We are all familiar with the saying “You are what you eat” or “tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are” (the original quote from French author Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his 1826 book “The Physiology of Taste”). It is one of these old quotes that stuck with us, in this case to define and explain on how to stay healthy or where to start to modify our diet. Eating consistently the same foods, the same set of macro- and micro-nutrients, put our body in a certain state.
By elevation, if you were to define oneself, the quote would be “we are, what actions we repeat”.
In conclusion, what we do consciously and unconsciously, our so-called habit, determined who we are as a person, eg if everyday you wake up at 6am, you can reasonably say that you are a morning person.
Why is it hard to shift from a bad habit to a better one?
Let's ask science. One word = neuroplasticity, or the way the brain reorganizes itself by forming new connections throughout life in response to experience. This process is most active during childhood for our development but as we grow older, our brain still create new connections between neural cells. Hence, you can really learn a new language at any age.
One form of neuroplasticity is called activity-dependent plasticity. It follows the use of cognitive functions and personal experience. It is the biological basis of our learning system. Our brain is wired to create paths and once practiced enough, our brain will take this created path as the default one whenever the same trigger occurs to minimize our brain’s energy and cognitive effort, eg. “I need to write something”, the person who has been practicing writing with his right hand since childhood will flawlessly take a pen with his/her right hand and start writing.
What it means for us is that to change an habit our brain has to create a completely new path, practice it enough time and so our brain will rewire from our old path to the new "by-default" one.
But here becomes a certain neuroplasticity paradox. Your brain can, on paper, change and learn new things through our whole lifetime, but in practice the already triggered synapses that link our neurons programs will be favorably picked by our brain. Our lazy brain will choose the known usual path that have already been built and any attempts to go left will have to be consciously repeated enough times so that our brain understand that this new way of doing things becomes now the usual way. And so this relative flexibility is the reason why changing an old habit is difficult. But NOT impossible.
What about applying this for a sustainable mindset?
The best way to form a new lasting habit is first through an alignment mindset. You believe that what you are improving is for the better, for you, for your closed ones and for the planet. What you undertake aligns with who you are, resonate with your set of values and reassert your qualities.
Of course, you will have to be resilient. Imperfection and failures will come along the way. Those should be embraced without judgement. That is more than fine, change has no place for guilt because it is not an easy task. Effort can also mean creativity and can become life affirming. So let's be self-indulging on this journey. Besides, in order to learn something new and take over your old habit, the new must be you, as we will unfold on these 4 following points.
1. Find your obvious reason
You desire to be more sustainable, wherever it comes from, it is about knowing yourself. What is exactly important for you today and for the person you choose to be. Do not hesitate to write down the reason to start or improve your low-waste journey.
On the opposite, your former habit, which still wants to exist, should get out of the picture as much as possible, by getting removed when possible from your direct environment. Remove the temptation completely or make it harder to reach.
2. Choose your attractive cause
To make sure it has a chance to form and stick select a cause that you feel greatly connected to and a natural extension of what you are already doing today: you like to change style but you feel that the way clothes and fast fashion are manufactured today aren’t right. You enjoy cooking your meals so you would forge a system to reducing food waste, on overall recycling, on make up products choice, eco transportation…? It has to feel attractive.
3. Create an easy solution
First, think long term with your grand cause but do not start big. It is all about improving +1% at a time. Think first about the easy manageable swap you could do to reduce your carbon footprint impact: watch a documentary, swap a disposable item for a reusable one, freeze your food rest… Do not be hard on yourself, if failures arrive, embrace it. It is an experience, a process, and does not have to be effective yet. If you fail, it means the step was too big so try to find new ways to break it down to a smaller action. Think about what is under your control today in your home: your morning routine, your expenditures, how you consume food, your mean of transportation. Every euro you spend (or not) somewhere, every actions are a way to craft your green citizen identity.
4. Create a tracking and rewarding system
Write down and track your actions, clearly visualising your change will make you realise how much you improved and is a great way to feeling successful. Once it is verified, make sure you reward yourself and connect with this state of fulfilment. You can even make your action accountable to a third party in order to have someone to report to who will acknowledge your effort. You can read more on the tips to follow to implement greener habits on our dedicated post.
"Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. - Viktor Frankl
Carr, Nicholas, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2011, Norton Paperback
Barker, Eric, Barking up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, 2017, HarperOne
Clear, James, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, 2018, Avery