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Finding The Willpower To Change Everyday Habits


“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” 
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I tell people Matt and I have reduced our carbon footprint to just 10% of the American average, many people respond: “wow, how did you do that?” – while giving me a look as if I am so far out there and living on the fringe of society that they could not possibly do it, too. Or they say, “Gosh, I wish I could, but I just can’t give up xxx.”  

Truthfully, our lifestyle ebbs and flows, and some days we’re better at it than others.  But overall, we’re keeping up with our goals fairly well.  So I’ve been thinking about what has kept us to this path, in the hopes that I might help others to make similar changes…

1.  Focus On The Positives

I don’t think I could live a sustainable lifestyle if I were constantly thinking about what I’m giving up, how much I’ve “reduced”, and what I’m depriving myself of.  Instead, I need to create a positive spin in my mind:  I focus on how much good I’m contributing to the world, how much I’m helping others, how much money I’m saving, and how much happier and healthier we are.

There are little tricks that go along with this.  For instance, I might tell myself that if I don’t stop at Starbucks for a cup of coffee, I will be able to use that money to buy a book I’ve been wanting to buy for years (something that lasts much longer than a cup of coffee and has the potential to be truly life-changing).  Or I might instead transfer the amount that I would have spent on the coffee into our Savings account. Then not only am I keeping a coffee cup out of a landfill and avoiding a purchase of coffee that wasn’t fairly traded, but I am also contributing to my own financial well-being.  Plus if I really need the coffee I can wait until I get home to make fair trade, organic, locally-roasted coffee – that tastes better – for about 1/8 the price!

There are also health benefits upon which to focus.  For example, while the initial time cost of learning non-toxic cleaning methods might be tough, my health and budget will benefit substantially!

2.  Allow Yourself To Be In A Continuum Of Change

Change rarely comes overnight, though sometimes the inspiration for change does.  Which means you often have the will to change immediately, but lack the power and strength to make drastic changes to your lifestyle immediately.  This is how many get discouraged and simply give up on trying.

Do constantly work toward your goals. But at the same time, allow yourself to change as you grow, to conquer new obstacles with grace as you acquire the time, the patience, and the skills for them. In other words, harness the increasing strength you acquire from each accomplishment to catapult yourself to the next level of change.   

3.  Make Sure You Are Enjoying Yourself

Change can be uncomfortable from time to time, as you get used to new ideas and new ways of doing things.  But overall if you’re not having fun, if you’re not feeling good, if you’re not enjoying life, stop and re-evaluate.  What can you do to allow yourself pleasure while still working toward your goals?  How can you reward yourself for changes you make on a daily basis, while still adhering to your new lifestyle?

Don’t be afraid to turn to others and ask them for ways that they have accomplished things and had fun doing it. I’ve learned so much from all of you, and from other websites and blogs.

Also, remember that just because you might be addicted to buying stuff, doesn’t mean it makes you happy.  Having the accomplishment of not buying stuff, and saving that money or putting it toward things you really want or need, might actually make you happier!

4.  Allow Your Worldview To Change

When I became a vegetarian 20 years ago, it was a strange thing to do. People thought it was strange.  I had a difficult time going over to friends’ houses for dinner, or going out to eat.  But after a few years, I didn’t think much about it.  In my mind, meat isn’t part of my repertoire, so I don’t think about it.  I don’t really see it on menus anymore, my eyes simply glaze over those items.  My worldview changed, I redefined what is normal for me.  

Twenty years later there are more ways of eating sustainably, of course, and each of us must find their own way. But my point is that I feel healthy, good, and that I am contributing positively to the world. And once I became a vegetarian, I began working on my nutrition intake and changed even more the way that I eat.  Once I’d conquered that, I worked on finding better sources for what I ate.  And then cooking better. And so on…

5.  Remind Yourself Why You Set Out On This Path 

Sometimes this requires that you stop and look beyond your immediate situation (in which you may be tired, hungry, and cranky) and remember that your actions have meaning beyond the here and now.  

Buying that Starbucks coffee contributes to a system where farmers aren’t paid a living wage, where pesticides are sprayed – affecting farmers, soil, and wildlife along with your own immune system as you drink the coffee.  And it affects your budget, making it more difficult to pay off your debt, and further from saving for harder times ahead.  Buying that coffee means you perpetuate a system of agriculture that doesn’t work, and an economic system that doesn’t work.  The consequences of your actions go far beyond one immediate act.  And they even go beyond the person you inspire to change as you are changing.

So step outside of your immediate situation and remember why you do what you do, why you set out with goals of change.  And feel good about sticking to those goals.

How Do You Find The Willpower To Change Your Everyday Habits?

