How I used habit psychology to get involved with my local government

In the wake of the 2016 election, I’ve talked with dozens of friends and acquaintances who are disillusioned at the results. I sense that many of you feel like I do; powerless to affect large-scale change and that neither candidate fully represented you. Maybe you’ve heard the prompts to vote for local candidates and get involved. “I don’t have time,” you think, and even if you did, you don’t know where to start, or have the right knowledge or skills to make a difference.

Instead of signing another petition, sharing it on Facebook, and hoping it will be heard … why not show up in person and advocate for practical solutions to improve you and your neighbors’ everyday lives? Or hold your local and state officials accountable to do their jobs with integrity?

That sounds great, but where to begin?

I don’t know what exact combination of steps will work for you. So I’ll share my own journey into local civic engagement and some tools for you to take the first steps.

In 2013, my dream employer hired me permanently. I moved from Chicago, IL to Hartford, CT to be near the office, leaving behind family and a big support network of friends and former colleagues. Hartford, like many small East Coast cities, shows its wear from decades of mismanagement, destructive highway policies, and blight. The environment affected my mood and even challenged my commitment to my aforementioned dream job. I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing visions of how to make things better, and being frustrated with the status quo.

I took the first step when I got my FitBit.

  1. To reach my daily 10,000 steps, I started walking around my block. For context, I live in a converted factory. My building is renovated into nice apartments and offices. Other portions of the site look like a run-down industrial hideout from an action movie. There’s no shortage of trash left lying around, which seems to multiply. At first I was mad at the people who littered. But I feared becoming one of “those people” who grew old complaining about others. So…
  2. I started picking up trash. I stopped brooding and blaming, and chose to make my block better. I knew I couldn’t pick up all the trash, but I did my part.
  3. Walking the same block allowed me to study my environment closely. I saw that concrete highway walls could be beautified with street art, and wondered how to make that happen.
  4. I started talking about a mural idea with everyone I met. I even created slides to support it. Talking about my idea led me to neighborhood association leaders and neighborhood board meetings.

This was just the start.

Over the last year, talking about my ideas and wishes led me to comment on interstate highway projects, public transportation and Complete Streets policies, and even build a scale model of downtown Hartford out of LEGO bricks with local LEGO fans from ConnLUG. This journey helped me learn a little bit about some big topics that affect my everyday life like urban planning, land use, zoning regulations, transportation policy, and finance. Now I’m narrowing my focus and finding where I can have the greatest impact for the limited time I have available.

Here are the principles I’ve used to guide my involvement. I hope you find them helpful:

  1. Build civic participation into your day. Set aside a half hour before or after work to write down your ideas, research, and write to people in your community. Don’t have time? Read these scientifically-backed ways to increase leisure time. Read why you think you don’t have enough time. Keep forgetting? Learn how habits work and the Habit Stacking technique.
  2. Figure out what you want. Start a journal of stuff you don’t like or want to see changed in your community. What core values lie underneath your opinions? What would success look like to you?
  3. Scratch your own itch, responsibly. This is your spare time, and your community. Put your energy into advocating for issues that improve things for you. Just remember to look at those issues from many sides, and frame them so they also do the greatest good for others in your community, including the most vulnerable. For example, as a pedestrian and driver, I advocate for safer street designs that serve all road users. While I can choose my mode of transportation, I recognize others walk and bicycle out of necessity, and deserve to use the road safely without being injured or killed.
  4. Learn your place in the community, and listen to others. Pause and reflect to yourself on where you’ve come from. What’s your education level? Job or career field? Family background? Beliefs or traditions? Socio-economic status? Core values? Whatever your answers, you’re OK. Just check in with yourself before you engage. You’ll meet people with backgrounds different from yours. I’ve found that I’m more effective when I listen to others, learn their interests and concerns, and find common ground.
  5. Talk about your ideas to everyone in your community. Looking back, this is the number one most impactful habit I built when I was beginning. Think of it like increasing the “surface area” of your ideas. Each person you talk to knows someone or something you don’t, and more often than not they’re happy to share.
  6. Focus and prioritize the issues you care about. You only have so much energy and time. You can choose to either have little to no impact on lots of issues, or a lot of impact on one or two issues. It’s OK if those one or two issues, or even your positions on them, change over time.
  7. Choose a Growth Mindset. Set aside ten minutes to watch this TED talk by Carol Dweck on The power of believing you can improve. I also highly recommend her book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.
  8. Do your research. Who in your city is responsible for the stuff you want to change? What reports have been prepared on the topic to date? Read them. When are their regular public meetings, such as city council or committees? Put them in your calendar.
  9. Show up. Attend a public meeting and follow along. Introduce yourself to people afterward, including officials and other residents. Tell them what you care about. Exchange contact information.
  10. Play the long game. You can only learn or do much in a single day or week. Commit to doing a little bit each day, or a couple times each week, consistently. When you look back over a year, you will be amazed at how far you’ve come.
  11. Pro-tip: Cut out noise. Learn how to focus on what you can directly control, then on what you can influence. Ignore the larger “circle of concern” like national issues. Turn off the TV and corral your Facebook use. Turn off alerts and notifications for email, social media, news, etc. I recommend blocking the Facebook news feed using Google Chrome and the Newsfeed Eradicator extension. The health and productivity benefits of reducing passive media consumption can’t be overstated, and could take up several posts, along with how-tos.
  12. Have fun. This is serious stuff, but don’t take it too seriously. Introduce fun and even playfulness into your participation. Remember, everyone you meet also got involved to make things better, and they’re people just like you. Find ways to make them smile.

Did the mural happen?

Not yet. I learned that I’m probably not the right person to drive it to completion (see #5 above), but I’ll support anyone who has an inclusive vision for beautifying that wall with street art.

Remember, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” -Steve Jobs

Please share, what has worked for you? Do you agree with the points above, or disagree? Why?