My change, your change, climate change

carteret islands

The Carteret Islands are on the frontlines of climate change. erosion and extreme weather is causing the relocation of the 3000 people who live there.  Can we change our behaviours to avert further loss of people’s homes, land and culture?

If there is one thing we can be sure about in life, it’s the inevitability of change. Whether that means personal change (like overcoming fears), behavioural change (like giving up smoking) or social, political, environmental or technological change, the process is similar. Change requires the recognition of a problem or need not being met by current circumstances and behaviour, thinking about options for change, preparing the ground for that change, undertaking the change and then maintaining the new and better life or world that one creates.

Sounds super simple, right? 🙂

Habits are actions carried out automatically given environmental or contextual triggers: I chew my nails when I am anxious, you eat chocolate when you are sad.  A thing becomes a habit when we do it repeatedly, but once it is established as a habit, the link between conscious intention and action is diminished. We no longer know why we do it, and we might not even know that we are eating chocolate because we are sad, we might just crave chocolate.

Habit has important implications for behaviour change. Achieving lifestyle changes typically involves both forming ‘good’ health-protective habits and breaking ‘bad’ health-compromising habits (Nilsen, Gardner and Brostrom 2012 p.5).

Every one of us has something we want to change about ourselves. We sometimes want to change others too. I want to get more exercise; help empower a client to overcome insecurity and enjoy a fulfulling life; and stop global warming. The plan for change on those three levels (the micro/personal, the intermediate/local/community, and the macro/global) may look quite different in practice, but some fundamental similarities exist.

The Queensland Department of Health Community Good Practice Toolkit Stages of behaviour change: Queensland Stay On Your Feet outlines the stages of change people tend to go through in order to change. The first stage is:

1. Pre-contemplative/unaware

If a person sees no need to change, if their current way of living suits them, then they are unlikely to want to change. People are generally

This bird thinks I should give up oil

This bird thinks I should give up oil

resistant to change suggested to them by others in this stage, and can rationalise their behaviour so that it does not seem inconsistent with their goals. They might even avoid information, or vigorously attack information that runs contrary to their preferred course of action. I tell myself I don’t need to exercise because I am a vegan (kidding myself that my sedentary lifestyle is not a problem); my insecure and acquiescent client might habitually avoid conflict and like to be nice even when it makes them uncomfortable inside, and avoid or discount opportunities to assert themselves; a person might find it easier to deny climate change is a problem in order to avoid any implication that they should change.

QLD Health says, “Some observers would characterise this group as ‘resistant’, ‘unmotivated’, or ‘in denial’ and not focussed on the need to change or the actual change itself”. Psychologist Jeremy Dean, author of Psyblog says,

when you are working on someone else, you’ve got to take a few steps back. Do they want to change? If not, can you persuade them? How will this attempt to change them affect your relationship?

Often times, if you can’t persuade someone that their habits are not serving them well, and might actually be detrimental to their own or someone else’s wellbeing, then you are climbing a very steep hill indeed in attempting to change them. At this stage, if a person does not want to change, you may do more damage to your relationship by pushing them. A respectful, non-judgemental friend is more likely to be listened to than a demanding, judgemental one.

 2. Contemplative stage

So I’ve finally admitted to myself that eating all the vegan potato chips in the world is not making me healthier; my insecure client has noticed that their acquiescence leads to feelings of anger and being used; and the world has noticed that a few island nations are getting washed away by increased extreme weather. Our habits are coming into our consciousness as problematic. Life could be better. Yet we still maintain our dysfunctional habits like old friends: I get an emotional payoff from eating potato chips; my client has an identity tied up in being cooperative and quiet; we as a society like our fossil fuel habits. We know they are bad for us, and that our habits need changing, but it seems like an insurmountable task. At this stage we are weighing up the pros and cons of behaviour change. (I’d like to write a pros/cons list at this stage):

I like to write lists to make decisions

We are still ambivalent about the value of change at this stage. Giving up a habitual behaviour causes a sense of loss.

every time we make free ourselves from a dysfunctional habit, that act itself is a small liberation, one that rewires the brain toward a more skillful response (Bennett-Goleman 2013)

Abigail Brenner (quoted above) talks about the works of John Lilly, who devised a set of self-questions to help us change:

  • What am I getting out of this behaviour/way of thinking, feeling, believing, or acting?
  • What do I need to do in order to stop thinking, acting, behaving this way?
  • How do my interpersonal relationships allows me to continue this behavior, or to stop this behavior? People that we hang out with may hold the same attitudes or beliefs and there may be pressure from the group not to change.
  • Am I capable of stopping this behavior? In other words, how do I know I can stop?
  • Where is this behavior leading me? Where will stopping it lead me?
  • What do I have to eliminate in order to stop this behavior? What behavior(s) and /or people do I need to let go in order to stop doing what I’m doing?
  • How do I extinguish the impulses/desire that perpetuates the behavior? When the impulse arises can I delay gratification? Can I substitute another thought or action in place of the impulse?
  • Do I really need this behavior or just want or like having it? What habitual activities that support this behavior must be eliminated?
  • What positive behaviors can potentially replace old negative patterns of behavior?
  • What is the substance of this behavior? What does this negative, limiting (and sometimes potentially dangerous) behavior/attitude/belief really have to do with who I am?

