Breaking habits: The January Challenge

Habits make life easier – they allow for automatisms and moments where we don’t even have to think, we just know what to do. If someone asks me what I want to drink I know the answer without thinking – the usual. I didn’t even have to think, well isn’t that nice.

But just like there are good habits, we all also have bad ones. Bad habits, which are difficult to get rid of. Every night when I go to the couch I take some candy or chocolate – I am just an addict, I am used to enjoying sweets on the couch. Even though I know this is bad for me, I will not even question it.

Human in front of the ocean
Photo by Pagie Page on Unsplash

This is part of what makes us human: We are making so many choices every day, if we were to question each of them to the same amount, we would constantly be overwhelmed. Our brain is remarkable, but this would exhaust it too much [1]. Therefore, we use habits to spare our energy for those decisions which are worth the energy – this is what we have evolved towards.

What makes a habit a bad one?

Especially now with a new year ahead of us, many of us make new year’s resolutions: To be more active, quit smoking or eat healthier… The list is never ending. But applying these resolutions to reality always coincides with our bad habits: Each night we yearn for the couch instead of sport, we are used to the morning cigarette on the way to the subway or our beloved Friday pizza night. Habits are tough to shake, but their conflict with these resolutions is obvious.

When considering a sustainable lifestyle we might find many less obvious habits which we rarely question. In developed countries we have been used to eat meat on a daily basis, even if this is not sustainable at all. We drive even short distances because we are used to it. We use air travel over so short distances because it is convenient.

Protests for more sustainability during a Fridays For Future demo.
Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

Greta Thunberg has made many people aware of their actions and their consequences with her engagement in the climate protests. People finally started questioning their actions. Awareness of the consequences of our actions is the first and most important step towards change and she has laid the foundation. But many of us are overwhelmed by all the things we do wrong on a daily basis, which makes it difficult to change something for the better.

There are many approaches to raise environmental awareness in society and surely politics needs to act here. But organizations and e.g. employers can also act [2]: If the employer charges for parking, many employees will start thinking about other options for their commute. Focus of my blog are things everyone of us can do for himself: Now that we have awareness for our mistakes, how can we change our behaviour in the long term?

4 mighty success factors for long term changes

Psychology of habits offers many approaches to beak habits. I have little experience with psychology, but I found my own powerful tool to break habits or establish new ones, by accident: The experimental month.

More than 5 years ago I lived abroad and had to commute 9 kilometers by bus and train to work. It was tedious, took a lot of time, was crowded, loud and surprisingly expensive. A collegue of mine then asked me to join his team for a Bike2Work initiative: The whole team should agree to ride by bike for all of June. I sure was skeptical at first due to my commute being that long and there being hills on the way, still I gave it a try. And I liked it. I liked it so much that I kept riding to work in July… when I was suppossed to pay for my next yearly ticket for the local public transport, I bought a new bike instead. Ever since this experiment I have been a committed bike commuter.

Bike commuting is a great way to make everyday life healthier.
Photo by Emilie Farris on Unsplash

I did not know it at that point, but this was my first experimental month. Why did it work? I was able to identify 4 mights factors that contributed to the successful long term change:

  • The initial goal of biking for only one month made it sound much more reasonable. Had my collegue asked me to switch to biking completely just like that, I would never even have tried it. This way, I was able to test it without any engagement.
  • I had a clear goal: Biking for all of June. This is a SMART objective: It is specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related. Setting an objective in the SMART way makes it easier to work towards it.
  • Before starting the experiment (biking), I was forced to break all related habits and find a way to make it work. The difficult task to introduce the change into my life was therefore already finished during the month, which made it easy to go along with it – it is just for this short period of time, right? 🙂
  • Once I was experience the change, I kind of liked it. I got used to it! The difficult parts were already finished and I was able to see the benefits of my new style of commuting – which kept me going longer than the month.

During my experimental month my objective changed from reaching my goal because I was enjoying the change and its benefits. I liked to be active in the morning, enjoyed the beautiful scenery along my route and the peace of mind that biking gave me each morning and evening. Besides that, my commute finally became fully climate-neutral. All of a sudden there were so many benefits which kept me going. This led to the long term change and is the secret of the success of this method.

Back then this was an unconscious experiment – I never even intended to switch completely to biking all along. But it made me aware that I can use an experimental month to introduce long term changes into my life – in an easy and convenient way, which I now repeat regularly and on purpose:

Using the January Challenge for successful long term changes

The January challenge of 5 steps to success

Every january I set a new goal for myself and do an experimental month. Of course this can be done every month of the year (or any other time period). I prefer January because after the hectic christmas time this month usually is a bit more quiet. As most of my challenges involve dietary restrictions, I am also more open to adjust my diet after constantly overeating at christmas time.

Aim of my January Challenges is breaking habits or establishing new ones. This can mean a more active or new dietary lifestyle or some new more sustainable aspect in my life… it can be anything. The important part is to have an objective and aim towards it, to invest time to engage into it. It is a 5 step process:

  1. Start questioning your behaviour: What is something you don’t like about yourself and want to change? Do you want to live more sustainable, loose weight or quit smoking? Pick something that will make you feel good about yourself, if you achieve it!
  2. Define your objective: Use SMART criteria to set your goal. Find ways to reach little wins along the way.
  3. Establish the conditions which make the desired change possible: Define your time period, prepare what you need for your new lifestyle. Buy the bicycle if you need one!
  4. Experience the change: Work hard on achieving your goal in the set time frame. Experience little wins!
  5. Judge what you achieved: After you completed the challenge, take a look back. Did you reach your goal? What did you like about the change? Will you keep going, now that you know you can do it?

This process roughly follows a behavioural change described as an intervention in [3], where the science behind it was shown. I intentionally set ambitious goals each time because even if I choose not to stick to them after the time period of my experiment, I always keep some aspects of the extreme lifestyle in my daily life.

Last year my goal was to live on an especially low budget, but sustainable. This changed my diet on the long term: Ever since then we are eating fresh veggies every night. We stopped eating bread and processed foods all along. This is healthier, makes so much less waste and saves money.

My next challenge starts soon and this time I am tackling my sugar addiction – this will be a tough one. What are your bad habits? Do you have tricks to get rid of them? Let us know via email or in the comment section!

Sweets are my worst bad habit.
Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash


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