Breaking habits

Kicking old habits is about getting the timing right.

THERE’S no shortage of information about how to go green, from government incentives and advice, to council forums and eco-blogs. But even people who want to reduce their environmental footprint can find it hard to make changes that last.

Dr Jim Curtis, from BehaviourWorks Australia, says one explanation is that we’re creatures of habit. Many of the ways we use energy and water and produce waste are part of our daily routines. We tend to commute in a certain way and buy the same kinds of food at the same places.

“Whether it’s driving your car to work, long showers, leaving the lights on, not recycling properly or throwing out your organic waste, these are likely to be habitual behaviours,” he says. “They are repeated frequently in the same context and not given much thought. They’re things we just do.”

Illustration by Robin Cowcher

Although individuals can change their habits – with the right combination of motivation, support and persistence – only a small minority actually do so. Rather than considering the pros and cons and making calculated decisions, most people stick to what they’ve always done.

The cliché is true, Dr Curtis says: habits are hard to break. Researchers recently found that it took people an average of 66 days for a new activity to become automatic. (The length of time varied for different people – from just 18 days, all the way to 254 days.)

Given that it takes so much repetition for a habit to become ingrained, encouraging some kinds of green behaviour requires more than just the right information or rebate.

But here’s the good news: at certain times in our lives, we’re more open to altering our routines.

One of the world’s leading experts on habits, Professor Bas Verplanken, from the University of Bath, is speaking at a public forum in Melbourne, on Tuesday, July 24.

Professor Verplanken’s research tests the idea that there are key moments when it’s much easier for people to change their habits – events such as moving house, starting university, switching jobs, retiring from work, or getting pregnant.

In one ongoing project, he is comparing the way people respond to various kinds of sustainability advice, and investigating the difference between residents who have and haven’t moved house recently.

In previous research, he analysed the effect of moving house on the choices people made about transport. He found that eco-conscious people who had moved recently commuted by car less often than like-minded folks who’d stayed put.

And they did it without any outside prompting. That is, the break in their usual patterns gave people a chance to switch to a transport mode – such as walking, cycling or catching the bus – that better suited their beliefs.

For householders, there’s a clear message: it’s easier to get into a new green routine when things are in flux.

“In those moments when our usual patterns of behaviour have changed, we’re looking for information or direction about how to do things,” Dr Curtis explains. “It’s a great opportunity to change your lifestyle and consumption patterns.”

“For example, trying to get my wife to turn off the lights has been a big challenge for me. If we ever move house, that would be a moment I should really take advantage of.”

Read this article at the Age online

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