—the more a behavior is performed in a specific place, the more that place becomes associated with the act. So, if you want to develop a new habit, analyze what places trigger behaviors.

A toy car on colourful background

Maybe your car keys sit right by your door, so you instinctively grab them and drive to work every day.

Try moving those keys to a less convenient place, and put your transit pass or favorite sneakers by the entryway instead. Your mind will start associating the door and leaving for work with taking the bus or walking.

4. Make your old habits less easy to do

One way to break an unwanted routine is by creating friction.

According to Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, the reason some habits are, well, habitual is because they’re so accessible.

So one way to break an unwanted routine is by creating friction, making your old habit less easy. Then make your new goal behavior as effortless as possible by reducing any friction.

Veggies in a fridge to promote more sustainable diet

Determined to eat more veggie meals?

Make that choice easier by buying less meat and stocking up on more plant-based foods. The next time you crave a snack, you’ll reach for the tasty vegan nuggets already waiting in your fridge. You’ve increased the friction around your old habit since it’s less readily accessible.

5. Plan for a few hiccups along the way

You may not expect to fail, but planning for hiccups and slip-ups anyway will help you avoid falling off the horse completely.

Think about what might stop you from following through on your new habit successfully. How can you plan around those circumstances? And how will you get back on track?

If you’ve decided to reduce your carbon footprint from transportation by walking to work every day instead of driving, sleeping in might derail your good intentions.

How can you make sure you’re up bright and early? And if you do accidentally hit the snooze button one too many times, have you planned another lower-carbon option (like catching the bus) so you don’t default to the car?

Veggies in reusable cloth bags to reduce carbon footprint
Remember, failure is human, so don’t sweat the occasional mistake.

To quote Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly."

Now you’re ready to take action!

Our lives are built on the foundation of habits.

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, making climate-conscious behaviors your new normal will go a long way. Now that you know why habits are so important, how to pick a goal and tips to get started, you’re ready to take action.

Need more inspiration for changes to try? Head over here for 26 ways to lead a more sustainable life.

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Rebecca Gao
Written By
Rebecca Gao

Rebecca Gao is a freelance writer and editor with bylines in Chatelaine, FLARE, VICE, Reader's Digest and more. In her spare time, she can be found in the kitchen, trying out new plant-based recipes. Read more of her work at rebeccagao.ca.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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