Science Says You Give Back Your Best When It's Part Of Your Routine

Every single day, nearly 1,000 empathy MVPs help thousands of texters in crisis. At Crisis Text Line, we help people in crisis move from hot moments to cool and calm via text message 24/7.

Over the last six years, we’ve trained more than 32,000 people to serve at the frontlines, using empathy to help people in crisis in their moment of need. 

We’ve spent the last six years developing and iterating a program, and we’ve learned one major thing: Helping the world is the most productive when it’s part of healthy habit-building.

When you treat volunteering like you treat brushing your teeth for a full two minutes or eating your vegetables, you set yourself up for success. 

What Happened

Prior to the summer of 2017, we asked our Crisis Counselors to commit to four hours a week for one year. We heard feedback that they wanted more flexibility in scheduling, so we made a huge shift in our policy: Our ask changed to 200 hours to be completed at the counselor’s own pace.

Considering the policy change was in response to community requests, we were surprised by what came next: For two years, we saw a significant, steady decrease in the number of counselors who fulfilled their commitment.

What We Did

Instead of watching the numbers continue to decline, we dove into the data to identify how and why we were seeing such a decrease in active Crisis Counselors.

Between January and June 2019, we partnered with Angela Duckworth’s team at the University of Pennsylvania to run an experiment in which we sent reminders to Crisis Counselors asking them to volunteer a certain number of hours each week to reach 200 hours. We learned that it worked to break down the 200-hour commitment into smaller, specific, attainable goals.

Then we did something bold. We reversed the policy. Seeing the results gave us the courage to reverse the policy back to four hours per week until 200 hours are reached, ideally within one year. 

What We Saw

Crisis Counselors are increasing their shifts.

The average number of counselors’ monthly shifts has increased by 35 percent, meaning we’re able to reach more texters more quickly.

As the world has rapidly changed over the last several months, it has also allowed us to scale our capacity to give the same high-quality support to texters as the demand grows. 

Inactive Crisis Counselors are coming back to help.

The number of inactive counselors has decreased, and reactivations (counselors who have taken time off and return to volunteer) have increased.

The fact is that there’s real science behind volunteering. It’s far more than popping in every once in a while to lend a helping hand. Just like you can’t run a marathon without making a plan, volunteering works best when it’s part of your routine with some great cheerleaders along the way.

What You Can Do

Here’s how you can take some of our tips and tricks and apply them to your life:

Make a schedule for yourself — and stick to it. 

Sure, this goes for the organizations you support that rely on your consistent volunteer efforts, but it also rings true for the regular, everyday ways you show up for your community.

Make a regular routine out of calling your family, writing thank you notes, and offering to babysit for a friend who needs an extra hand.

Consistency matters. Taking a break does, too.

We're huge proponents of mental health breaks. You can’t help anyone else if you aren’t helping yourself first. Sticking to a schedule (that includes days off!) will help you show up as your best self when you’re needed most. 

Find community.

Our Crisis Counselors connect with other Counselors when they’re off-shift on an internal social network. While Crisis Counselors are physically alone on their couches when they’re taking conversations, they are never alone in spirit or support.

The minute someone logs onto the platform for a shift, they’re greeted by the Crisis Text Line staff, and throughout their entire shift, they’ll connect with and seek advice from fellow Crisis Counselors.

Find something that gives you a sense of community — something that makes you feel like, “yes, we’re all in this together.”

Find something that fuels your purpose.

At Crisis Text Line, we share anonymized feedback from texters because it helps us remember why we do what we do. There’s nothing quite like hearing from someone that you’ve made their day — or maybe even saved their life.

Not everyone is motivated by the same purpose. Find what matters to you and dive in. 


If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last six years of leading a love army of Crisis Counselors, it’s that there’s no shortage of empathy in the world. Anyone can — and should — give kindness whenever they can. Sometimes it just takes some structure and support to channel all of your empathy and kindness into the world. You have what it takes to make the world a better place. And, maybe one day we’ll see you on the platform.

Think you have what it takes to become an Empathy MVP? Apply to become one of our volunteer Crisis Counselors and start saving lives in no time. crisistextline.org/volunteer

If you or someone you know is struggling, text 741741 to be connected with a trained Crisis Counselor.


A version of this story originally ran in The Unconventional Activism Edition of the Goodnewspaper in May 2020. The Goodnewspaper is our monthly print newspaper filled with good news.
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