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A Checklist for Social Good: Closing the Intention-Action Gap When Giving Back

How to stay focused on investing your time, energy, and funds to a worthy cause for the most impact.

We all have the best of intentions. But sometimes it can be difficult to take action toward our objectives, even when it’s for causes we care about deeply. Whether it’s increasing your charitable giving or taking a more active role in certain causes, it can be hard to follow through on our intentions--this experience is called the intention-action gap.

Luckily, there are ways we can close this gap. For example, we can make our environment more conducive to doing social good or build habits that make giving back automatic. Building good habits isn’t just reserved for things like brushing your teeth before bed or reading the news in the morning. It can also include building habits of action for social good.

Behavioral science has studied how certain ways of shaping our environment and building habits can help someone take the step from being intentional to taking meaningful action. The following checklist can help you close the intention-action gap when it comes to doing social good.

  1. Write down intentions and goals. Evidence shows that writing down intentions and goals helps them become more tangible, which then prompts us to be more deliberate about our choices. Take time to write down the change you want to see in the world and the steps you can take to bring it to fruition. Remember, even small actions can make a big difference.
  2. Reduce friction points. Building a new habit requires making it easierto incorporate the necessary changes into your life and breaking down barriers to action. For example, if your goal is to start giving more to a certain charity, make your donation automatic so that you don’t have to consciously think about it. Or, if you keep forgetting to sign up for a volunteer position at your local food pantry, set a reminder on your phone. 
  3. Simplify your environment. Now more than ever, there are many causes that need our help. For many people, this may prompt choice overload and inertia--we may be so overwhelmed by options we avoid the action altogether. Although you may be inclined to contribute to as many causes as possible, it’s OK to choose one cause or organization and funnel all your efforts there. Focusing your efforts may create a bigger impact over time.
  4. Put it in your calendar. Research finds that the act of planning your intentions, such as writing down the date and time you would like to take action, helps people follow through.Planning is about recording the concrete details of your actions. For example, when it comes to charitable giving, write down how much you want to give, how often, and even the exact date to make your payment.
  5. Join communities that do social good. It’s easier to follow through on our intentions if our peers are acting as well.Although we can’t always join new communities in person, social media can help fill this void. Start building connections by following groups, organizations, and people that share your goals of doing social good. Seeing others give back to their communities can help keep you motivated and encourage you to act on your intentions.
  6. Don’t get discouraged. If people aren’t making progress on their goals, they can sometimes start to ignore them altogether--this is called the ostrich effect. To avoid this, commit to not criticizing yourself or hiding from your goal if you fall short of your intentions. Instead, accept that progress hasn’t been made, reset, and start taking steps toward your goal again. Also, try to avoid doubling down on your commitments if you get off track--this could quickly become overwhelming and unsustainable. Instead, recommit to the normal steps you created for yourself when you started.

Closing the intention-action gap is about setting ourselves up for success, which you can do by shaping your environment and building the right habits. These tips are simple tricks that can help you follow through on your goals for contributing to social good.

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