Motivation is Not Enough. You Need a System to Go Green.


How you organize your recycling is as important as committing to getting it done. Image credit: Sami Grover

I've written before that environmentalists need strategy, not just goals and principles, if we're going to meet the enormous challenges we face. The same is true in our personal lives. While good intentions and motivation regarding greener living are vital, it's just as important to put some systems in place to make sure you act on those ideals. Here's why. When I suggested that technofix solutions have a key advantage over behavior change—namely that they are harder to reverse and do not rely on ongoing engagement—I neglected to think about systems that help motivate behavior change. We already know that folks are more likely to exercise if they have a regular partner they go running with, they are less likely to impulse buy if they write a shopping list before going to the store, and they are able to save more if they set up a direct deposit into their savings account. So too there are many simple ways that we can stack the cards in favor of green behavior in our personal lives too. Here are just a few:

Ensure Feedback Loops
Sometimes it can be hard to envision the difference we are making when we turn out the lights, bike to work, or grow our own vegetables. Yet visualizing the impact of these behavior changes can make a huge difference in motivation, and whether we stick with them. We don't have to go as far as these UK residents who turned their entire street into a real-time graph on their energy performance, but we can start noting down our energy bill—and perhaps even setting aside money saved for a family treat—or we can start a garden journal or photo diary. For the more gadget-happy greenies, a home energy monitor can be a great way to understand your impact.

Organize, Organize, Organize
I used to have a messy pile of recycling containers stacked in an over-full shed of junk. It made recycling a chore, and it meant that I was less motivated to get it done. But when I started construction on my recycled home office, I decided it was high time to also organize my recycling. So we built a custom trash/recycling storage area, with easy access to each separate container. As part of that process, we also reorganized our waste storage in the kitchen, and set up a system whereby I take the recycling out each time (OK, almost each time) that I lock up the chickens, rather than let it pile up till it overflows. From better bike storage to being aware of the fine line between hoarding and reuse, there are plenty of other examples where a little design, forethought, infrastructure and routine can help make greener behaviors commonplace.

Find Motivation with Partners
As mentioned above, finding a running partner can be a great way to motivate exercise—especially on cold, rainy days. That's why many community groups are harnessing peer-pressure and support to help keep folks engaged in on-going behavior change, and to build a broader culture of sustainability. From rideshares through land sharing to work-based employee carbon trading, a sense of community can be a great way to keep your momentum going.

Make Green the Default
Finally, making doing the green easier than not doing it can be a powerful tool. I'm not necessarily saying you have your children hide your car keys each morning, but by making sure you have everything you need for cycling (weather gear, helmet, bike stored for easy access), you can make sure that 9 times out of 10 the bike seems like the easier option than struggling for parking. (And having the bus timetable on hand for the days you don't feel like it is also a good idea.)

Similarly, adjusting your routine can make a huge difference. Finding ways to work from home even one or two days a week can be a powerful way to cut your car use without even thinking about it. Embracing the idea of a car-free day, weekday vegetarianism or meat-free Monday can also help you to embed behavior change so you don't even think about it.

Ultimately, none of this is rocket science. And much of it is ideas that are familiar to us from other areas of motivational change—whether it is dieting, exercise or financial planning. But we environmentalists would do well to not just think about how we convince folks of the need to go green, but also how we introduce them to ideas, systems and structures that can make green the norm, not the exception. I'm delighted when a friend decides to cut their car use, but I am even more delighted when they stick with it.

More on Sustainability and Behavior Change
Technofix Versus Behavior Change: The Moral High Ground Doesn't Always Win
Residents Paint Giant Energy Graph Across Entire Street
How Community Groups Harness Peer-pressure and Support for Effective Behavior Change

Tags: Activism | Do It Yourself | Ethical | Living With Less