Ever since I began my studies in Simon Fraser University’s school of Resource and Environmental Management, I’ve been getting into a lot of discussions with friends and family about the state of the environment and what can be done to improve it. The overarching theme of these conversations has been despair and frustration on the part of whoever I am talking with and (hopefully) a decreasing degree of naïve optimism on my part. Even still, the hopelessness I have seen worries me, and I think I understand why it is so prevalent.
Anytime we are faced with huge problems or a goal that seems too big to ever complete, we as humans, despite our best efforts, tend to get overwhelmed. From its base, a mountain can seem impossibly high. When fighting cancer, a happy ending can seem a long way away. The key to making it through these types of situations is to compartmentalize your objectives into manageable pieces that, by themselves, are not all that difficult to achieve.
When British mountaineer Joe Simpson found himself stranded and alone in the Andes with a badly broken leg, he didn’t focus on the entire route he would have to descend to safety. Instead, he set rational goals:
"I started to look at things and think, 'If I can get to that crevasse over there in 20 minutes, that's what I'm going to do.' ... And it became obsessive. I don't know why I did it. I think I knew the big picture of what was happening to me, and what I had to do was so big, I couldn't deal with it." (Touching the Void, 1988)
Psychologists call these small-scale objectives process goals and they have been shown to improve our ability to work at much larger tasks (Filby et al., 2008). Consequently, process goals may prove helpful in tackling global environmental issues. Rather than thinking of turning off the lights or taking a shorter shower each morning as a step to improving the health of the planet, consider your objective to lower household energy consumption each month. Set reasonable and measurable goals like cutting your heating bill by 10% or having one less bag of trash to put on the curb each week.
The people who are damaging the environment are not taking any days off, so those of us to want things to improve need to be just as diligent. The only way to do that is to not let scale discourage us. With this in mind, break down your goals and routinely re-evaluate them. Take your eyes off the grand prize and focus on daily, weekly, and hourly victories; for they are the keys to success.