If you have ever started a diet, or told yourself you are never eating sugar or chocolate again, you will know how tough it can be and how all you think about is the forbidden items.

This can be the same, if you try to make changes to your lifestyle for the environment, like going vegan or plastic-free. In this blog, we will unpack the psychological factors at work and how undertaking a month challenge like Veganuary or the Lent Plastic Challenge can achieve long-term behaviour change. I will share from my own personal experience of hosting the Lent Plastic Challenge for 5 years, changing my lifestyle for the environment and from studying behaviour change.

Why giving something up is painful and daunting?

When we are told, or tell ourselves, that we can’t have something we experience ‘loss aversion’. And due to our human survival mechanisms, we are actually wired to experience loss twice as painfully as the joy of pleasure; so it actually hurts to give something up!

Also due to our survival instincts, we also struggle with long-term comprehension, but are more focused on the immediate future which is why, for so long, we have struggled to comprehend climate change as explained in the book ‘Don’t even think about it‘.

So how do we overcome this?

By doing a Lent challenge or a month-long challenge, we can tell our brain, it is not forever which is less daunting and painful. Rather than the loss, we can also focus on all the things we are going to bring into our lives and how we can replace the items we are giving up by finding recipes and solutions. And our brain will love this process because our brains enjoy solving problems, which is why crosswords and computer games are so popular.

The allure of convenience and plastic packaging

No, our brains are not wired to find satisfaction in unpackaging and throwing away plastic wrappers. However, our brain is constantly seeking out the easy option and the shortcut which is why convenience is king and plastic-packaged goods have become so indispensable.

Trying to overcome convenience can be challenging, but it is why when you seek out alternatives you need to find things that are quick and easy- which is all the recipes in the Lent Plastic Challenge are simple and straight forward (because I don’t have much time, and I actually switch off from a recipe with lots of ingredients).

How to change our plastic habits

Whilst we humans like to think we are rational beings making conscious choices, it turns out that most of the time we are going through life on autopilot because our brains like to automate as much as possible. This means that most of our day-to-day shopping behaviours and purchasing choices are because of habit or impulse, whereas shopping plastic-free requires more conscious thought and planning.

It is believed that we need at least 21 days to create or break a new habit, hence why month-long challenges work so well. To avoid overwhelm it is important not to take on too many new behaviours at once, which is why in the Lent Plastic Challenge we suggest doing a couple of items a week, rather than going all-out plastic-free at once, because this can be overwhelming and too much to remember for a life on autopilot.

The importance of public commitment

As humans, we are very social creatures and we care a lot about what other people think of us, so maintaining our public persona is important. This means if we make a public commitment, we are more likely to stick to it than if we just commit to ourselves.

So getting your friends, family and work colleagues involved in a challenge, or joining a public group and making a public pledge will increase your success rate. The Lent Plastic Challenge is set-up to support this, with a Facebook group, Instagram feed and a weekly email newsletter you can share with your work colleagues.

Joining the Lent Plastic Challenge

So if you are keen to change your plastic habits, then why not get involved in the Lent Plastic Challenge. There is a Facebook group, Instagram account and an email newsletter with weekly tips based on different themes.

This is of course completely free and furthermore this year, I am linking up my business consultancy, The Sustainable Sidekicks. The first 50 people to sign up will get free access to one of our workplace e-learning courses on Understanding Plastics and Plastic Recycling. To find out more head to the sign-up page for all the links.

Who is Livvy Drake, aka Green Livvy?

I am a sustainability and behaviour change consultant who works with events and businesses to reduce environmental impacts, offering consultancy and training and talks.

I studied behaviour change at Bristol UWE, focusing on plastic bottle consumption. I have delivered a number of waste and plastics behaviour change initiatives and have used that experience to create an online course for businesses.

As Green Livvy, I share my knowledge on waste and plastics reduction with individuals and households online and through face-to-face talks.