3. Preparing

Maybe a crisis even occurs: the price of potato chips becomes prohibitive; my acquiescent client loses a large sum of money to a user; the Carteret Islands wash into the sea (this has not actually happened yet, but getting close). Quite often change is thrust upon us before we are really prepared for it. We can let it ruin our lives, or we can surf the wave of change to a better way of living.

Information and help is important at this stage. We seek out other people’s stories and advice on how to change: how to give up that junk food, how to assert ourselves when necessary, how to reduce fossil fuel use or whatever it is we want to change.  The 90% of Australians who accept climate change are at this stage (Reser et al 2012).

Also important at this time is changing the way we think about the necessary actions: they become internalised values we commit to, rather than onerous changes forced upon us from outside. We recognise that the change is going to make our lives really better.

we all have the capacity to “self-program” the biocomputer and therefore, create new programs and revise old programs. Since our reality is a creation of our beliefs, feelings, and thoughts, when we allow our self to open to the unknown, we release our self from what we already think, feel, and believe. When there is a field of “emptiness” where we are able to see space rather than barrier, new possibilities can emerge; we are free to go beyond our limiting beliefs (Brenner 2013).

4. Trying out the new life

Insert standard new life image here

Insert standard new life image here

Enacting the new desired behaviour requires mindfulness and application. Repeating the new desired behaviour over a period of weeks and months eventually changes the brain chemistry that was previously set up to reward the dysfunctional habit.

Manifesting a new good habit takes effort, but not as much as you might think. This is a good time for outsiders to reward the changing behaviour with praise, helping them to develop a feeling of reward and capability, which enhances overall self-confidence. This can spill over into other areas of their life, enhancing an overall sense of power over ones life. Once the new habit has been established, maintaining it is much easier.

Research indicates that the context often triggers habitual behaviour, so “interventions that focus on changing the context that maintains those habits have a greater probability of success. Some sort of contextual disturbance provides a window of opportunity in which a behaviour is more likely to be deliberately considered” (Nilsen, Roback, Brostrom and Elstrom et al 2012 p.3). Nilsen et al found that, “participants encouraged to perform a health-promoting behaviour regularly in familiar contexts achieved increases in habit-related automaticity, such that initial repetitions caused large increases in automaticity” (2012 p.3).

Similarly Wood, Tam and Witt (2005) found that disruption to habits (contextual change) allowed people to realise they had habits, and resolve to change those habits or at least examine them, backing up the notion that a crisis can precipitate change. “disruption in habits also placed behavior under intentional control so that participants acted on their current intentions. Changes in circumstances also affected the favorability of intentions” (p.918). De Brujn (2011) in a study of exercise intention found that even in people with strong intentions to exercise, only 40% were actually doing so.

Lalley et al (2010) found that research participants reached a state of automation for new habits at around 66 days of practising the new action, depending on the ease of the new habit (unsurprisingly, drinking water was a habit more easily acquired than doing sit ups in their research). They found that application to the new behaviour at an early stage in the change process was the best indicator of the strength of the habit formed. After that, little conscious thought or effort was required to perform the action.

The time it took participants to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity ranged from 18 to 254 days; indicating considerable variation in how long it takes people to reach their limit of automaticity and highlighting that it can take a very long time. Missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process (Lalley et al 2010 p.998).

The best prospects for successful change then require: changing the context, environment or circumstances for change (eg. Avoiding the chip machine at the station), and maintaining commitment to the changed behaviour until it ‘sticks’ and becomes automatic.

5. Maintaining

My oily nemesis

My nemesis

The easy availability of temptation, (potato chips, quiet rather than speaking out, driving the car to the shop ten minutes walk away) will always exist. One way of maintaining resolve is thinking through the consequences of an action beyond the immediate gratification of doing it now.

Retaining compassion for yourself for slipping up makes it less of an onerous task: I am not a reprehensible human being if I occasionally eat chips. Don’t beat yourself up.

6.  Termination/advocacy/transcendence

Transcending bad habits makes them no longer part of us. What can often happen is that people feel empowered by their ability to change to the degree that they become advocates for change to others. We realise that change is not impossible and that if we, mere mortals, can do it, so can everyone.

Disclaimer:  I don’t think that individual change of itself can stop climate change.  Global commitment to political action is required.  At the very least we should remember that politicians are just humans too and many of them also want change.  Structural change is a complex issue I will address in another post.

More reading:

How to stop self-destructive behaviour.

What happy people do differently?

Climate change and behavioural change, what will it take?


de Bruijn, G.-J. (2011). Exercise habit strength, planning and the theory of planned behaviour: An action control approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12(2), 106-114.

Health Promotion Unit, 2007. Stages of behaviour change: Queensland Stay On Your Feet, Community Good Practice Toolkit. Division of Chief Health Officer, Queensland Health.

Nilsen, P., Gardner, B., & Broström, A. (2013). Accounting for the role of habit in lifestyle intervention research. European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, 12(1), 5-6

Nilsen, P., Roback, K., Broström, A., & Ellström, P.-E. (2012). Creatures of habit: accounting for the role of habit in implementation research on clinical behaviour change. Implementation Science, 7(1), 53.

Reser, J. et al (2012). Public Risk Perceptions, Understandings, and Responses to Climate Change and Natural Disasters in Australia and Great Britain. National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

Tam, Leona (2005). “Changing circumstances, disrupting habits.”. Journal of personality and social psychology , 88(6), p. 918.


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