Transitioning to a sustainable lifestyle can actually be pretty overwhelming. You really want to make positive changes, but it really feels like you just got an endless to-do list: go vegan, zero waste, travel sustainable, ditch plastic, buy organic, bake your own bread, compost, bring your own bottle, oh, and always, ALWAYS, recycle! How do you even fit all this into a busy life with only 24 hours per day without going crazy?
The truth is you don’t. And although it’s interesting that there are so many different aspects to sustainability, so much to learn and to discover, it can also be quite a lot – especially if you’re just starting out. While this may spark some people’s curiosity and motivate them to dive right in, it can also drive you straight up crazy!
I mean, where do you even start?
And where do you find the extra time and money to support your sustainable lifestyle. Because, the truth is: Your workload will increase and, while sustainable products may save you money in the long run, they will require an initial investment and often are a lot more expensive than your regular products.
So, feeling overwhelmed by starting a more sustainable shouldn’t surprise anyone, and having it drive you crazy is something you will almost certainly experience along your sustainability journey – believe me, it’s been years and I still struggle to figure out how to recycle and separate trash in the respective countries I visit as a digital nomad. (Why does every country have different rules to that, anyway?)
But that’s not the real danger
The real danger is letting this feeling of overwhelm turn into fear and take over you. When that happens, it can actually manifest into a destructive rather than constructive patterns of behaviour – for yourself and for the planet.
The most common patterns of behaviour I see in response to being overwhelmed by all things sustainable are the following:
You read all about sustainability, follow some cool vegan or zero waste youtubers and, yes, you’ve bought tofu a few times. But the load of information is just too much and you’re afraid to commit to sustainability or put a label on yourself because you’re not sure if you can go through with it or wouldn’t ‘get it right’ – so you put it off, again and again, and stick to your old habits.
You try to do everything 100% perfect, so that whenever you slip (and you will) you’ll feel extremely guilty about it. Like, as if you’re the primary cause there’s more plastic in the sea than fish just because they gave you a single-use plastic straw with your drink. These feeling of guilt can accumulate and manifest as a feeling of alienation or anger towards people who have not started their sustainability journey at all yet. This is, obviously, not good for your mental health or your relationships, or the planet. Let’s face it, stressing yourself won’t end climate change, either.
Frustration & giving up:
When it’s just too much and you feel like you do everything you can and it’s STILL not working, so you get angry at yourself and start wondering if all this hustle is even worth it. Before you know it, you’re entering a full-on identity crisis and decide to just give up and leave it (“I’m not going to change anything anyway”).
Does that sound like you?
Maybe you can identify with at least one of the types I’ve just described? Believe me, I have yoyo-ed between them for a long time. No need to feel bad about it.
Sustainability is a journey – and it’s a wild ride. You will probably wind up feeling guilty and frustrated more than once.
But the good news is (and I’m also speaking from experience here): Your effort is still worth it. And there are a few things you can do to live more sustainably without driving yourself crazy.
Don’t put a label on yourself
Truth bomb: You don’t have to call yourself a vegan in order to eat no animal products. I mean you can, but you don’t have to if you don’t feel comfortable with it (yet). Putting a name or a label on yourself often brings with it this feeling of a 100% commitment and many people aren’t ready for that, or fear judgement. What if they still want to have a piece of their grandma’s cheesecake? Will that make them non-vegan again?
The thing is, it’s not the label that helps the environment, but your actions. If you want to eat less animal products and more plants, just do it. Give yourself time, and maybe at some point you’ll realise you’re comfortable with saying you’re ‘vegan’ – or maybe you don’t. That’s ok, too. Have that piece of cheesecake and enjoy it, and have plants for dinner again. Find out what works for you, and think of your own PR later!
Give yourself time
The climate crisis is urgent and we don’t have much time. But the biggest mistake people make is trying to change their lifestyle 100% by going vegan, zero waste, all-organic, etc. overnight. This is almost certainly not going to work, and will lead to exactly that feeling of being overwhelmed I talked about earlier. So, when you’re going sustainable, do it in a way that is sustainable for you. Pick an area, like reducing plastic waste, and focus on reaching this goal for a month or two. This will give you time to take baby steps and master one area bit by bit before tackling another.
Find your mission(s)
Not everyone has access to the same resources. That means for some people it can be easier to go vegan – e.g if they have access to fresh vegetables and substitute products, which is not to be taken for granted. For other people it can be very hard to make just simple switches – for example: a reusable bottle doesn’t help much if you can’t drink the tap water in your country. Some people work full-time and can’t commit to much extra work. Some have the space to do gardening or composting, others don’t. This is important to keep in mind: You don’t have to match your mission to the mission of others, but find your own.
This is especially important in times of social media, as we are prone to compare ourselves to eco-influencers who’s literal job it is to produce sustainability content (at least for most of them it is). Take them as an inspiration, cheer them on, even make them your role model. But try not to put the pressure on you to be exactly like them.
It’s really helpful to take a look at what’s possible for you instead: What resources do you have? How can you use them to make a difference? Which resources can you acquire? What can you make by yourself or with the help of your community? And then, see what mission you can create from there.
Ditch perfectionism – for good
There is no area in life where perfectionism does more good than harm. Mostly, it only leaves you feeling like a failure, because you ‘only’ did good, and not perfect. So, listen up everybody: In terms of the environment, even doing okay at sustainability is a HUGE step that most people aren’t even close to taking yet! So, who needs perfect? Ditch perfect, and start doing ok, or mediocre, or even suck at doing something for a while. The only thing that doesn’t help is doing nothing at all – and who want’s to be perfect at that?
Don’t loose hope and have some fun!
I know this is a hard nut to crack, because the dangers of climate change are real and terrifying and coming at you at light speed. Just thinking about how incredibly hot the past summers have been gets me into a proper state of panic, and seeing people not taking any action at all (looking at y’all politicians) or even denying climate change makes me want to scream, honestly. But letting fear, guilt or anger take over won’t help, and it won’t make people follow along. I mean, have you ever thought to yourself: Wow, those kids look terrified and miserable – I should be doing what they’re doing!
Probably not. So, find your mission, your way of doing a little bit better for the planet everyday and find a way to make it fun for you. Your joy will radiate outwards and draw people towards you, get them to talk about those sustainability topics with you and maybe, they’ll be interested to check out what you’re doing and join in. And even if not, you at least had yourself a splendid time.
So, you see, no need to go crazy!
This article is meant to inspire you to buy that bamboo brush and put it into your plastic toothbrush holder. To eat nothing but plants and tofu but to cheat on it when your grandma makes that beef stew you just can’t live without. To learn to be okay with being imperfect and showing up anyway. To maybe not manage to do any of those things, but take a day off from work to join (or organize) a Fridays For Future demonstration in your town, or to carry out this battle against climate change at the ballot every four years. Because in the end it comes down to this: The best thing you can do to live sustainably is the thing you actually do.