What we’ve learned from the science of turning people’s lives around.
You have been recruited to change a life. A young man is out of shape and headed toward a life of obesity and health complications. But he desperately wants to change. Perhaps you saw him on television during the 2012 Summer Olympics. He appeared on a Nike® commercial shot in a rural area near London, Ohio.
As the commercial starts, you move slowly down a country road as if you were riding in the bed of a pickup truck. At first, all you hear is the sound of the countryside coming to life on a late-summer morning. Then, faintly, you hear a muffled sound that grows louder and more defined. It sounds like someone walking, no, running, no, shuffling on the gravel road in front of you. Then, in the distance, you notice a slow-moving figure. As it gets closer and comes into view, you see it’s a person coming up the middle of the road. As the person gets closer and closer, you see an adolescent boy, significantly overweight, huffing and puffing. Then you hear the voiceover:
“Greatness. It’s just something we made up. Somehow we’ve come to believe that greatness is a gift reserved for a chosen few, for prodigies, for superstars, and the rest of us can only stand by watching. You can forget that. Greatness is not some rare DNA strand. It’s not some precious thing. Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. We’re all capable of it. All of us.”
If you have not seen the commercial and want to be inspired, look it up on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsXRj89c Wa0. But come back after you’ve viewed it, because Nathan needs your help.
News reports 6 months after the ad aired revealed that Nathan had lost 30 pounds and hoped to lose more. So what advice would you give him? How would you help him stay motivated if his resolve started to slip? Perhaps you’d think he had a willpower problem, so you’d pull out Motivation Speech Number 1141. “Hey, you just have to really, really want it!” Good strategy? I used to think so. As a wellness coach and a basketball coach, I had that speech down pat. I could motivate the unmotivated—and if I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it.
But I began to notice that in spite of my Oscar®-winning motivational performances, my students often failed to stick with their wellness protocols and frequently fell off the wagon. I assumed there wasn’t a lot I could do with the unmotivated—those lacking willpower.
Then I began working with a group of researchers who moved beyond motivational speeches and used science to consider the “why” behind success and failure. They learned to explain success and failure in almost any area of life, including fitness, wellness and nutrition. They wrote a book titled Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success (Patterson et al. 2011). Figure 1 shows the model that summarizes their 20 years of research on successful changers.
Most changers don’t have a systematic way to think about—much less solve—their wellness challenges. This model will help you succeed in motivating and enabling the Nathans of the world, not only to change again, but to change for good. Let’s look at four “Big Ideas” from this model.
Escape the Willpower Trap
When we try to change deeply entrenched bad habits and become more fit, we often make the classic mistake of deciding that change is about gutting it out all day, every day. That is why more than 98% of Americans fail to change their behavior (Patterson et al. 2011).
When we try to change behavior, most of us get caught in “the willpower trap”—the fundamental belief that personal motivation is everything. When we fail, we simply decide we need to try harder, which often results in depression rather than change. Luckily, the research shows that whether or not we can kick our lifelong bad habits has very little to do with willpower.
To prove that we’ll never have enough willpower to change, the authors of Change Anything spent 4 years examining the struggles and strategies, trials and triumphs, of more than 5,000 people who were searching for ways to overcome difficult personal challenges such as losing weight, breaking free of addictions and establishing a wellness lifestyle (Patterson et al. 2011).
In examining these everyday people in the throes of intense wellness challenges, the Change Anything team found hope. Hundreds of these people changed their bad habits and maintained the changes for at least 3 years. Whether from Kilungu, Kenya, or Carmel, California, whether dealing with an alcohol addiction or an indolent lifestyle, all of the successful changers knew something the rest of us miss entirely (Patterson et al. 2011). The solution lies beyond willpower.
Be the Scientist and the Subject
The Nathans of the world need to learn how to make a study of changing the most important subjects in the world: themselves. Too often when we try to help clients, we fail to involve them in understanding and then influencing their own behavior. Specifically, they need the ability to
- identify crucial moments and
- find vital behaviors.
Crucial moments occur when the right behaviors face the highest risks of going wrong. For example, I once worked with a client who struggled to follow through with his workout program. One day I asked him to walk me through his typical day, so he gave me his sequence of events from the time he got up in the morning to when he arrived at work, and then from the time he left work until he retired in the evening.
I explained to him that our day is a sequence of moments of varying importance, and that crucial moments represent the times when our wellness behaviors are most endangered. I asked him if he could identify the moments that seemed most crucial to his wellness program. He thought for a moment and said, “Yes, I can.”
