Before I went to college, my mom gave me some sage advice: Wear whatever you want, starting on day one. In a new place with new people, she explained, I wouldn’t have to worry about old classmates giving me the side-eye if I upgraded my standard jeans-and-t-shirt routine for something a bit more funky. (Little did she know I’d end up living in ill-fitting hand-me-downs and flannels.)

Still, my mom was on to something. According to a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, major life transitions are opportune times to change habits. Instead of 18-year-olds’ fashion choices, the researchers behind this study looked at the eco-friendly habits of adults. They found that people who had just moved — especially within the previous three months — were more likely to adopt such habits when encouraged than those who had stayed put.

The study involved 800 participants, half of whom had recently moved. While a control group of participants were not urged to adopt sustainable behaviors, for everyone else the researchers promoted a range of eco-friendly habits:

The behaviours broadly covered the domains of water (e.g., taking less than 10 min in the shower; using the toilet dual flush), waste (e.g., using re-usable shopping bags; using leftover food for other meals), transportation (e.g., walking or cycling short journeys; ecologically friendly driving), and energy use (e.g., turning down the heating; washing clothes at cooler temperatures).

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To assess how much participants picked up these habits, the researchers relied on self-reporting (a non-ideal and somewhat unreliable form of assessment, but useful nonetheless). Controlling for things like past behavior, motivation, personal values, and existing habit strength, they found a significant — though small — increase in adoption among the movers.

This, of course, is not very surprising. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to know that the proverbial “clean slate” comes with a hefty dose of powerful — if not fleeting — motivation to better oneself.  But if we were to get all PhD about it, this phenomenon is actually called “the habit discontinuity hypothesis.” Here’s more from the study:

Major discontinuities may involve transitions to new phases in life (e.g., from education to a job), geographical or physical changes (e.g., residential or work-related relocations), or changes in the environment where habits are executed (e.g., infrastructural changes). Such discontinuities may force people to renegotiate ways of doing things, create a need for information to make the new choices, and a mind-set of being ‘in the mood for change’. Interventions that capitalise on these conditions may thus be more effective compared to interventions under default conditions.

So the next time you go through a major life transition, think about how you could use that transition to instill those habits that you’ve always wanted to pick up. Going back to school? Dress like a maniac! Moving to a new city? Try public transportation! Starting a new job? Just do what I did when I joined Grist last year — nix all those societally-imposed beauty routines and save the planet by never bathing.

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