Here’s another installment of The Change Chronicles from That Blogger Who’s Always Talking About Change.
In some ways this blog has become an ongoing series of laboratory experiments in change with varying levels of success. What I’m learning is that change is possible, but it’s almost always hard, which is why most good intentions about change–the most infamous being those New Year’s resolutions–come to nothing.
That’s because of something we all know about but seldom focus on with full power: Habit. The first few times we do anything, we’re aware of what we’re doing. It takes an effort. But at some point after a certain number of repetitions, we go on autopilot. The habit is set. Anything you’ve done hundreds of times can then be done with very little forethought or awareness. It’s what happens when we set out to drive somewhere and find ourselves heading for a habitual destination we didn’t even want to reach that day.
Here’s my most recent experiment in change: dumping the plastic bag habit. Several months ago I read two or three appalling articles about the billions of plastic bags we use each year, the energy it takes to produce them, and the awful effects they have on animal life and the landscape. These things are literally everywhere–everyone has heard about the vast Sargasso Seas of bags that float on the oceans, and plastic bags have been seen littering glaciers, for God’s sake. (A slide show on the effects of the bags is here if you’re curious.)
I then began to notice how many plastic bags come into our house each week–anywhere from 10 to 40 a week on average. That’s a lot of bags over a year, especially when you add in the bags that now encase the daily newspaper. For years we just threw them “away” (and where is “away”?). Now a few grocery stores will take bags for recycling, so that’s a partial solution, but I also want to cut down on the number of bags I use in the first place.
So I bought a couple of those $1 reusable bags at Tom Thumb. But here’s where it gets interesting. As so often happens, coming up with a “solution” to the problem is only part of the answer. Then we must implement the solution and stay with the new behavior.
The first few times I drove to the store with my reusable bags in the car, I just forgot to take them in. Why? Because I’m not in the habit of taking reusable bags to the store. I’ve gone to a store at least 5,000 times in my life (conservative estimate), and I don’t TAKE bags to the store, I GET bags when I’m there.
So the GET-BAG auto-robot habit has to be broken, and the TAKE-BAG habit established. I now keep the reusable bags in the front seat so I can see them when I get out of the car–and I’ve still overlooked them a few times.
By the way, if you like to think of yourself as a pretty independent type, perhaps a bit of a rebel, see how you feel when you walk into the store carrying these reusable bags. In the 15 or so trips on which I’ve managed to remember to take the bags in, I’ve noticed NOBODY else using them. Zero. And a few people do stare when you hand your bag to the person doing the bagging. Guess I’m the tip of the spear on this one.
I definitely feel better when I manage to loosen the chains of habit and take the bags to the store. Change is always tough and it always requires small steps at the outset. Without those small steps, however, we’re just plodding in the ruts we’ve made, impotently complaining and enduring the growing gap between what we are and what we want to be.