He explained that every day on his way home, he crossed a crucial intersection, Jones and First Street. “Why is that intersection more significant than any other intersection?” I asked. He explained that if he turned left at that intersection, he headed toward his fitness center. I then asked him if he ever turned left at Jones and First but then decided to turn around and go home before arriving at the fitness center. He thought for a minute and said, “No, never. Why?”
I said, “Then yes, I think you just identified one of your crucial moments, crossing Jones and First. This moment leads to a vital behavior.”
“A what?” he asked.
“A vital behavior,” I replied. “You see, not all behaviors are equal. Some behaviors have a higher leverage when it comes to influencing you to achieve the wellness results you want.” I explained that his efforts to change his ways were likely focusing on the wrong behavior.
“In your case, you may have assumed that working out was the vital behavior, and perhaps you ignored other high-leverage behaviors that could also have a significant influence in your fitness goals, such as turning left at Jones and First.”
One way to identify your vital behaviors is to look for these crucial moments. So in summary, begin with the science: Research what works for humans in general, such as a healthy diet and exercise, and then make the research your own by tailoring it to fit your crucial moments and vital behaviors.
Engage All Six Sources of Influence
Behavior is driven by two powerful factors: motivation (is it worth it?) and ability (can I do it?). These two driving forces are expressed across three domains: personal, social and structural. (See Figure 1.)
The reason only 2% of those who are desperate to change a harmful behavior actually succeed is that the other 98% are blind to (and outnumbered by) the sources of influence that make them susceptible to bad habits. Where most of us see only one strategy that we think will lead to our desired goal, the successful few see six potential strategies. They know there are six powerful sources of influence that govern our behavior and explain why we do what we do. Successful changers find ways to get all six of these influence sources working in their favor. Let’s look at how they do it.
Most people struggle to change because bad habits feel good, while good habits feel bad. Skillful changers use powerful tools to change their impulses.
For example, let me share the story of Sharman. Sharman struggled to lose weight for a long time. She tried every diet and exercise program out there and finally gave up. Reflecting on her failures, she realized she had compiled a tremendous database of behaviors that didn’t work. Notice what she was doing here: Once she started to see the personal, social and environmental factors that influenced her, she began to act as a scientist and a subject.
The first thing she figured out was that making over-the-top promises to herself did not work. She tended to say things like, “I am going to lose 30 pounds in 5 days by eating cardboard.” Of course, she’d fail and begin the process of beating herself up and feeling guilty.
Then she decided to try something different. She said, “I promise not to keep my diet. That’s a promise I can keep.” But she also had to think of a promise she could keep. So she promised that whenever she sat in a restaurant and was tempted to eat unhealthily, she would read a 3- x 5-inch card that included the following statements:
- “I’d like to feel healthier.”
- “I’d like to like the way I look in the mirror.”
- “I’d like to have more physical stamina.”
- “I’d like to model healthy living for my grandchildren.”
- “I’d like my husband to be proud of how I look.”
- “I’d like my life choices to be pleasing to the Lord.”
How effective was her strategy? Sharman lost 130 pounds. She reshaped her impulses by using good science. She learned to love what she hated: By connecting to her deeply held values, she made bad habits feel bad, and good habits feel good.
If change takes too much will, it’s probably because you lack skill.
Effective changers conduct a skill scan. They examine their ability to do what’s required before implementing their plan. They question whether they have the knowledge, skill and/or strength (physical or emotional) to do what is required.
Let’s go back to our research and share the story of another changer by the name of A.J., a respiratory therapist who wanted to quit smoking and lose weight. She discovered through her skill scan that her pattern of smoking and eating seemed to be triggered by conflicts with her husband. Whenever she had a difficult time communicating with her husband, she smoked. It was her escape. She realized she needed a better way to deal with the conflict. She needed to learn skills for communicating more effectively with her husband.
You might want to break this skill scan down into smaller parts by asking questions:
- conceptual skills: “What concepts, theories or ideas should I incorporate?”
- physical skills: “What actions or behaviors must I be able to perform?”
- emotional skills: “What feelings, moods and emotions must I bring under control?”
- interpersonal skills: “What social interaction skills must I master?”
Bad habits are always a team sport—we usually have accomplices who motivate our vices. Peer pressure and the influence of friends and family have extremely powerful effects on behavior change. For example, Harvard social scientist Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, discovered that obesity is partly infectious: Having obese friends increases your chances of following suit by 57% (Christakis & Fowler 2007).
