Take This Spreadsheet & Save the World: A Tool for Unsure Activists
In times of fear and crisis, we all turn to our own sources of consolation — some have faith, some have hard liquor. I have spreadsheets. If you’re feeling lost and angry, with the desire to do something, but not a clue where to start, you might find the humbly-named “This Spreadsheet Will Save the World” useful; download it from Google sheets here. It’s designed for first-time activists, or people who want to commit to a more thorough activism practice, but who aren’t sure how to kick things off beyond reblogging really righteous .gif sets.
Planning is a way to consolidate your power. Setting down what you want to do and the path you’ll take to get there is like dropping an anchor into a stormy sea. It fixes your attention, and the most important resource you have is your attention. Find your focus, commit your time, and amazing things can happen. Like they did for this guy:
Making a plan helps maintain your perspective and patience. While you can certainly help change the world, you most likely can’t do it all in one go. If your spare time is currently devoted to crying and watching Netflix, start off by cutting that down by 15% and writing a letter or two. Don’t try to go full Rosa Luxemburg before you’ve gotten used to your activist training wheels.
Start every plan with an objective. You may have a few of these at first (“get involved in local government”, “reduce household waste”, “campaign for better climate policy”, “organise a gay pride parade in the middle of Mike Pence’s living room”). Jot down all of your ideas and then narrow your focus. It’s possible to have several strategies in play, but remember that both your time and your attention are finite — you’re on a budget, so spend them carefully. Many a would-be do-gooder has gotten mired in the Swamp of Eternal Indecision. Flip a coin if you have to, but make a choice about your commitment.
Goals are the subsections of your objective. For instance, if you’re organising a fundraising karaoke-and-BBQ evening, you might have a “karaoke” goal, a “BBQ” goal, and a “promoting the shit out of it on social media” goal. Goals often run concurrently with each other, so while they each have their own deadlines, the dates are in the same column so you can realistically plan your time.
Ever sat through a training seminar where someone wheeled out a SMART model? Sure, it’s a dusty old cliché beloved by cut-rate self-help gurus, but when you’re floundering it can be a decent place to start. Make your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Resource-Based, Time-bound. Thus,
“I want to make everyone in the world love each other more” = a fine and dandy thing to want, but not SMART.
“I want to decrease the use of disposable coffee cups at my workplace by 30%” = totally SMART.
Then take a hammer to your goals and split it into lots of little steps. Don’t wait for your goals to be perfect before breaking them to pieces. Once you crack them open, you’ll start to see the goal itself in a new light. The delete button is always there. Unlike election results, you can go back and revise all you like.
Unless deadlines really give you hives, give every step a due date. Even if they’re arbitrary, they’re great for focus. Include a couple of things you’ve already done (“fill in spreadsheet”) just to check them off. I’m not sure whether there’s any managerial science behind that but boy, does it feel good. Type anything into the completion column to cross it off.
Speaking of time and deadlines, crack open your Google calendar or the relevant app on your phone and put in reminders. You’re already checking your phone five zillion times a day, make that habit work in your objective’s favour.
While your objective is your North Star, the steps are the dirty work, the bit where the dirt gets under your nails and sweat beads upon your brow. In the upcoming movie of your life, they’re the parts in the montage that get set to uplifting music. I definitely recommend making a playlist of preferred montage music to get through your steps. Even when you’re doing the dishes, the right soundtrack can make you feel like a glamorous renegade. And every successful social justice movement had someone, somewhere, doing the dishes.
Measuring things and sussing out numbers can be boring as shit, but it’s worth the initial faffing around in the planning stage. This goes treble for group projects. Make everyone agree as early as possible what specific things you want to do and how you’ll measure your work. Then, when you recoup for post-action beers, you can point to exactly what you achieved and what can be done better next time. It makes it easier to learn from failure, and, my darlings, if you want to be an activist of any kind, get familiar with failing. Having a record of measurable actions will also make it easier for people to give you money and other useful things.
Keep in mind that there are people out there whose nipples get rock-hard at the prospect of gathering data, so take a look through your rolodex (or ask on Facebook) and see if you can farm out that part of the job to them.
Remember I said to measure your objectives? I also encourage measuring discomfort. We go to great lengths to avoid certain types of awkwardness — some of us avoid conflict or abrupt changes in plans; I’d consider gnawing off my own arm to avoid listening to a voice mail.
While your mental and physical health is always top priority, your comfort isn’t. Worthwhile change comes out of enduring all kinds of irritating and tiresome situations. Activism involves boring meetings, administrative slog, standing in the rain with collection tins, and walking into unfamiliar rooms filled with strangers, some of who consider Patchouli oil to be an acceptable substitute for deodorant. To fulfill your objective, you may even have to ask people to do stuff for you, and just thinking about that might make you feel like you’ve just swallowed a hot pepper.
Planning helps manage these feelings. Rate every step from one to five in anticipated discomfort — one being so chilled that you’re practically asleep, five being 2005 Mike Myers standing next to Kanye West.
Working through your emotional response to each step will help you sort out how to deal with it. Imagine yourself Doing the Thing and isolate the bit that makes you feel queasy. Do you need to take a bus somewhere? Are there weird opening hours? Is there a particular piece of paper you need to get hold of first? You can’t possibly anticipate everything, but you can make a stab at it.
For any steps ranking 4 or higher on the Feels-Icky-O-Meter, add another step above it to plan how to deal with the discomfort. If it’s “have to call a VIP and ask for their time” then make the preceding step “write out a script for VIP call and practice it on the cat”.
As you plan your steps, jot down things in the “Resources Needed” column as you go. This might be tangible items, like documents or funding, skillsets, like getting a translator or HTML abilities, or a reminder to stock up on cheese and Margarita Mix.
There are some Big Questions at the end of the spreadsheet. You don’t have to wait until your objective is finalised to start taking notes on the answers. Keep them in mind as you work through the steps, as the answers you come up with will be some of the most valuable resources you’ll need for the work ahead.
The last column is for some inspiration to keep you going. Maybe it’s a quote, or a statistic, or a community organiser you admire. Maybe it’s a Rihanna meme. Just like that playlist of uplifting music for when you’re in montage mode, it’s important to protect your imagination. Like your energy, your imagination is a valuable resource that you have to nurture, and like your energy, it has the potential to change the world.
Other resources to help you get stuff done:
If To Do lists don’t work for you, start making Reverse To Do lists.
The Pomodoro Technique — the best procrastination-buster since the invention of caffeine. Tomato your way to world peace.
BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program is full of techniques for starting and breaking everyday habitual behaviour. This is what I used to kick my disposable coffee cup dependency.
Katherine Milkman is best known for coming up with ‘temptation bundling’ but that’s just one of her techniques for dealing with self-control setbacks.
Tim Harford on how to know when to quit and when to keep going.
The Immunity to Change worksheet — if you’re unable to get going on something, dive deeper into your conflicting objectives. Understanding ‘change immunity’ can also be valuable for empathising with other people who make seemingly irrational decisions. If you can do that you’re less likely to come across as a self-righteous know-it-all buttwagon, and activist circles already have more than enough of those to go around.