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Image courtesy of faungg/Flickr.

Browse bookshelves and blogs and you’ll find stories of people striving toward extraordinary goals: zero waste, plastic-free, gender-neutral, a level 5 vegan, no products made in China.

Reducing the harm we cause is an important and admirable goal, but sometimes we can become so hyper-focused on one particular issue or type of choice that we lose sight of the harm we’re causing in other ways. For example, it’s great to reduce our reliance on plastic (especially the disposable kind), but the effort we spend getting rid of every last cup lid and twist tie could do more good and less harm if we, say, worked on replacing the slave chocolate we buy with fair trade options or reducing our consumption of animal products.

As activist, author, and co-founder of Vegan Outreach Matt Ball said in his book, “The Animal Activist’s Handbook,” “It’s a simple fact that when we choose to do one thing, we’re choosing not to do another — there’s no way around it.”

When we’re considering our choices we can do more good and less harm (MOGO) by considering the impact of each of those choices on ourselves, other people, nonhuman animals, and the earth, rather than focusing on the details of just one aspect. By concentrating on the essential question, such as “How do I get x need or y want met in a way that does the most good and least harm for all?”, rather than on purity, we can increase the breadth and depth of our positive impact.

We can also focus (at least to begin with) on which choices offer the biggest return in helping create a just, sustainable and humane world.  Shawn Williamson, who strives for a zero-waste lifestyle, says that it’s “most important to focus on the big things that do a lot to divert waste from landfills, i.e. composting, rather than getting caught up in small details like dental floss.”

There are several things that we can do to help us avoid the trap of “diminishing returns.” Here are six:

1. Maintain awareness. Just by bringing awareness to our choices, we’re more likely to notice additional options and areas of concern. When we make mindful choices, we often make more MOGO choices.

2. Embrace an intent to do better. Most of us can’t suddenly transform every action that causes harm, so we have to make those changes in steps. When an overall intent to make more MOGO choices permeates our daily lives, that can help keep us on our desired path.

3. Have patience with our challenges, failures, and pitfalls. Our society often doesn’t make it easy to integrate MOGO choices, so it’s important that we cut ourselves a little slack when we struggle or backslide a bit.

4. Persist in working to do more good. While it’s important to be patient with ourselves, it’s also essential that we don’t use “being patient with ourselves” as an excuse not to make those choices that are most aligned with our deepest values. Despite failure, setbacks, and frustrations, it’s vital that we continue to take positive steps.

5. Cultivate balance. There are a lot of things clamoring for our time and energy, and while it’s important to persevere in making MOGO choices, we need to recognize that we can’t spend all our time focused on the intricacies of doing the most good and least harm. We need to maintain balance in our lives so that we feel renewed, inspired and empowered by our new choices, rather than deprived and disheartened by them.

6. Pursue joy. Making MOGO choices should be a joyful pursuit that adds to our lives, rather than something that feels like a sacrifice. As humane educator Kim Korona said in Zoe Weil’s book, “Most Good, Least Harm”: “The wonderful part about MOGO is that it is not about living a perfect life, which is not possible to do. Instead, it is about being mindful of my choices, because I feel the interconnectedness of the world. I think that I am helping to create a more peaceful world with the choices I make, and that brings me great joy.”