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Sustainable Life: Change a habit, change the world

Mia Swainson

We all have the power to change the world… our world.

The small decisions we make every day can make a big difference. Have you heard of Meat free Mondays? Ever turned your lights off for the annual Earth Hour in March? Have you thought about a buy nothing new challenge? We have the knowledge and technology to live sustainably. The hard part is making a change.

The trick to sustained change is to create a new habit. According to a study by Duke University researchers, more than 40% of actions people perform each day aren’t due to active decision making – they’re habits. There’s plenty of research into changing habits, much of it reporting a set number of days for habits to form, anything from Dr Maltz’s classic 21 days to Lally’s 66 days. Recent research says there’s more to changing a habit than repetition.

So, how can we create a new habit that’s good for our lives and good for the planet? Try these three steps for the best chance of success.

Step One: Set your own goal for the change

The best goals come from deep inside you. They resonate with your heart and your head. Is this goal about impressing someone else, or something you’re expected to do? If you own the goal, you’re much more likely to follow-through and change that habit.

Make your goal realistic in size:

  • Are you decluttering your home? Start with one room each week.
  • Is plastic-free possible or does plastic-free for a week suit you better?
  • If you want to grow your own food, start with some pots or one veggie patch – not the full backyard transformation.
  • Want to make your home more sustainable? Take one action each month. Install a water tank in January, replace light bulbs with energy efficient bulbs in February, install water efficient shower heads in March, seal the draughts in April.
  • Trying to decide to change your energy use at home, or the waste that you produce? Take a look at the footprint calculators on the websites of Canberra’s SEE Change or the World Wide Fund for Nature. These calculators will highlight areas of your life that have the biggest impact on the planet.

Step Two: Trigger your new habit with an existing habit

While your habit is forming, it can be hard to remember to do the new activity. Finding a trigger to help you remember is important, not just a note on the fridge.

If you’re getting started growing herbs and vegetables, you’ll need to get into the habit of watering (and harvesting) regularly. Maybe you could check your garden each evening, before cooking dinner. Over time, when you start to think about cooking dinner, it will automatically trigger the new habit… a quick tour of the veggie patch. By weaving the new into the old, you’re more likely to actually make it through the habit establishment phase.

Perhaps you need to carve out time for sustainable home improvements. Maybe Saturday afternoons, after netball training is your time…every week.

Don’t lose hope if you wobble a little bit. It’s ok. According to a study published by the European Journal of Psychology in 2009, missing just one opportunity to repeat the behaviour doesn’t matter for habit formation. Start back where you left off… and maybe change your trigger or modify your goal.

Step Three: Know what success looks like and track your progress

Halving your household waste is a goal that’s pretty easy to measure and track progress. When you take out the rubbish bin each week, you can see what’s inside and make notes, if you like.

Tracking improvements in energy efficiency and reduction can be trickier, especially if your power bill comes in quarterly. Get yourself a smart meter or solar panel and battery system that tracks your power usage and power generation, then it is possible to track your power use in real time. Want to know exactly how much electricity it takes to turn on the oven and bake biscuits? It can tell you exactly.

Staying motivated on your own can be hard work. Friends, colleagues and neighbours can be your best asset here. Track your progress with a buddy to make sure you maintain a good habit. Is there anyone that will match your ‘plastic free’ challenge?

Changes like meat-free Monday and Earth Hour start in your home. In every person’s home. Over time, new habits can fan out like ripples across a pond as your friends, colleagues and neighbours see what you’ve made possible.

When everyone changes their habits, we create a new culture and a brighter future for our planet.


Mia Swainson

Mia Swainson is passionate about creating a more sustainable world and believes that everyone can make a difference. Trained as an environmental engineer, Mia has worked in sustainable development with the Australian Government and community sector for more than 15 years. Mia’s work has taken her around the world to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and back to Canberra. She currently tends her kitchen garden, cares for three young boys and is growing her executive coaching consultancy ( More about the Author