The ultimate guide to building consistent green habits (with Atomic Habits – James Clear)

I recently read James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones’. A simple book with surprisingly effective insights, it has changed the way I looked at goal achievement, success and even my own environmental journey! Amongst other things, the author debunks the myth of massive success requiring massive action, and instead encourages us to be 1% better everyday. As I flipped through the pages, I asked myself – why can’t the same principles be applied to become greener citizens of the world?

Let’s face it: making sustainable switches can be daunting, especially when you’re overwhelmed with options and information. Despite your best efforts, you often find yourself grabbing the cheapest food option (that may not be vegan), taking the Uber to work or impulse purchasing a bunch of clothes from the nearest Primark. Or, it could be simpler everyday actions: forgetting your water bottle and buying a plastic one or binning food.

And then, there is the guilt of the waste that you could have avoided or the public transport option you could have opted for if you weren’t in the hurry. And this loop of failed attempts can, in fact, be pretty demotivating. Here is where James Clear’s Atomic Habits comes in and worth introspecting. He says, “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.” The book is based on the idea that if you change your habits, you can change the world.

Here are a few gems from the book, adapted to encourage and help you to adopt greener, more sustainable habits:

Change your identity to a more sustainable one

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes a part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.” — James Clear

When offered a meat burger at a party, instead of saying, “No thanks, I am trying to quit meat”, say “No thanks, I am a vegetarian.” The same can be done the next time someone offers a plastic bag at the store. Making this simple identity switch can go a long way with many other unsustainable temptations. After all, every action you take becomes a vote for the kind of person you wish to become.

Don’t skip your existing green habit more than once

“I know that it’s not a big deal if I make a mistake or slip up on a habit every now and then. It’s the compound effect of never getting back on track that causes problems. By setting a schedule to never miss twice, you can prevent simple errors from snowballing out of control.” — James Clear

To err once is human, but err twice is the start of a new, negative habit. We humans are creatures of habit. Even if you slip-up from your goals once, don’t let it happen again. We see this pattern in all walks of our lives – skip the gym for two days in a row, and finding motivation to go is that much harder. You might even find yourself home for a whole week! Even going back to your schedule after a vacation takes at least a couple of days.

I have a friend, P, who quit meat for years. And then had an accidental slip-up. The next time at the dinner table, she told herself – ‘What’s the harm in having meat just once more? I’ll quit right after.’ Not surprisingly, she now eats non-vegetarian regularly and says it is really hard to stop. The idea of this example is not to shame her efforts, but to demonstrate that sometimes, all it takes is a small action to snowball a habit in another direction.

So, as a golden rule – make mistakes, but try not to repeat them. Immediately rectify your unsustainable habits. Forgot your reusable bottle and bought a plastic one yesterday? No worries – be mindful and place the bottle next to the door today to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Understand the Diderot Effect

“The tendency for one purchase to lead to another one has a name: the Diderot Effect. The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption”― James Clear

The author mentions an interesting story about the French philosopher Denis Diderot who was in financial trouble. The empress of Russia was a fan of his work and when she heard about this – she offered him an amount that would equate to more than $150,000 today. With his financial woes gone, he decided to buy himself a scarlet robe. Suddenly, he realised that his elegant robe did not match the rest of his belongings and felt the urge to upgrade all possessions: from his rug to his mirror and went on a buying spree. This is the Diderot Effect and gets to most of us even today.

Say you buy a new dress. You then realise that you need the right set of accessories to match it. Get a gym membership and you suddenly find yourself getting new shoes, socks, tumblers and clothing. Go to Ikea to buy a cabinet and you find yourself looking for the right objects to display on it.

Companies have been cashing in on this idea for a long time. The idea is to convince people to buy not just one product, but a whole series of them. So, you’re not just being sold one product but an entire lifestyle. But you can use the same effect to your advantage! Buying a bamboo toothbrush means that you’re now more conscious of the fact that your toothpaste comes in a plastic container. It no longer matches the sustainable choice of a bamboo toothbrush. Or, donating a small amount to an environmental NGO or an animal charity every month. Eating a chicken burger or buying plastic bottles constantly no longer aligns to the previous spend. Use this effect to your advantage.

A long line of people waiting to buy products
The tendency for one purchase to lead to another one has a name: the Diderot Effect | Photo: Melanie Pongratz on Unsplash

Motivation is overrated, the environmental design often matters more

“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior… especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment.” ― James Clear

When you see people on Instagram who have gone fully zero-waste or are vegan influencers, it is tempting to attribute it to their willpower or hard work. While these are important, you’d be surprised to know that these factors or motivation aren’t the most essential. Sounds absurd? Okay, how many times have you walked into the kitchen and mindlessly started munching on the snacks on the countertop or in the fridge? Or picked up a chocolate bar next to the billing counter at a supermarket?

