If your family finds it tough to carve out time for your chosen causes, try these scientifically proven tips for shifting your intention into action – whether it’s to fundraise for the first time, to be kinder to the environment or any other cause you choose. In a few weeks, those actions will become as natural to your crew as breathing!
By Tamar Satov

Anyone who’s resolved to eat healthier, exercise more or give up a vice will tell you how tough it is to adjust day-to-day behaviour. While we all start out with an abundance of motivation, that get-up-and-go can get up and leave long before we reach our goals. To truly make a lasting change, forget motivation and focus on habit, say researchers.

That’s because about 45% of our daily activities—such as eating, exercising or reading the news—tend to be repeated at the same time and place almost every day. It’s these cues, not a lack of willpower, that trigger us to repeat behaviours and do the very same things we did before.

The good news is that you can use the power of routine in your favour. Read our tips below to see how your family can successfully establish a new socially conscious habit this year.

Healthy habit: Become more media literate

In an age of “fake news” and Facebook, media literacy is essential to being an effective citizen, and can empower kids by helping them make sense of all the information coming their way.

Start on vacation. As they say, old habits die hard. Except when you’re on vacation, since your normal daily cues and patterns are disrupted. Experts suggest using this time away from your usual habits to create a change, and then make a concerted effort to continue once you’re back at home.

Replace or piggyback on an existing habit. Say, for example, your family typically turns on Netflix after dinner. You could work with that habit by adding documentaries that address media literacy to your queue. On the other hand, you could remove the batteries from the remote, which stops you in your tracks before you can go on autopilot. Experts call this the 20-second rule, and it can be anything that will delay the start of an activity by that much time. You can also use it to make a new habit easier—for instance, leaving a newspaper or magazine by the TV means you are more likely to start flipping though it together, because you don’t need to take the 20 seconds to retrieve it.

Give it time. Studies show that the average amount of time it takes to make a new behaviour automatic (in other words, to create a habit) is 66 days—although it can be less or more.

Healthy habit: Keep a gratitude journal

Fostering an attitude of gratitude can bring numerous benefits, including improving health, sleep, self-esteem and relationships. But it also inspires “paying it forward,” as grateful people are often more generous, sympathetic and caring of others.

Start small. We’re talking minuscule—the first step may be nothing more than placing the journal on the table every night after dinner. Once that becomes a habit, take the next baby step and open it up. Add to the habit incrementally until the family is able to write down three things you are each grateful for every day. It may sound ridiculous, but Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg advocates this “tiny habits” approach, which relies on automating behaviour.

Use positive reinforcement. This can be as simple as saying “yay” after completing a prescribed step, says Fogg. But for the techies in the family, there’s a whole genre of apps that can help you track your progress and keep you accountable as you initiate a new habit. Examples include stickK, a free goal-setting platform created by behavioural economists at Yale University; Chains.cc, which uses the “don’t break the chain” method (each day you complete a task you want to keep up, a visual streak grows); and The Fabulous, incubated at Duke University Behavioral Economics Lab.

Healthy habit: Eat vegetarian twice a week

Consuming less meat is one of the best ways to help the environment, since animal farming creates more global warming greenhouse gas emissions worldwide than the vehicles we drive.

Plan ahead. Figure out what’s on the menu before your weekly shop so you can buy all the ingredients you need and handle the meal prep on the weekend or the night before. Research bears out this approach: a study that tracked people’s New Year’s resolutions found those who made a plan and broke the goal down into individual steps were much more likely to follow through.

Tell people. The same study found that women in particular were more effective in keeping their resolutions if they went public with friends and colleagues and asked for encouragement. Sharing your goal is also a great way to get other families’ proven vegetarian recipe ideas for picky eaters.

Be realistic. While you might want to embrace the challenge by experimenting with new exotic meatless meals, remember that your kids might have other ideas. Better to start out with vegetarian varieties of existing family favourites, such as pizza, lasagne or chilli.

Healthy habit: Volunteer with a community organization

If this is the year you want to start giving your time together as a family, congratulations! You’re on your way to raising the next generation of community change-makers.

Choose wisely. Make sure the activity is something the family really wants to do, rather than one you think you should be doing. Sociologists (and common sense) suggest you’re far more likely to move forward with a change if it’s something you enjoy and matches your values. (For age-appropriate ideas, check out 5 Ways for young families to volunteer together.)

Consider the obstacles. Say, for example, your kids are routinely invited to weekend birthday parties and might resent missing out if you sign everyone up for Saturday volunteering. Either talk about this beforehand to make sure you’re all on the same page, or sidestep the problem by choosing a weekday evening activity instead. By thinking about potential roadblocks, you can avoid having your goals derailed.

Forgive slip ups. If, despite your best intentions, one (or all) of you can’t make your scheduled volunteer activity—don’t despair. Research shows that the long-term development of a new habit won’t suffer from an occasional miss, so long as you don’t use it as an excuse to abandon it entirely.