A “friend” is defined as a person who influences us to stop a bad habit and/or start a good one. An “accomplice,” on the other hand, is a person who influences us to start a bad habit and/or stop a good one.
Coaches are crucial to behavior change. We all succeed with a little help from others. In fact, people with a half-dozen active friends who play the role of coach or mentor are almost 40% more likely to succeed than those with fewer than a half-dozen friends (Patterson et al. 2011). Accountability is a huge factor in following up and following through with plans for change.
Source 4 is focused on getting the help, information and resources required, particularly in your crucial moments. This source moves beyond just getting encouragement (source 3) and involves seeking the support of enablers—those who provide the help and resources you need to succeed.
Let’s return to A.J. How did she employ sources 3 and 4? It was challenging and difficult for her to sort through her friends and accomplices. She realized her father played a significant role. Whenever she and her father got together to talk, he pulled out the cigarettes and offered her a smoke. They weren’t just father and daughter; they were also smoking buddies. Her father was an accomplice. She made the difficult decision to hold a transformation conversation with her father and seek his help by asking him to see his role. In the end, however, she decided their long talks had to change because she was no longer willing to be exposed to smoke. So they continued to talk, but on the phone rather than face to face.
The bottom line with social sources of influence is that nobody is as smart as all of us. We need others to help us, support us and provide the resources we require to make lasting change. This means friendship patterns sometimes need to shift in accord with our long-term goals. Or we may have to purposely search out and add new friends who will support our change goals.
You can do this in different ways. For example, reward yourself with the money you will save by changing your behavior. Or “put skin in the game” by putting the money you would have spent on your bad habit at risk if you fail to keep your commitment. This source of influence is so powerful that recovering cocaine addicts are 23% more successful at adhering to a medical regimen when given a small gift certificate for every week they pass a drug test (Patterson et al. 2011).
Research shows that people who are striving to change are more highly motivated to avoid losing a reward than they are to acquire that same reward. Providing a reward up-front, and then removing it if you fail to follow your plan, can be more powerful than offering the reward at the end.
A.J. told us that as she stopped smoking and began to lose weight, her clothes no longer fit. She had to purchase new clothes. But to motivate herself to maintain her weight loss, she put skin in the game by boxing up and donating her old clothes. In this way, if she regained the weight, she would have to spend money to purchase replacement clothes in a larger size.
You can change your environment in ways that make good behavior easier and bad behavior harder. Van Ittersum and Wansink (2013) found that people eat an average of 92% of whatever they put on their plate, regardless of how big the plate is (Van Ittersum & Wansink 2013). So, swap your 12-inch plates for 9-inch plates, and the 3-inch reduction will help you consume 33% fewer calories.
To assist with this source of influence, you may have to employ one of the following tactics:
Build fences. Create rules that cut you off from the bad behavior.
Manage distance. Bring good things close and move temptations far away.
Use tools. Recruit computers, smartphones and other devices to help you change.
Use cues. Post visible tools to record your progress.
Nathan is working hard at his goals. To ensure success, he will need to harness a robust change strategy that includes all six sources of influence. Changing just one source will never be enough to combat the other five powerful sources of influence that are working against even the most strong-willed efforts. In fact, research shows that getting Six Sources of Influence to work in your favor increases your chances of success 10 times.
Most of the time, we are blind to the impact of these six sources. To view a great summary of them, go to YouTube and look for “Blind and Outnumbered” (www.you tube.com/watch?v=4o4VYMdE5gU).
Turn Bad Days Into Good Data
Feedback—not just Wheaties®—is the breakfast of champions. How did the 2012 Summer Olympics winners find themselves on the medal stand? In large part, it was due to feedback. Athletes see feedback as an opportunity to make changes that turn bad days into good data. Feedback separates the good from the great. It separates those who fail from those who use failure as a stepping stone to success.
When success eludes our grasp, most of us tend to beat ourselves up or feel we are predestined to fail. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, responded to his failure to produce a light bulb by concluding, “We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.”
You may not be building a light bulb, but you are probably hoping to shed light on why some of your clients are not as successful as others. To make change inevitable and help your clients achieve greatness, learn to apply these four big ideas:
- Escape the willpower trap.
- Be the scientist and the subject.
- Engage all Six Sources of Influence.
- Turn bad days into good data.
“Greatness is not some rare DNA strand. It’s not some precious thing. Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. We’re all capable of it. All of us.” All of us, including Nathan.