In both the cases (and probably many more), you were at the mercy of the environment without even realising it. Would you have gone out of your way to get those chips otherwise? Were you craving them before seeing them in the kitchen? Probably not. 

The author says that visual cues like these are really powerful. Use them to guide your environmental habits in the right direction. By doing this, you are making it easier, even natural, for yourself to live more sustainably and even save money in the process. 

For example, make it a habit to leave your water bottle by the door. So, the next time you are in a hurry, you can rush out and simply grab your bottle on the way. Or, if you know that the work week looks busy and you’re likely to order plastic-laden takeout options, keep a small set of containers in your work bag or desk. So, when you are picking up your order – you can simply ask them to fill your food containers and avoid that waste. So much better for your body and the environment. Want to decrease your food waste? Rearrange the way you store groceries in your fridge. Also, try to keep whatever possible food on the kitchen counter so that you remember to consume them and they don’t perish in a corner in the fridge.  

Become a part of communities that encourage your sustainable behaviour

“New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day.” ― James Clear

No person is an island. As humans, we thrive in communities and cultures that make us feel good about ourselves. So, become a part of your local Fridays for Future group or join events organised by PETA or WWF in your area. If you’re a student, join a club or college society that is focused on sustainability, veganism or the likes. Subscribe to newsletters based on your interests but also have an environmental lens. For example, if you are interested in investing, subscribe to newsletters that focus on green investing. If joining a new community sounds intimidating, start small by changing the culture within your circle. The next time you meet your friends, have a vegan potluck. Or get together with your family and watch a documentary together.

In the times of the pandemic, even being a part of online communities on social media can go a long way. Analyse the accounts you are following, and start following more pages, people, hashtags and conversations around green living and sustainability. I made a simple switch that went a long way: I unfollowed cooking accounts like Buzzfeed Tasty and started following vegan chefs and influencers like Tabitha Brown and Maya Leinenbach (Fit Green Mind). The fact that quick, vegan and tasty recipes keep popping on my newsfeed means that I now automatically cook more vegan dishes. You can do the same with zero-waste, urban gardening, or any other areas of interest.

Another recommendation is the Ailuna app that promotes sustainable habits through behavioural science. All you have to do is pick from one of the many challenges, (from avoiding single use plastic cups for a week to changing your laundry habits), complete a series of fun dares and share your progress with the Ailuna community who will encourage you throughout the journey.

Join communities that are like-minded. New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day | Photo: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Stack your habits to automate them and live a greener lifestyle with ease

“The premise is simple, pick from one of the many challenges, (from avoiding single use plastic cups for a week to changing your laundry habits), complete a series of fun dares and share your progress with the Ailuna community who will encourage you throughout the journey.” ― James Clear

Build new habits by taking advantage of the already existing ones. Same habit, same time, after the same action. James Clear says that the habit stacking formula is:

After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

Here are some examples:

After I brew a cup of coffee, I will water my plants.
(for serial plant killers)

Before I wrap up my work on a Friday evening, I will delete all my junk emails of the week.
(the carbon footprint of those pointless emails is killing the planet)

Before I go to bed, I will turn off every single appliance that isn’t needed.

After I eat breakfast every Saturday morning, I will scan my schedule for the week and go over any areas that might cause unsustainable actions. I will then plan for them in advance.
(setting aside food containers for potential takeaways, renting a dress for an occasion, looking for vegan eateries for a work trip to another city, etc)

Focus on becoming 1% more sustainable everyday

If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.” — James Clear

You are a sum of your habits. So, every time you take an action in the direction of your green journey, you are a step closer to becoming the person you want to be. Small habits eventually create a huge change. As the author says, “Small Habits don’t add up. They compound.” Layer your good decisions – one on top of another. You’d be surprised to see what a long way consistent, tiny steps can take you. 

To conclude, a combination of a few simple habits, when multiplied by the global human population, can have huge effects on the planet. If adopted by enough people, these habits can change the world. If you enjoyed the article, consider leaving a comment and telling us what you plan to do to change your habits (and the world)!

Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.

I'm Ayushi Shah and I co-founded Eco-Spotlight to tell stories of green innovation and remind the world (and myself) that there is hope for humanity and the planet. Reach out to me at ayushi (at) eco-spotlight (dot) com

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