a woman walking up stairsStatistically speaking, if you made a New Year’s Resolution this year, you’ve probably abandoned it by mid-January. Like anything else you want to achieve or become, building a sustainable lifestyle is best approached as a set of habits to be built incrementally, not one quick overhaul. Get started on the proven path to contributing to our just and sustainable future.

Start where you are

While the intention is quite noble, and some manage to do it, making a drastic resolution is riskly business. Resolving, for example, to go from a cheeseburger-a-day kind of person one day to vegan the next is likely to fail. Get specific about where you are, where you want to go, and the doable incremental steps to get from here to there. Here are a few example habit goals:

  • Celebrate Meatless Mondays for a year

  • Choose a category of purchases (books, clothes) to buy only reused

  • Running errands within 3 miles from home on your bike

  • Trying a new plant-based alternative on every other trip to the grocery store

Use keystone habits

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, a habit is a cognitive 'loop' that is kicked off with a trigger. After you put on your socks, you probably put on your shoes without thinking twice.

Keystone habits, he also describes, are particularly strong habits that can be used to form a “habit chain.” If you always brush your teeth before bed, remind yourself to turn down the thermostat every night after that and it will more easily become an automatic habit.

Focus on one habit at a time

Much like learning a new skill, creating or changing a habit takes energy. Similarly, they both work best by breaking the process down into a series of steps and making sure you’ve completed one before moving on to the next step.

With sustainability, some suggest choosing one or two permanent changes to make every year. One sustained change will end up adding up to a big difference. On the other hand, a lot of changes that don’t stick aren’t much different, over the long term, than no change at all.

Set your environment

We all know it's easier to study in the library than near or in your bed. Setting up your environment to encourage the habit literally is setting yourself up for success. Whatever habit you want to start with, think about the changes you can make to your environment to help you.

Want to start recycling or composting consistently at home? Put dedicated recycling and composting bins next to your trash can. 

This also applies to the social environment you find yourself in—habits can often be social, so hang out with people who have habits you'd like to adopt or who will support you in building new habits for yourself.

Plan to overcome setbacks

While planning to struggle is at first counter-intuitive when setting a goal, research has show that expecting to be challenged and having an ‘if-then’ plan in place can lead to success. If your goal is to eat vegetarian, make a plan for what you will do if someone serves you bacon at brunch. 

If you slip up in a way you hadn’t planned, use it as an opportunity to troubleshoot your strategy—maybe you can make another change in your environment or you need better tools—and recommit yourself to the habit. 

Give it time

One influential study showed it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to become automatic. Keep in mind that is an average and it could take longer, depending on the habit or the person. Plan to put in at least that amount of time and energy into consciously choosing the new habit. Stick with it. It will pay off when the habit and its rewards become automatic and you don't have to think about it again.

If you’re looking for more ideas for where to start on your one-step-at-a-time path to a sustainable lifestyle, check out the Sustainable Buffs Checklist.

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Looking for more ways to live sustainably?

Sustainable Buffs Guide