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Little Steps Add Up

February 3, 2017

When we look at big social problems we are often overcome with a feeling of powerlessness and sometimes guilt. We often think things like: “I can’t end poverty alone,” or “I’m not doing enough for racial justice.” However, those thoughts are counterproductive. Each of us is already giving and helping our communities in many different ways. Rather than feeling despondent or guilty, we should continually challenge ourselves each day to do a little bit more to make the world better.


We all know someone who quit his or her job to work for a non-profit or to pursue activism. We admire these people, but most of us cannot imagine quitting our jobs tomorrow or embarking on a full-fledged career of social action. While most of us would say no to such dramatic shifts, we can teach ourselves to be a bit more giving, a bit more conscientious, and a bit more active each day.


A Harvard Business Review paper explains that there are certain things that we can do to make achieving our goals more likely. If we want to be a more active citizen, then we can set our goals to make that happen. The paper explains that our goals should be specific. We should focus on the “how” of our goals. For example, if we want to be more engaged, we should define what that means for us. Going to rallies? Donating more to charity? Spending a weekend a month volunteering?


Our goals should also challenge us a bit. The right level of challenge is key. If we do not volunteer at all, saying we will take on a student to mentor three times a week is unrealistic. However, we can start with volunteering one weekend per month. If we feel strongly about an issue, then perhaps we make it a goal to call our senators for the first time.


Another study detailed in Psychology Today covered how incremental goals that are specific and challenging can increase our motivation. Adding rewards and “checkpoints,” makes us more likely to stick to a new way of being and to form a habit. Therefore, we should think of a big goal as a series of small goals and be sure to “treat” ourselves along the way.


The management guru Peter Drucker came up with the system of SMART goals even before these researchers showed the empirical benefits. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. Let’s look at how you can use SMART goals to motivate yourself to move along the Active Citizen continuum.


Specific- make your goal clear. You want to get more involved in your community, but how will you do that? Let’s say you decide to help new immigrants learn English. That is an example of a specific action to be more socially engaged.


Measurable- how often will you go? How will you know that you have succeeded? You can decide to go once a month, and help five students complete the language program they are involved in.


Achievable- if you are working a job that takes most of your time, perhaps you cannot be socially active every day. Therefore, set a modest goal to start out, perhaps you teach once a month on weekends.


Realistic- recognize that some factors are outside your control. Just because you commit to this, if the class is closed due to snow or you have a family event one weekend that is okay. Make sure you feel that there is some flexibility.


Time-based- when will you start? When does the program begin and end?


Breaking up your social action goals in this way will make you more likely to succeed.



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