Keep Change Alive: Three Psychology-Based Tactics

keep-change-aliveEarlier this week, a friend of mine asked me what, as a psychologist, I thought we could do to ensure that the commitment to action stirred up by the presidential election results doesn’t fall by the wayside. I answered her quickly but the question lingered on my mind. I think there are a few general strategies anyone, regardless of the issues close to their heart, can use to maintain accountability and action over time and effect change for midterm elections in 2018 and the next presidential race in 2020.

There are three basic strategies I’ll recommend, and I’ll describe what each might look like and why it should be effective based on psychological principles.

1. Notch small successes right away.

What this looks like:

All journeys begin with a single step, right? Take your first steps right away. Consider making a donation (it doesn’t have to be big) to organizations doing good work in your areas of passion. Can you volunteer an hour or two this week somewhere in your community? How about enrolling on the email lists of organizations that work in your areas of interest, so you’ll get information about opportunities in the future? Or reach out to friends or people you know who are already working on change and ask to join their efforts. Anything you can do right now to feel like you’re starting your journey will help.

Why it works:

Self-efficacy is the belief in your own ability to get things done, and it’s an important ingredient in behavior change. When you take a step toward your goal, you start to build your self-efficacy by proving to yourself that you can make progress. Each small success is like money in your self-efficacy bank.

It’s also critical to break major goals down into manageable action steps, so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Your first small success will help you do that.


2. Create a plan.

What this looks like:

If you want to make change for the long haul, you’ve got to have an action plan. This plan will evolve as you learn more and find your niches. For now, see if you can answer some of these questions:

  • What issues am I going to prioritize?
  • What types of skills do I have that can help?
  • What am I willing to commit in terms of time and money?
  • What organizations can I work with on this?
  • What am I going to do if I witness something directly that needs to be addressed, such as racism or bigotry?
  • What words and phrases do I want to use to talk about the issues I’m passionate about?

You may not have all of these answers right away. Getting them may be some of the first items on your plan.

Set deadlines for the items on your action plan. For example, commit to locating a resource in your local community that does work on your passion issue by the end of the month.

Be specific about steps on your action plan. This is not a lofty goal, this is a list of concrete things you can actually do to make change. The more specific and action-oriented these items are, the more likely you can actually accomplish them. “End racism” is not a good action list item. “Interrupt and follow my script when someone makes a racist joke” is better.

i-am-only-onebut-still-i-am-one-i-cannot-do-everythingbut-still-i-can-do-somethingand-because-i-cannot-do-everythingi-will-not-refuse-to-do-the-something-that-i-can-doA challenge in creating your plan, which I’m facing now, is realizing that you can’t do everything. You might really care about many issues, but realistically only have the time and resources to prioritize one or maybe two. That feels rotten, but it’s better to work on one issue than none. You may be able to narrow things down just based on your level of passion, or maybe it’s a more practical process where you evaluate your options and see that you can be more effective with a particular issue based on what resources you have and what’s needed where you live.

Why it works: 

Creating an action plan with concrete to-dos and deadlines helps transform nebulous goals into achievable activities. One reason why people sometimes don’t follow through on their commitments is confusion about how to do so. The action plan should make things less confusing.

Action plans also borrow from the idea of SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based), which have been proven more effective for behavior change.

There is also research in the area of willpower that suggests we’re more likely to achieve our goals if we set specific plans on how to deal with difficult situations that might arise. The idea is that when something happens that could interrupt progress toward our goals, we get stressed out, and don’t have the cognitive capacity to think clearly about how to act. If you’ve formed a plan, your stressed brain can simply execute on it rather than scrambling to figure out what you should do. Having a plan will help you follow through in times of stress or high emotion, which may very well happen depending on what your passion issues are.

3. Declare your intentions.

What this looks like:

Let people know your plans for making change. Tell your friends, family, and co-workers. Ask a close friend or someone you know who has similar values to be your accountability buddy. This person can ask you for updates on your work on a regular basis, or even join alongside you.

If you want, you can post on social media about the causes you’re volunteering with and the actions you’re committed to taking. This doesn’t have to feel like political commentary if you don’t want it to (although with some issues, such as reproductive rights or election reform, it will be difficult to avoid some people’s criticism). You can simply say you’re excited to be embarking on good work around an issue you care about.

Your public commitments can vary in the level of detail you provide. Maybe on Facebook you simply say you’re volunteering with your local Boys & Girls Club a few times a month, but your face-to-face social circle knows you’re specifically passionate about education for kids, and your best friend knows all the details about your work looks like.

Why it works:

Publicly committing to a goal has been shown to increase follow-through. The first reason is that it creates accountability. If you know people will be asking you how your work is going, you won’t want to lack an answer for them.

The second reason has to do with cognitive dissonance. It’s important to our human brain to be consistent. If you’ve openly stated a set of values and a plan, it feels uncomfortable not to behave in a way consistent with that. People have been shown to dramatically change their behavior when faced with a mismatch between what they’ve said aloud and the way they’ve acted.

three-ways-to-keep-up-momentum-on-changeSo what’s next?

It’s time to get cracking, kids. I’ll be following the above steps for my own passion issues. I’ve made some donations, joined some email lists, and begun to reach out to friends who can help me get involved. I’ll be working on my own action plan and accountability in the coming weeks. And I’d be happy to serve as an accountability buddy for you if you need one–just email me or reach out in person and we’ll talk.


I will continue to add to this list as I find more change resources.

How to respond to harassment and bigotry:

How to respond to everyday bigotry, from the Southern Poverty Law Center

An illustrated guide to what to do if you see anti-Muslim harassment, from Maeril

How to donate or volunteer:

Practical things you can do today to keep hope alive, from

A list of pro-immigrant, pro-women, pro-earth, anti-bigotry organizations that need your support, from Jezebel

Emerge America is an organization that helps women run for office. Many states have chapters of their own.

VolunteerMatch will help identify organizations you can volunteer with where you live.

How to get involved with the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) to protect the environment

Want to boycott organizations that carry Trump brands? This #GrabYourWallet list is maintained and updated, and includes a script to use on phone calls.

The Liberal Activist Toolkit includes educational resources and specific calls to action.

Looking for actions to take? Try Five Websites to Lend a Hand and Make a Difference to the World.

And still more organizations where you can donate time and money to make change. To Resist Is a Verb.

Additional education and action resources:

A non-partisan list of websites that are false, misleading, or click-bait–always double-check the veracity of anything you read on these sites

We’re His Problem Now, scripts and guidance for calling your elected officials to talk about specific issues of concern

The Resistance Manual, a crowd-sourced guide to national and local resources to advocate for change on a range of issues. Includes reading lists, contact information, and links to other organizations.

The Indivisible Guide offers “a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda.”