Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

April 26, 2006

Establishing Habits Makes Change Effectively Costless

Theresa and I were just talking about the fact that we have made a bunch of tiny little changes but we simply haven’t noticed any negative impact. I have my share of bad habits (oh, yeah, baby), but you know, the thing about habits is that you simply don’t notice them. Your wife notices them. But you don’t.

I remember thinking it odd that my Mom and Dad would never lock the doors of their car when they came to visit us. They live in Maine, in a town where crime doesn’t really happen. When we suggested they lock their car doors during a visit to the mean streets of Newton, MA, they were alarmed, and amusingly had to look in the car manual to figure out how, since their car had electronic locks, not the knobs you pull up and down. They just never pressed that button. It wasn’t their habit. They shook their heads wondering how we could live in such a complicated world.

But like most urban dwellers, it is our habit to lock the house and car and do all sorts of other little things like making sure there’s nothing visible in the car that someone might want. We do it without thinking. Add up your habits — the number is huge.

We do things that are our habits without thinking. Occasionally they are an annoyance, but roughly on par with having a hangnail. Although I will say that the most brilliant feature of the Prius, far beyond the hybrid engine, is the key-less entry system, which I still would like to have installed on our house.

So, without further ado, I’ll get to the point: making small changes all take a little getting used to, but that’s all. In other words, you need to make them a habit. You set up a little system or routine, run through it a few times and it becomes second nature — an act requiring no thought. Here are some examples:

  • Turn off a light as you leave a room
  • Turn off your computer’s monitor, and hibernate it
  • Use cold water for your wash
  • Program your thermostat (once)
  • Get a sweater when you’re cold
  • Take a quick shower
  • Accelerate your car slowly
  • Reuse a bag or other container
  • Take a single trip to do errands
  • Don’t buy something
  • Take the train instead of flying
  • Compost the organic stuff
  • Separate recyclable items
  • Choose a vegetable instead of meat
  • and on, and on and on…

Each one takes a little thought and a little training. And at first, each one requires some extra effort. Some seem inconceivable (for me, eating less meat just seemed like a major loss of enjoyment in life) but turn out to be painless, or better yet, make you feel good. If they turn out to be too painful, pick another.

I see waste and excess and needless consumption every where I go. There are some huge things and a zillion little ones. It seems pointless or futile to take the effort to make little changes. But they add up, and once they are habits, they cost nothing. And when it comes to saving energy, it’s often the same as saving money.

After 44 years of developing mostly bad habits, it also feels kind of good to know that I can also develop good ones just as easily. And like any habit, once you’ve got it, it’s almost hard not to do. And these habits are ones that don’t annoy my wife!


  1. Man, no meat. Even I won’t go that far.

    I think a lot of it’s also perspective. I grew up in a lower-middle class family setting so it was natural to try and reuse the cool whip container…I still do. However, my fiance was a bit more privalleged and thinks nothing of tossing it out (this applies almost universally).

    I agree the actual effort require to change is small but to most of America change in and of itself is huge.

    Your going to have to push hard to persuade me to give up my meat. See what I mean?

    Comment by Reed Braman — May 18, 2006 @ 2:58 pm

  2. Reed — I didn’t say “no meat”, just occasionally choose a vegetable instead. I would have thought it impossible for me to reduce the meat I ate a year or so ago, and I really didn’t intend to, but by becoming aware of the options, and trade offs and issues, I have gradually found I just don’t have the urge as much. It’s totally strange.

    Regarding perspective, I agree. While I grew up in a relatively affluent town and we didn’t have to, my parents grew up in the great depression — they had established habits of frugality and savings that my siblings and I just laughed at. They saved everything. It seemed to silly to us as we coasted through the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s and 90’s using more and more and more, throwing away more things. But my parents had established the habit, and it stuck. My wife’s family was not affluent, and they established similar habits out of need.

    Change is hard. And I think the stumbling block is that big changes are hard in a big way. But little changes are not that hard. Indeed, the only thing hard to do sometimes is just remember to do it. I cannot change everything, but I can make “five percent” changes. And they add up.

    So don’t think of it as “giving up meat”. Just think of learning a new good habit — any one will do — the one that comes most easily or just seems natural.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — May 18, 2006 @ 9:35 pm

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