Sustaining Change: Psychology-Based Tips for Maintaining Your Momentum

Amy Bucher


In the spirit of honesty and disclosure, at the time that I initially wrote my post, was struggling through my own professional expertise for ways to gather some strength. Especially knowing that major social change is much more a marathon than a sprint.

Why do we need to worry about sustaining change? Social movements work. We know they work. but they take time and they take energy. People really struggle to change their habits and that’s especially true if they don’t see an immediate benefit but they do feel an immediate sacrifice. This is an effort we know takes a lot of work.

I have a personal example of this. I grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s just north of Boston, a major urban area. When I was a young teen, in the early 90s, my father worked for the city. He was part of establishing the city’s very first recycling program. My first volunteer position ever was working with my dad and his office to hand out blue recycling bins to all of the city residents. That was how we first got started in Somerville. What you see on the screen are shots of what that has become over the last 25 years. Initially, it was a really rudimentary recycling program. It wasn’t something that had been rolled out on a large, citywide scale in Massachusetts, that I’m aware of. But today, Somerville is a citywide zero-sort initiative. You can put any sort of recyclable good into the same container and it gets to the right place. Somerville has also established an office of sustainability and environment. They have a goal to become carbon neutral by 2050. If you check out their site, their office of sustainability and environment site, you’ll see they’re doing some incredible work in this area and are probably leaders in the United States with sustainability efforts. I look at this and feel really proud that the little work that I did, way back when, in some small way contributed to what I feel is a major effort and major progress. I draw hope from examples like this that show that everyone’s tiny efforts over time eventually add up into something meaningful.

Another way to think about sustaining change is through the concept of willpower. People often talk about willpower as something that you either have or don’t. Some people may be tough enough to grab the apple instead of the doughnut and other people are not. But research shows that willpower is more like a muscle. It’s a renewable resource that gets tired when we work it really hard for long periods of time. But it’s also something we can make stronger with strategic exercise and rest. We need to think about making changes in the world over a long period of time like building muscles. We’re building our willpower and spending it wisely where we can make the most difference. These psychology based tips that I’m sharing are all in the service of exercising your willpower and giving it the rest that it needs so it can grow stronger.

Create a plan. If you think about, with the election, or even something smaller such as sustainability, there are so many specific issues that people care about. it can become overwhelming if you try to tackle them all. It becomes really important to narrow down that focus. What I would recommend, in that case, is to look at the intersection of what the highest priority is to you. What are you passions? Where are your talents? Where that overlap lies is probably where you can make your best contribution. It’s important to think of yourself as part of a larger tapestry of people who are tackling other issues as well. Just by narrowing your focus, it doesn’t mean you’re not doing everything you should be. It means you’re doing your best work in the areas where your talents lie.

There’s also really interesting research with respect to willpower and plans. It shows that drawing out a plan, and especially contingencies for when things get hard, can really help you stay on course when there are obstacles. If you think about how we make decisions, that’s a very time consuming, very cognitive processing activity. If you have a plan in place ahead of time and you hit an obstacle, you don’t need to make decisions. All you need to do is execute the plan that you created in a different period of time when you weren’t stressed. Think about things that may go wrong in your efforts toward sustainability or other change and how you’ll cope with those. Then if they do happen, you’re better equipped to deal with them effectively.

The next one is about breaking goals into milestones. Again, this is really related to this idea that we can become overwhelmed when we’re trying to make major changes in the world. Some of the most influential in our society didn’t even live to see the changes that their work eventually affected. Which sounds depressing but I don’t mean it to be depressing. I mean for it to focus you more on the short term because that’s where we can see the difference. The idea is to break down your dream into specific action steps. Think about not just your major wins, but the milestones it will take to get you there. Doing this not only helps you feel like you’re making progress, but it builds a really important psychological resource self efficacy. Which is our belief in our own abilities. There is so much research across so many different domains about behavior that show that having self efficacy is a powerful predictor of success. The more you can do to check off boxes of small accomplishments, the more likely you are to see those major wins.