I need to admit to you that yesterday I was cranky, tired, and hungry and I walked all the way into the Starbucks (with a reusable cup in hand). And then I turned around and walked back out.  Because I have a book in mind that the library doesn’t carry, because I have a debt that I want to keep slowly paying off, because I don’t want to support an unsustainable agricultural system, because I don’t want to drink pesticides, because I have better coffee at home that adheres to my belief system, and because I want to feel good about my actions.

And as I walked out of that Starbucks, I smiled.

Does this happen to you?  How do you handle it?  What keeps you going in the right direction?

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22 comments to Finding The Willpower To Change Everyday Habits

  • This is a lovely, inspiring post. I fell off the wagon a bit recently on a visit to family in the UK. I couldn’t work out why my cash just seemed to run through my fingertips. Then it dawned on me it was simply that I was going into town, looking in shops and worse still reading my sister’s fashion magazines at her house. Suddenly I was really wanting new shoes when I haven’t bought that kind of thing unless necessary for years.

    The key for me is just not looking. If I don’t bother looking in clothes stores or magazines I have no desire for new clothes but take me window shopping one time to often and I’m yearning inpractical things again.

    Now I’m back home its back to practical clothing and essential shopping only. I love wandering round the food and plant markets for inspiration and enjoyment but I avoid the high street for my own sanity!

  • That was a very good post about keeping focus on which way you are headed in life.

    We are currently trying to live a simple, more sustainable lifestyle…. all while battling numerous financial burdens and juggling 4 kids.

    I know that I fall off the band wagon quite often and I try to pick myself up and get back on every single time. One of the biggest “fall offs” happen when my children are involved. I can’t change who is involved in their lives, and love all these people dearly…. however I can’t change everyone’s way of thinking, and almost all of them have no idea why we have chosen to live this life style…. Recently I’ve been bringing it in to conversation gradually so as not to offend anyone when I say, “They don’t need 15 christmas presents this year” or “They really don’t need 3 packs of fruit snacks before dinner”…. It’s a constant battle but I hope what I can teach them at home, and how we live, will eventually out way things they see and hear elsewhere… I also hope that gradually people will come to understand OUR lifestyle, and slowly learn to respect it as it is, and slowly adhere to our beliefs….

    As for us, John and I, we just keep on trying to learn new things each day!

  • Had to laugh when I saw this, I just reminded myself yesterday that I need to be on the path that gives me joy.

    I periodically need to really think about what I value, about how I want to spend my time and what really matters to me and that usually carries me quite a distance in making good day to day decisions. I think this translates to finding quiet time occasionally to remind myself of these things.

    I do the same trick as you Melinda, when I’m faced with temptation (it’s usually a cookie instead of coffee). It works especially well for my weakness for magazines. “If I don’t buy that magazine I can buy some yarn…”

  • I try to avoid temptation, by not watching television and not going to commercial places (stores, malls, etc). This way I don’t have to feel like I’m denying myself.

    A couple of studies done in the past year have shown that when people “deny” themselves something, they weaken their denial “muscles” a little so that later that day they have more trouble avoiding something else they shouldn’t have – whether it’s spending money, or eating an unhealthy treat, or not excercising or whatever. So it’s easier for me just to get in a position where I don’t run into temptation all the time.

  • Samantha

    I’m wondering, that 90% reduction on energy… I’ve seen people do that, but they did it by going off grid, no power, just a woodstove. That meant no fridge, no freezer, no tv, no computer, no washing machine. Did you do it like that, or are you ‘normal’(whatever the hell that is), and still have a washing machine, fridge and freezer? (Obviously you have a computer).

    And, while I’m asking questions, what do you cook on? In the post about your reductions you said you don’t use gas, do you use electricity? (If you do that, than I really want to know how you did the 90% reduction)

    Samantha (who has lots of questions on this path to sustainability)

  • I really like # 2- allow yourself to be in a continuum of change. I have a sort of “all or nothing” mindset, either everything is perfect or it’s all a waste. Since nothing is ever perfect, I find myself paralyzed on the shores of Waste quite a bit. I have to remind myself that as long as I am doing the best I can do at that moment, then I am OK. Maybe in the next moment I can do better.


  • Your last question . . . Suffice it to say, it has. It’s good.

    Timely post. It made me think of the fridge kerfuffle.

  • LOVED this post (and the comments!). I wholeheartedly agree that not being bombarded with ‘stuff we have to have’ sure helps. We gave up cable this year and it’s amazing how little we miss it (and the commercials).

    I do agree also that with kids it’s sometimes harder to make changes (and not be called a ‘hippie’ by your own children :) but we try to use ‘teachable moments’ to bring them over to our side.

    Just yesterday, we were in a sporting goods store and I overheard a mother with her two boys complaining that she was spending a fortune on just this ONE trip to the snow. I talked to my daughter about it later and we discussed how sad that this family hadn’t thought about borrowing the things they needed or going to a second-hand store for jackets etc. I admit that finances would have been partially responsible for us seeking to borrow ‘snow clothes’ but not totally.

