It’s January, the start of a new year, which means that many of us have made some sort of resolution. Researchers at the University of Scranton tell us that nearly half, 47 percent of adults in the U.S. make resolutions and that the most common are to lose weight, get organized, and spend less/save more. They also report that only about eight percent of those making resolutions will be successful in achieving them.
Part of what makes keeping resolutions difficult is that it demands a change in our habits, and that’s a hard thing to do. A recent story on National Public Radio included some reporting on what science tells us about translating our resolve into changed behavior. One of the insights noted that there are two sorts of behaviors: those that we perform infrequently and those that we perform very frequently.
A resolution to finally build shelves in the basement to help organize your totes and boxes is a very different sort of behavior than giving up cigarettes, when smoking is something you likely do several times each day. Those wanting to change the behavior of others have had pretty good success on these infrequent actions. Public awareness campaigns promoting annual preventative health screening, for instance, have worked well. They work less well for more frequent actions, like smoking.
The most effective way to change these more frequent behaviors is to change the environment in which the action occurs. If you eat your nightly pint of ice cream while sitting on the couch watching Wheel of Fortune at 7pm, then DVR the show and watch it in the bedroom, right before going to bed, ideally without the ice cream. You’ve changed the environment.
What, if anything, can this research on individual habits and behavior change tell us about our civic habits? By “civic habits” I mean the things we do to make the communities we live in a better place. Perhaps the most obvious civic habit is that of voting. But what about civic habits that go beyond casting a vote?
Another group of researchers provide a useful definition for this type of civic participation.” They describe civic habits that are “aimed at solving community problems.” In my experience, I’ve encountered very few communities that have developed the civic habit of coming together to address community issues.
The habit I have seen, however, is an enthusiastic willingness to complain about what’s going on in the community. We’ve even come up with some clever acronyms to describe these folks: NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and CAVE –(Citizens Against Virtually Everything).
Visit a local coffee shop or log into a local online discussion board and you will see this particular civic habit in full force, significant numbers of folks having daily discussions about what everybody else is doing wrong in their community.
Imagine trying to change that particular civic habit, changing the direction of these conversations from a negative downward spiral to a more positive, “what could we do together to make our community an even better place?”
A few communities have been successful in changing that conversation or starting appreciative conversation where no conversations had existed at all. They took a lesson from the research on habits and changed the environment by offering a regular forum to have such discussions.
Nearly fifteen years ago, Earnest Andrade decided to create a new civic habit in the City of Charleston. The city’s economy had been riding the wave of tourism for some time but they knew that was not sustainable in the long run. Earnest launched Fridays @ The Corridor a civic forum to talk about what might be next for Charleston and how to take action to make something happen. All these years later and Fridays @ The Corridor is still going strong, an ongoing civic habit. It has been the catalyst for diversifying the Charleston economy into a high tech hub as well as a terrific vacation destination.
So, how about a community resolution for 2015? Does your neighborhood or community need to develop a new civic habit? Does a civic forum, like the one in Charleston sound like a good way to change the environment? If you would like some guidelines on how to start this new civic habit, the folks at the Purdue Center for Regional Development can help. You can find them at www.pcrd.purdue.edu.
Originally published in quality newspapers in Janaury 2015