A yearlong experiment in inner growth through outer change

How can you make the world a better place? This isn’t a question that normally comes to mind when taking an elevator. Yet, for me, it led to my “Aha” moment.

Personally, I consider myself to be socially conscious and environmentally concerned. As much as possible, I try to “walk the talk” by living with compassion for people and the planet. In fact, I teach and consult in the sustainability field. I help to empower people and organizations to take action on environmental and social issues.

Despite my values, a few years ago I had formed the embarrassing habit of taking the elevator three floors to get to my office on campus. I had always silently cursed low-floor elevator users in the past. Now, I had become one of them.

Given my self-professed concern for the environment, I found it quite troubling that I had failed the simple task of choosing the stairs. How could I authentically convey the importance of sustainability to others, if I couldn’t even take a few flights of stairs to get to my office?

However, research has shown there is often a discrepancy between a person’s level of concern for environmental or social issues and their propensity to act accordingly. People who say they are concerned for the environment will frequently make contradictory choices, like using plastic bags for their groceries or disposable cups for their morning coffee. Convenience often trumps altruism.

If a high level of environmental concern isn’t sufficient, how could I ditch the convenience of the elevator for the planet-saving choice of the stairs?

It struck me that I needed to reframe the question. Rather than thinking in terms of “How can I make the world a better place?” it made more sense to ask “Why should I want to make the world a better place?” Why should I want to take the stairs? Or, more bluntly, what’s in it for me?

The obvious answer is it’s good for me, but I personally find these types of motherhood claims don’t help change behaviour. I required concrete results. So, I decided to start a one-month challenge to only take the stairs while on campus and to count how many flights of stairs I actually climbed and descended.

After one month I had lugged myself up and down 240 flights of stairs. Using a simple online calculator I learned that I burned roughly 510 Calories, or 0.15 lbs of fat, over the course of the month. This is equivalent to two coffee Frappuccinos (240 Calories each) but without the guilt.

One month is a good time frame for a new challenge because it is short enough to be doable, but long enough to form a new routine. Fast forward to today, and I’m proud to say I have continued to take the stairs day in and day out. This one small change is not only good for the environment but helps me burn approximately 4,080 Calories, or 1.2 lbs of fat, a year. Now, that’s a change worth making.

Changing anything in life is hard. It involves a combination of knowledge, skills and desire. All three ingredients are necessary for making a permanent change. Consider the example of weight loss. Making the necessary changes in your life requires a good diet and exercise program (knowledge), the ability to cook healthy meals and exercise properly (skills), and a good reason to lose weight, say, to perform better in a sport, to reduce the risks of serious health problems, or simply to feel better about yourself (desire).

For many of us, the major barrier for making a lasting change is desire. We often possess the knowledge and skills to make a change, but without sufficient desire it simply won’t stick. Changing a routine behaviour requires a carrot to entice us. The bigger the carrot, the more likely you will put in the work to make a new habit stick. For me, the carrot of burning 1.2 lbs of fat a year (or two guilt-free Frappuccinos a month) makes it easy to keep using the stairs. The warm and fuzzy feeling that I’m helping the planet is a bonus.

To change the world, it makes sense to focus on the carrot. To continually ask what’s in it for you? Making the world a better place should lead to a better life, not just in a big picture kind of way but it should actually make your life better – one that is more fulfilled, healthier and happier.

To test this hypothesis, I decided to embark on a yearlong experiment: I set myself a different challenge every month, each designed to improve the state of the world, either by contributing to the planet or to the community. Through these challenges, I explored a central question: Could outer contribution help me to get closer to inner fulfillment?

Follow my blog as I share my opinions and adventures in creating change in the world. Please get in touch with any questions or comments, or to share your own stories about creating change.