    Our thinking has changed, now when we need something we try to find ways to use what is already out there and not ‘consume’ any new goods if we can help it. And I don’t feel deprived….I feel empowered!

  • I have to admit that lately the environment is benefiting greatly from my desire to save money. I hope this is true as people tighten their belts all over the world. For me it’s as simple as eating the food I have in the fridge so as not to be wasteful because food is important and we spend an incredible amount on groceries. I also like the thought of avoiding temptation. I can’t even remember the last time I was in a mall.

  • It IS fun … we need to be reminded of that when we’ve been politickin’ too long …

    That is a wonderful pic, M!

    risa b

  • I’m trying to do my part by creating victory container gardens locally. There is lots of helpful info at

  • I try to do what I can. The thought of no Frigidaire no cold milk is not an option. Because I am Rob and Rob wants cold Milk! I also have to admit if I bothered to walk to starbucks with my mug in hand I would not turn around and walk out without my coffee! I am grumpy enough. But kudos to you for doing it. Find another coffee shop that proudly serves Fair Trade Coffee.

  • That same thing happens to me regularly. I’ll be in the bookstore with a pile of books and then realize I don’t really want half of them and the other half I could get at the library. I guess when that sort of thing happens I just think of my boys whom I’m cutting back on everything to make our family future better. We save money, food, and resources because of them. That puts it all in perspective. Plus, I sometimes I do allow myself the indulgence of buying all those books, guilt-free, from time to time. That helps.

  • Loved that post thanks! I find the will power by challenging myself to find a greener option. Even if it is just a little bit greener. I try and make a game out of it.

    Like today. i was out longer than exepected, was hungry and really wanted to buy take-away lunch. I was tempted by the pre-packaged salads in plastic boxes…but explored further and went for a vegetarian nori roll and said no to the paper bag (after all it comes with its own edible packaging!). Cheers,

  • Thank you very much for the article. I love nature and it’s a shame to see when others kill it. I live in Latvia and unfortunately a lot of people here don’t think about future and environment. Thank you again, it was a pleasure to find your blog.

  • retiredtraveler

    I’m not as ‘serious’ as you may be, but we’re in that group of people who have been frugal all our lives. That also pertains to the environment.
    That is, we’ve always driven 4 cylinder, high-mileage cars. Live in a smaller than average home. Keep the heat down to 62 and off overnight letting the house get into the 50′s. Lights always turned off leaving a room. Were in a recycling group before there was curbside recycling.
    Like you, it’s a matter of lifestyle and habit so we don’t even give it a thought.

  • It seems that a lesser footprint is all the talk these days – we are now hearing that our towns and communities are thinking about letting people plant their gardens in public spaces – this 100 mile diet may just work!

  • Goodness, you all – I thought I’d left a comment here but seems I haven’t! One of my favorite morning routines is to sit and eat breakfast while reading comments. Rest assured that each one is read! Thank you for your incredibly insightful comments, each of you.

    Samantha, to answer your fabulous questions, I would say that we live a fairly normal life. We are just very conscious about our spending and resource use. We both walk to work and to just about everything we need, we don’t eat many packaged foods (thus reducing our waste), we shower twice a week, we do laundry every 2 weeks, we use laptops mostly (significantly less power), we don’t watch tv much, we have space heaters and keep our temp at around 60F.

    So yes, we have a fridge, we don’t have a wood stove (we live in an apartment in the city), we have a dishwasher (which actually uses less water), we have an electric stove… does this answer your questions??!

  • Anonymous

    Good article except for the grudge and repeated slams against Starbucks. It reads as singling out to wipe out that particular company for some undisclosed reason. I don’t think it was necessary to the article. The author loses credibility that way.

  • Anonymous,

    You do make an interesting point. Though your own credibility is severely lacking – in blogs, it is customary to leave your name and an email address that is not fake. PARTICULARLY if you are going to leave a negative comment. Please keep that in mind in the future.

    That said, using Starbucks here is just an example of the many such situations we all find ourselves in each day. It is of course not the worst of companies. But it has the power to do much better in terms of paying living wages, supporting sustainable agriculture, and reducing waste. It is one of several companies I am working to stop supporting with my dollars, particularly during this economic crisis.

    I hope that you can go on with the rest of your day with less anger and ill will, as I will. Back to my organic, locally-grown tea. : )

  • kathy

    I found a link on my daughter’s blog and thought I’d check you out.
    I appreciate your perspective thoough I’m not a vegetarian and I ocassionaly drink Starbucks.

  • Thank you for sharing this very helpful information. I don’t wonder if people like you live a blissful life. Kudos!

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