The third one I call enlisting your army. I like using the military terminology here because it gives a sense of strength and support when we may really feel like we need that. This involved vocalizing your intention so you feel a sense of commitment. When you say that you’re going to do something, it becomes much harder for you not to follow through. Because you start to feel a sense of obligation to the people who have heard your promises. If your friends share the same concerns you do, that also gives you an opportunity to enlist them to work alongside you and really become your allies in making change. I recommend stating your plans publicly. Depending on your work environment and the types of networks you have, social media may be a vehicle for this. it may be something you do more in person with your friends or in your workplace or in your professional life. Find the way that works best and then be public about the things that you care about. Work among those like-minded friends. Find your people and get them to work with you. The third one is really more along the idea of resting your willpower muscle so it can grow strong. That’s about taking time for social support. Enjoying your friends, loved ones, and recovering from the hard work that takes place sometimes out the world.

I call the next one take responsibility. What I’m referring to here is a classic social psychology finding called the bystander effect. It’s the idea that sometimes people who want to do the right thing, who believe in doing the right thing, end up doing nothing because they believe that other people are taking care of it. The classic example is hearing somebody’s cry for help and you don’t call the police because you assume someone else has. Unfortunately, many times, that means that nobody actually takes responsibility. My advice to all of us, including myself here, is that when you think something needs to be done, speak up about it. Be the one to take those first steps. Oftentimes, I think once you make it visible that you care about an issue, that you are enacting change, that’s when you start to get other people helping you out. The very worst case scenario, if you’re the one who speaks up and takes responsibility, is that there’s some redundancy. Maybe your efforts are duplicated. Hopefully that only happens for a short period of time until you and others who are working on the same issue become aware of each other and can join forces. But it is really critical, I think, when you’re trying to make change, to avoid this bystander effect. Put the responsibility on yourself to be the one to speak up and act.

The last one is taking care of yourself. Willpower is a muscle. If you’ve ever tried working out or strength training, you know that without recovery, you’re not going to be successful in those goals. It’s the same with your psychological self. Take care of your body and your mind. Eat well. It’s very hard sometimes in times of stress not to eat emotionally, or forget to eat because you’re distracted. Try to avoid those sorts of things. Keep healthy, nourishing food around. Make time for regular physical activity. Even if it’s just breaking up your day with a walk outside and enjoying fresh air. Bundle up if you live around Boston like I do. Keep reasonable sleep hours. Sleep is so important for maintaining stress balance, for maintaining our physical health. Take time to indulge in your favorite hobbies. Sometimes when people are involved in activism, there’s this perception that you should be spending all of your time on these very important activities and watching TV or reading a novel is frivolous. It’s not. It’s really important that you give yourself these breaks so you can be at your strongest when you are back at it, when you are back out there in the fray, fighting for the causes that you believe in. Think of these things as a recovery opportunity and know they are as critical as the hard work that you do at other times.

I want to close by flipping the message that I started with around social movements. Social movements take time and energy but they work. There are so many examples throughout history and modern day of major efforts that took so many years of struggle. Sustainability and UX narrowly is really critical to the future of our earth and our society. I really believe this is a movement that can and will change the world. It’s hard work but keep at it because it matters.


Amy Bucher, Ph.D., is the Behavior Change Design Director at Mad*Pow. In her work, Amy focuses on crafting engaging and motivating solutions that help people change behavior, especially related to health, wellness, learning, and financial well-being. Previously she worked with CVS Health as a Senior Strategist for their Digital Specialty Pharmacy, and with Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions Group as Associate Director of Behavior Science.

Amy spent many years working on digital health coaching tools and the intersection of technology and behavior change. The programs she has helped design include health risk assessments, chronic health management programs, behavioral health interventions, and wellness programs, for distribution by health plans or employers. Amy has also worked on custom programming to support medication/therapy adherence and lifestyle changes for clients, including many Johnson & Johnson companies.

Her research interests include motivational design, patient and user engagement, happiness, and how social relationships influence health and well-being. Amy received her A.B. magna cum laude in psychology from Harvard University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan.