Thursday, February 12, 2009

Combined Action

So for no apparent reason, at the beginning of last year I decided that I would do something almost no one does - stick to a New Year's resolution. It's always such a funny thing. People are so hopeful, so eager to identify the areas of their lives that need improving. Maybe its the euphoria of the holiday season still wearing off, but everyone believes that this year will be the year they do it. Then winter drags on too long and they forget about it as easily as the idea came. I am not claiming to be better than these people because I stuck with mine. It was actually sort of a fluke. I somehow picked something I ended up finding an incredible passion for. My resolution was to learn how to cook, and a year later I think I have succeeded, at least to the extent I had hoped (at the very least I've moved beyond mac and cheese and chicken nuggets).

With my recent success I was a bit more ambitious this year with three resolutions. I have dropped one, I hate to say, but I am chugging along with the other two. They take on the form of a strategy that is the subject for this post - combined, sustained action. But let me first tell you why I think many resolutions fail so quickly. Let's take one goal people strive for all the time (especially come resolution time); to exercise more. But what does that really mean? I think many people fail because "more" just simply isn't an easy concept to manifest. For example, if you go from never exercising to doing it once a month, technically you are exercising more, but I'd wager your goal was a bit loftier than that. Likewise, exercising 6 hours a day is more than anyone currently exercises (I hope), but that's because it isn't feasible, and also not what you were going for. Thus, setting an easily divisible, daily goal creates a digestible target focus on.

In light of this approach, the two resolutions I have stuck with have come in this form. They are as follows; 1. to exercise daily, and 2. to read 10 pages daily. This has given me very attainable and easily targeted goals. For example, when I go to bed at night an ambiguous answer is not possible to the question of whether or not I exercised or read 10 pages. I can't argue with myself about whether or not I did it, I simply know, throwing vague concepts of "more" or "less" out the window. I have to make a concerted effort to accomplish each task. Because of this daily sense of accomplishment, I also get daily reinforcement, and have ultimately looked forward to both activities.

Now, I think the ultimate concern when identifying a useful New Year's resolution is its effectiveness. And with my resolutions, effectiveness ultimately comes from scope. If you look at my day's activities, reading 10 pages takes me maybe 20-30 minutes, and exercising takes me less than that (so far it has been sit-ups and push-ups before bed). What is the impact of these actions? Not much. "Oooh, big deal, 10 whopping pages," right? Well, that depends on your scope, and is ultimately what makes each goal so attainable. In the course of a day, each activity doesn't take much extra effort and ultimately doesn't accomplish all that much on its own. But combined, well, there is your proper scope, for over the course of the month I will have read an average length book and done somewhere around 2000 sit-ups and 500 push-ups. Over a year that's at least 12 books and a meaningless number of sit-ups and push-ups. Now there's your impact. And I actually stick with it because again, on their own, each activity is not particularly challenging. But they are all part of a larger strategy. Combining small, repetitive actions to reach a larger goal.

I think this concept of combined action applies to many other aspects of life. For an individual, combined action involves the aggregation of these daily choices that add up to something meaningful (eating one extra serving of fruit on any given day is a good choice, but ultimately wont cure cancer. But, done every day for the rest of your life, well, now we're talking. Small, simple, positive choices - added). Likewise, for a society, the combined actions of its citizens add up to something impactful. For example, when faced with an opportunity to help, maybe volunteer, you may find yourself asking "what difference can I really make, I am only one person." Or you've heard the argument against voting; "what's my one vote really gonna matter?" Baad attitudes, right? (though I cannot exempt myself from thinking along these lines from time to time) Because we all know that the combined effect of voting is an election, with winners and losers, and progress. But the combined effects of lending a helping hand, in any way you can, are no less obvious, no less important. If all of us chip in more, we all start to make a difference, with our combined action. It's like those refer-a-friend programs. Bring someone along and you've doubled your impact. So, just like reading 10 pages or doing a few sit-ups, the task itself is relatively easy on its own, the result relatively limited in its impact. But over time, my abs get rock hard, and more people get a warm meal, clothes for their back, or maybe the neighborhood gets a little cleaner, or you take a car off of the road for a day when you bike to work, or more waste gets recycled, or simply more smiles and genuine connections are spread throughout the world. It ALL adds up.

So maybe Gandhi was right after all, with his seemingly oversimplified answer to how to make a difference. In the end, we all simply must "be the change we wish to see in the world."


  1. I love and hate the power of combined actions because it is so powerful it can do both incredible good and incredible harm. It is difficult to fully grasp because it usually reveals itself over time, and the human brain does not know how to weigh costs and benefits over time very well. Our senses feed us information about things here and now, so it is only through careful abstract thought that we can consider what sort of impact something may have over a long period of time.

    Many problems we face as a society are the result of the cumulative effects of past human activities, none of which were malicious or very harmful on their own, but which added up over time to create a problem today. Sadly, the damage we do over time is more noticeable than the good we accomplish. If a forest was cut back just 5% a year, in 15 years it would be less than half the size it once was. But if we replanted what we cut down every year, the forest would stay the same size. We are much more likely to notice half a forest disappearing than we are to notice that the forest looks pretty much the same as ever. Combined actions create both future forests, but we usually don't know what we've got, or bother to take care of it, 'til its gone.

    We will never be able to predict the future perfectly in order to avoid causing all problems, but we can at least be responsible enough to learn from the past and prevent the perpetuation of current problems and build additional benefits. Keeping an eye on out for trends as they develop can help us ward off unwanted consequences of combined action before its power gets the best of us.

  2. Devin, you are overlooking a crucial flaw to your argument. Say my New Year's resolution is to stack one Jenga piece each day. Well, after about 10,000 years, this Jenga stack would (probably) be high enough to reach the moon. But by that time humans will likely be extinct and the moon may no longer exist. Not to mention the fact that I'll be dead within 60 years or so and unless I pass the responsibility of my resolution on to someone else -- say, one of my children or a super-intelligent llama which I've spent much of my life training to stack Jenga pieces -- the stacking would probably stop at the point of my passing. Furthermore, stacking these Jenga pieces would become challenging beyond the point of feasibility once the stack has risen higher than the point of, say, the roof of my house.

    I liked your post, but you need to think out all the possibilities and repercussions of a certain thought process before you publish it on the Worldwide Web for public consumption. In the end, that's what Ghandi truly preached.

    Sincerely yours,
    Nicholas M. Nelson